The Humanity of a Bombardier

We were sitting with my friend Manny Greer on the bench outside Ground Support, our favorite coffee house in Soho. Both the owner and the manager pamper us since, as soon as they see us sitting there, they bring us coffee for me and tea for Manny. It was getting late and a bit cold one afternoon, the time for confidences. I had asked Manny about his experiences in WWII.

He told me that after one month as a student at City College, he received a letter saying that he had been drafted into the army and was sent to camp Upton in New Jersey for training. He was 18 years old. He stayed there for a couple of months until a friend of his, whose father was a lieutenant in the Air Force, recommended him, and he was transferred there, 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 on 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 by the two atomic bombs that were dropped in 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 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 low-altitude bombing of urban areas, an approach that led to large-scale urban damage and loss of lives – particularly since Japan’s military and civil defenses didn’t have the capacity to stop the Allied attacks.

When we talked that day, I learned some facts of my friend’s performance during the war that made me admire him even more than I do now. “On my first bombing mission,” he said, “we were ordered to bomb a city in southern Japan. 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 then. Only then, I realized what an easy life I had had until then. I never anticipated that I would be drafted into the air force and would be flying a huge and powerful plane. 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. We headed back to Pyote 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. I, however, survived. Although I am a non-believer, that day I felt like God’s hand was on my shoulder before crashing as if telling me that I would be safe.

Now, as we were approaching the Japanese city we were supposed to bomb, I could hardly see the lights below. However, when the time came for me to drop the bombs, I felt pity for the people below and I thought that I couldn’t be a killing machine of innocent civilians. This went against everything I believed in – a basic respect for the lives of 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 we flew back, we were told that there was a tremendous hurricane approaching the Mariana Islands which would have made our landing extremely dangerous. Thank God there was Iwo Jima, which stands between the Mariana Islands and Japan. This island is the site of one of the more iconic photographs of WWII, showing six U.S. marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. We landed there until the hurricane passed, and we were able to return safely to our base. I was very tired, but at the same time at peace with myself like I never felt before…”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”