The chance meeting was unimaginable: Two men, once mortal enemies in a brutal battle, sharing a pot of tea in the principal's office of a nursery school in Japan.
Fiore Casale of Lindenhurst endured the worst bombing attack of his three years fighting in World War II on a tiny South Pacific island with only a palm tree for cover.
Forty-five years later, he was visiting his son, Victor, who had settled with his family in Japan, when he met the principal of his granddaughter's school. The man, who served Casale and his son tea in his office, said he he'd been an air force major in the Japanese military and had orchestrated that very attack.
"I really couldn't speak, I got a little emotional about it; and he was really emotional about it," Casale recalled. "While I was in the war, I hated the Japanese as much as they hated us. What happened was, as the years went by, I looked at the world in a different way. The enemy that our soldiers were fighting, their feelings were much like our feelings."
Casale, 86, was one of the countless World War II veterans who came home from the fighting overseas and settled fully into their American lives. Thousands came home to the small towns, villages and farms across Long Island. The war was a mission accomplished, a chapter closed.
His encounter with the Japanese man in 1989 was a remarkable moment, but otherwise most of his memories of the war stayed buried. The war was long over, after all.
Like many World War II veterans with extraordinary experiences behind him, he never spoke about it. Then, two years ago, he took an Honor Flight to view the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Honor Flight, sponsored by an Ohio-based nonprofit dedicated to bringing veterans to their respective memorials, inspired Casale to revisit memories - some vivid, most painful - that he'd willfully ignored for decades. As a member of the rapidly disappearing generation that served in World War II, Casale came to realize how powerful his memories were.
"Once the war was over with me, I kind of closed the door. I never discussed it with my family, never discussed it with anyone," said Casale, a printer by trade who retired 16 years ago. "It was quite an experience. I look back sometimes and I think about it, and I think, 'Was that me? Was I really there?' But it was real."
When the subject of the war came up with his family, Casale didn't go into details. He said last week that his interviews with Newsday were the most extensive discussions about the war he had ever had. Asked if he had any experiences overseas that he enjoyed, he answered, "Not at all.
"Most of the time, I was frightened," he said.
Nowhere to run
Casale was 19 when he was drafted in 1943. He was seen off at Penn Station by his parents and his childhood sweetheart, Michelina - now his wife of 63 years. When his unit shipped out from Louisiana, he didn't even know where he was going.
He wound up in the South Pacific. He saw islands that were all but uninhabited, encountered natives who were headhunters, lost his fingernails twice from jungle rot.
On Morotai - a northern Indonesian island less than 25 miles across, but with a strategic location and an airstrip - the Japanese bombs came frequently, sometimes more than once a day. Japanese troops had occupied the island in early 1942; the Americans arrived in force in September 1944. One night Casale was watching a movie projected onto a screen in a field - "Saratoga Trunk," with Gary Cooper - when three tracers burst into the air to warn the soldiers of yet another air raid.
There was nowhere to run. He hid behind the palm tree, frightened and reciting Hail Marys.
"It's funny how you find religion," he said.
Life after the war
In January 1946, Casale returned home on an aircraft carrier. He and Michelina married, had two sons, and moved from Manhattan to a house in Lindenhurst. Years passed, and their son got a job teaching English in Japan, where he met a Japanese woman, married and had a family. The Casales visited in 1989, and while touring their granddaughter Leila's school, the principal invited Victor and Fiore for tea.
Talk turned to the war, and the man - Casale wishes he knew his name - asked where Casale had served. When he mentioned Morotai, Casale said, the man's expression changed.
"He said, 'I never even heard of a Japanese soldier being there, let alone an American,' " the man said in Japanese, with Victor translating. "He said, 'To be honest, I was the major who planned all the air attacks on that island.' "
"You made things uncomfortable for us," Casale replied. The Japanese man, who said he was later captured by Allied forces in New Guinea, had tears in his eyes.
"It was a good feeling because he showed his emotions, and in my quiet way I showed my emotions," Casale said.
As they left his office, the man gave the elder Casale a deep bow. Embarrassed by the gesture, he asked his son why he had done that.
"Because you were the conquerors," his son explained.