I was sitting with my friend Manny Greer on the bench outside Ground Support, our favorite coffee house in the Soho neighborhood of Lower Manhattan.

The shop is a favorite of ours because both the owner and the manager pamper us: As soon as they see us sitting there, they automatically bring coffee for me and tea for Manny.

It was getting late and a bit cold that afternoon. It felt like a good time to ask Manny about his experiences during World War II.

He told me that after one month as an 18-year-old college student, he received a letter notifying him that he had been drafted into the U.S. Army. He said he was sent to camp Upton in New Jersey for training. He stayed there for a couple of months until a friend of his, whose father was an officer in the then-Army Air Force, recommended him, and he was transferred to the air service where he was trained as a bombardier.

“I disliked being in the Army,” he told me, “but I hated even more to lose a war that would have submerged the world into darkness.”

Allied forces had conducted many air raids against Japan, causing widespread destruction and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. By some estimates, more lives were lost during those bombing raids than from the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Strategic air raids began in 1944 and continued until the end of the war in 1945. Although plans for attacking Japan by air had been drawn up much earlier, they couldn’t start until the B-29 Superfortress bomber was ready for combat.

Initially the attacks targeted industrial facilities, but were largely ineffective. So the air command decided to switch to lower-altitude bombing of urban areas, an approach that led to large-scale urban destruction and loss of life — particularly since Japan’s military and civil defenses didn’t have the capability to stop the Allied attacks.

When we talked that day, I learned much about my friend’s actions during the war — conduct that made me admire him even more than I did before.

“On my first bombing mission, we were ordered to bomb a city in southern Japan,” he said. “We left Saipan, one of the Mariana Islands, late in the afternoon and flew to Japan. I was feeling uneasy — there was something that I couldn’t define that made me feel that way.”

During the flight, “I was thinking about my childhood in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and how much my life had changed since that time.” It was then that I realized what an easy life I had growing up, he said

He said he never anticipated he would be drafted into the Army Air Force and would be flying in huge and powerful planes. “We had tough training. In my first training flight with a B-29, we left Pyote, Texas, and soon afterwards lost two engines on one side of the plane,” he said. “We headed back to the base but were unable to make it and crashed in a field. The airplane was totally destroyed. Two crew members, a side gunner and a tail gunner died — an experience that left me shattered,” he added.

“I, however, survived. Although I am a nonbeliever, that day I felt like God’s hand was on my shoulder before crashing, as if telling me that I would be safe.”

He went on to say, when they were approaching the Japanese city they were supposed to bomb, he could hardly see the lights below. However, when the time came for him to drop the bombs, Manny said “I felt pity for the people below” and I thought to myself that I was about to become “a killing machine of innocent civilians.” He said it went against everything he believed in — a basic respect for the lives of such innocent people.

“So, I waited until we passed the target city and dropped the bombs in the countryside. I felt an immense sense of relief.”

When they were flying back to their base, they were told that there was a tremendous hurricane approaching the Mariana Islands, which would have made landing extremely dangerous. “Thank God there was Iwo Jima, which stands between the Mariana Islands and Japan.”

The island is the site of where one of the more iconic photographs of WWII was taken. It shows six U.S. marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“We landed there (and stayed) until the hurricane passed, and we were able to return safely to our base,” he said. “I was very tired, but at the same time at peace with myself like I never felt before….”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant.

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