Every veteran who has seen action has a war story. When Bernie Greene is telling his, you're on the edge of your seat as he describes himself standing on the ledge of a catwalk in the bomb bay of a B-29 on May 11, 1945, 10,000 feet above the city of Kobe, Japan.
On Veterans Day, especially, it's former military personnel like Greene who are honored across the nation for their service, and their wartime memories are snapshots of history that never get too old to tell or to hear.
Greene is 91, a grandfather, happily retired and living in Merrick. In 1945, near the end of World War II, he was a 23-year-old lieutenant from Brooklyn, serving as a bombardier, when he climbed down to the belly of a bomber plane, named "The Little Bully," to manually release 20 of the airplane's 500-pound bombs. The bomb bay had been damaged by anti-aircraft fire and in trying to evade more rounds, the Little Bully's pilot was rolling the B-29 back and forth as Greene hung on for life; the deafening roar of the plane's four, 2,200-horsepower engines engulfing his ears.
"I was certain I was going to go overboard," recalls Greene. He was somehow able to release the bombs, one by one. But now, the bullet-riddled plane had one dead engine and a second one was severely damaged. The bomb bay doors were still stuck open when the plane made an emergency landing on Iwo Jima, which recently had been wrested from the Japanese after a long, bloody battle. The giant aircraft, with its 141-foot wingspan, screeched to the end of the airstrip and continued sliding on the dirt road beyond the runway. Greene, who had made his way to the front of the plane, noticed a ditch next to the road and told the pilot, "Nose her in there." The pilot made the maneuver and the entire crew of 11 walked off unharmed. "I felt like I was on a winning ball team," he says.
Greene and six of his crewmates would receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for their bravery that day. With wry humor, he adds that colleagues who had flown many more missions questioned whether newcomers should be so highly decorated so quickly. "They didn't like the idea that a rookie crew was going to get all this attention," he says with a laugh.
"Rookie" may be an understatement. That hair-raising flight marked the first of Greene's 22 missions over Japan between April and August 1945. It was a memorable opening chapter in a 20-year military career that took Greene and his family all over the United States and Europe before he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He and his crew flew raids over Japan all the way to V-J Day, Aug. 15, 1945, when the country surrendered. During that time, Greene and his crew, who were part of the 39th Bomb Group, would win two more unit citations for valor. Yet, like many members of the "Greatest Generation," Greene remained reticent about his combat experience.
"He didn't really talk about it when I was growing up," recalls his son Robert Greene, 60. "I didn't even hear about the Distinguished Flying Cross [medal] until much later." When he asked his dad about his World War II service, his father would modestly say, "I flew a plane over Japan at the end of the war."
Impact of the missions
One thing he omitted was that the missions had a critical impact. The bombing campaign in the Pacific was decisive in the war effort, and what Greene and his fellow airmen achieved was unprecedented in its scope. "They conducted an extremely complex, large operation over immense distances," says military historian Barrett Tillman, author of "Whirlwind: The Air War Over Japan, 1942-1945." Previous air operations involved only a fraction of the 3,000-mile round-trips that the B-29s flew from their bases in Guam and other Pacific islands to Japan. "They did what had never been done before," Tillman says.
Greene never planned on a career in aviation. He was studying industrial arts education at New York University when he reported to his draft board in 1942. "I told them I was in college," he said. "They told me, 'Stay there until we need you.' " The following year, they called again, encouraging Greene to volunteer for the Army Air Corps, predecessor to the U.S. Air Force. He became a B-29 bombardier, one of the most important and technically demanding jobs on the aircraft.
After the war, Greene got a job teaching industrial arts and algebra at a junior high in Bay Ridge while still in the Air Force reserves. The secretary to the school's principal was Bernice Lashinsky. "I wanted to marry a teacher and have a nice quiet little life," she recalls. On the first day of school in 1947, "in comes this eligible single guy."
Bernie and Bernice were married in 1948, but that nice, quiet life was interrupted by the Korean War. Greene's reserve unit was activated, and he was sent to Germany as a procurement officer, negotiating contracts with NATO suppliers. He liked it enough to make the Air Force his career. Much to her surprise, Bernice, now 85, found she enjoyed the life of a military officer's wife. "It was exciting," she says, "getting to meet new people, learn new cultures." Richard, the first of three sons, was born in Germany; Robert arrived there a year later; and the youngest, Fred, was born while Greene was posted in the Azores (there are now four grandchildren as well).
Greene retired from the Air Force in 1968, and he and the family moved to Merrick, a town that had impressed them on a visit. Their boys all graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, while Greene was working as an assistant superintendent for business in the Hempstead School District. He also sold stocks for Merrill Lynch, and continues today to dabble in the market.
Greene has many mementos of his service, but he doesn't seek attention or applause. The last surviving member of his B-29 crew, he says he stopped marching in local parades when his veteran friends from Merrick either died or moved away. But his memory and wit are still sharp. "He can walk and talk, and he hasn't been hospitalized," says Robert. "For 91, he's doing good."
Clicking with fellow vets
During a visit five years ago to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., Greene met Larry Rosenthal, a veteran from Valley Stream. "We clicked," says Rosenthal, 88. After the trip, Greene, Rosenthal and two other vets they had met on the D.C. trip -- Don Forman of Hellertown, Pa., and Howie Liebman of Hicksville -- began meeting for lunch on Long Island.
The talk at these now-monthly get-togethers at the Empress Diner in East Meadow is about family and World War II, and some present-day politics -- but not too much, Rosenthal jokes, "because we don't want to start World War III." Greene's high-altitude heroics, however, only come up if prompted. "He has no ego about any of that," says Rosenthal, who was a radar technician in Italy during the war.
To Robert Greene, even if his father hadn't won medals and citations for his military service in World War II, Bernie Greene would still be his hero. "He's been a great dad and a great role model," says Robert, an accountant who lives in upstate Clinton.
The best advice Robert got from his father, he says, was about the importance of keeping cool and staying focused -- expressed in a way you might expect from a man who survived such turbulent skies and times.
"He told me, 'No matter what's going on around you, steer the steady course.' "