So far, he’s survived everything thrown at him — from the Spanish flu pandemic that killed his infant twin brother, to Japanese snipers whose bullets whizzed past his head on a Pacific island in 1945, to old age that now claws at him every day.
At 98 and still healthy, Iwo Jima survivor Phil Kahn is one of the oldest World War II veterans left on Long Island.
On Friday — his birthday — the Army Air Corps veteran celebrated with cake, regaling two dozen well-wishers at the Westbury complex where he lives with memories pulled from a mental vault that is both expansive and sharp.
“The most frightening was the time I got blown up in a booby trap on Iwo Jima,” he recalled.
Although American troops had wrested control of the sandy Pacific speck, Japanese troops remained hidden in the island’s caves, slipping out at night to set deadly traps or stage silent knife attacks.
“A couple of us were out and all of a sudden, shhhhhhh-boom!” Kahn said.
“All I remember was I was standing in one place one minute, and the next I was 15 feet away,” he said. “I was spinning and bewildered from the shock.”
Although more than 16 million Americans served in the U.S. military during World War II, fewer than 560,000 are alive today, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Kahn is one of a shrinking few remaining on Long Island.
Born in Harlem Hospital, Kahn lost his infant brother to the global Spanish flu scourge in 1918-19 responsible for wiping out up to 5 percent of the human population.
The son of a baker who ran a shop in Manhattan on West 88th Street, Kahn enlisted in the Army’s Aviation Cadet Pilot Training Program in 1940, more than a year before the United States entered the war.
He said his time in combat was surreal, alternately witnessing death from an airplane cabin thousands of feet above ground, and terrifyingly close, a few arm-lengths away.
Trained as a flight chief, he flew bombing missions with the Army’s XXI Bomber Command over a mortally wounded Japan that left him horrified by the vast human toll his plane’s incendiary weapons caused.
His crew’s mission was to drop firebombs on Japan’s cities in 1945, executing a controversial decision by Pacific Army Air Force commander Gen. Curtis LeMay designed to bring a stubborn adversary to its knees. An estimated quarter-million Japanese civilians perished in the flames.
“From April to August, it was five months of bombing their houses and people,” he said, recalling air raid missions he flew. “And the people didn’t have a chance to get out. We didn’t know the number who were killed; all we knew was we dropped the bombs.”
Just staying alive was a minute-to-minute challenge during his time in the Pacific, he recalled. And all the while, he often wondered about the fate of his two older brothers — one of whom survived the D-Day landing at Normandy and the other who outlasted the Battle of the Bulge but was forever tormented by it.
Of that brother, Kahn said: “He was never the same. He was shook up the rest of his life.”
Kahn’s wife, Rose, who was engaged to him before he went off to war, thought it unlikely he’d make it back home. But he did, marrying her in 1946.
Once home, Kahn, who rose to the rank of sergeant, eventually found work as an engineer working on power plants. The couple raised two daughters in Fresh Meadows, Queens, before moving to Great Neck in the 1970s, and then to Westbury about eight years ago. Time has slowed him. He credits swimming with having kept him strong and limber, though he gave it up some years ago. But he still gets around well enough to have visited the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the Hudson River on Saturday, together with family members decades his junior.
Despite all the years that have passed, Kahn said he continues to harbor combat’s horrific images.
“War is terrible,” he said. “Soldiers get killed, but the civilians suffer, too, and the women and children suffer the worst.”