‘We had to become human again’

jwilkinson@thestate.comSeptember 22, 2008 

Irving Levine flew B-25 bombers over the jungles of Burma during World War II. He retired from the Air Force as a captain, earning several medals and presidential citations.

GERRY MELENDEZ/GMELENDEZ@THESTATE.COM

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    Each week between Aug. 31 and Veteran's Day, The State profiled a local veteran chosen to visit the National World War II Memorial on the Nov. 15 inaugural Honor Flight.

    Read more about the Honor Flight program

    Click on a name to go to each veteran's story

    • Nealy Sweat: It was just before dawn in March 1945 on the smoking, stinking, moon-like island of death that was Iwo Jima. Nealy Adolph Sweat of Summerville was carefully peeking over the rim of the shell crater that was keeping him alive when a shot cracked out.
    • Henry Austin Browder: Henry Austin Browder of West Columbia began World War II on horseback. Browder — a mechanic in a mechanized war — had never ridden a horse.
    • Mary Crum: Mary Crum still remembers that April day in 1945 when she and thousands of others gathered at Union Station in Columbia. It was Friday the 13th, by chance, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage the day before in Warm Springs, Ga.
    • William C. Wildman: The sky was black with flak over the Brenner Pass in the Italian Alps, the shells bursting like lethal popcorn all around the bobbing B-24 “Liberator” bomber piloted by William C. Wildman.
    • Thomas E. Grove: It was Jan. 5, 1945, and Pvt. Thomas E. Grove watched in horror as the massive German Panther tank slowly raised its long 88-mm cannon toward him.
    • Fred Andrew Shealy: It was midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1944, near the French-German border in Alsace, when the Nazis came down like howling ghosts, apparitions of death in white camouflage.
    • Solomon Bright: Solomon Bright felt the impact, but didn’t see the kamikaze slam into the bridge of destroyer escort USS Bowers as it cruised off Okinawa on April 16, 1945.
    • Irv Levine: Irv Levine didn’t think about the amulet until it was gone. His grandmother gave a kemeye, a cameo blessed by a rabbi, to each of her six grandsons who went off to war in 1941.
    • Fritz Gray: Fifty-two bodies — German or American, Fritz Gray couldn’t tell — lay frozen in a minefield.
    • Anna Bell “Wendy” Wendelburg Zeigler: Wendy Zeigler began work at 6:30 that December morning in 1944, in a sprawling Gothic hospital in Paris, to pandemonium, blood and screams.
    • Russell V. Meyne: Russell V. Meyne was sitting down to breakfast when he noticed, through the chow hall window, a fighter plane skimming the airfield about a quarter mile away.

    How to contribute: Call (803) 582-8826, go to honorflightsc.com, or send a check payable to South Carolina Guard Foundation Inc., 551 Granby Lane, Columbia, SC 29201-4655.

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Irv Levine didn’t think about the amulet until it was gone.

His grandmother gave a kemeye, a cameo blessed by a rabbi, to each of her six grandsons who went off to war in 1941.

“Insurance,” she called them.

Levine’s was in a pouch sewn in his flight suit, with his dog tags and $100 worth of rupees, which might buy his way to safety if he crash-landed in the Burma jungle.

In 1944, after his 50th bombing mission in the China-Burma-India Theater, Levine got a one-week breather. The Army sent a rare replacement pilot to fly in his place.

The young, eager pilot arrived before his gear so he pulled on Levine’s flight suit, including the cameo, fired up the B-25 and promptly was shot down over the impenetrable morass of jungle in the Naga Hill country.

“It was his first mission,” said Levine, 87, a Cleveland native who now lives in Northeast Richland. “I never even got to say hello.”

When Levine and the other five grandsons came home safely, his grandmother asked if the replacement pilot had been Jewish.

“No,” Levine replied.

“There you go,” she said.

He had not benefited from the rabbi-blessed cameo.

Capt. Irving W. Levine survived 72 missions in the sometimes overlooked but miserably deadly CBI Theater, as it was called. That was more than twice the number of missions that air crews in England flew before cycling home.

“We didn’t get many replacements,” he said. “They went to Europe. We just kept flying.”

Levine is one of 100 veterans who will be on the inaugural Honor Flight to the nation’s capital Nov. 15 to visit the National World War II Memorial.

Local organizers hope to raise $300,000 to charter six flights to take 600 veterans to Washington for free over the next year or so. Priority will be given to veterans in ill health or those who have not seen the memorial.

Levine’s daughter Deborah Brett paid $500 for the privilege of being a “guardian,” or escort, on the flight. “To share this with him will be wonderful,” she said.

Levine said his reaction will be “subdued, when I remember the people who did not return.”

The plight of air crews in Levine’s 490th Bomb Squadron, 10th Air Force, in the CBI was especially harsh.

Airstrips were cut out of the raw jungle. There were no showers, but there were malaria and snakes, not to mention the Japanese Zeros or the ack-ack — antiaircraft fire — over Rangoon.

“We would have animals on the airfield,” Levine said. “Water buffalo, which are very nice tasting, actually.”

Personal hygiene disappeared. Alcohol and drug abuse were rampant. The men were afflicted with every imaginable type of skin disease in the putrid jungle. No one was immune.

And then there was the crushing boredom, interrupted only by the terror of flying “over the hump” to bomb bridges along the Japanese supply line in the area, the infamous Burma Road.

Of the 202 men in Levine’s squadron, 101 returned home, he said.

“All you did was drink, sleep and fly,” he said. “They would give you a day off after a mission if you lived. Then you drank and slept until they called you again.”

The rules were different, too.

An airman based in England had to fly 35 missions before going home. In Italy, 50.

In CBI, you flew until you couldn’t anymore. Until you were injured. Or killed. Or went crazy. Or succumbed to jungle diseases. Or just drank or drugged yourself out of the war. Opium and heroin were prevalent. Booze was issued to soldiers to boost morale, a practice unheard of today.

“You flew until the flight surgeon said you weren’t fit for combat,” Levine said. “I finally got out because I drank too much and smoked too much. ... I’m lucky I’m not alcoholic today.”

Like many Midwestern boys, Levine caught the flying bug watching barnstormers like Wiley Post and Jimmy Doolittle.

He once paid $14 — a handsome sum them — to fly eight minutes with a barnstormer who had come to his grandparents’ hometown, Pittsburgh.

A few months later, in July 1941, Levine joined the Army to learn to fly.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that December, Levine’s squadron was sent to India to hunt for submarines in the Indian Ocean. From there, they went to Burma to support British and Chinese ground troops.

The squadron’s primary targets were bridges on the Burma Road, earning the group the nickname “Burma Bridge Busters.” But they also braved ack-ack over the Japanese base of Rangoon, the Burmese capital.

“We pounded Rangoon,” Levine said.

After one particularly tough flight over the city, Levine followed a friend’s crippled B-25 back to base. It exploded in flames on impact with the runway.

“I couldn’t bring myself to look at the funeral pyre, knowing who was in it,” he said, choosing instead to land at another airstrip. “I knew all of them. It was a complete crew: Three enlisted men, a navigator and a pilot.”

When ruled out of further service by the flight surgeon in 1945, Levine and his crew were sent to Casablanca for several weeks to recover and clean up.

“We were filthy,” he said. “We had been living like animals. Our fingernails were like fangs. We all had diseases. We were animals. We had to become human again before we could go home.”

Levine was moved to a Florida hospital to recover from malaria. There, he met his future wife, Shirley, a Red Cross worker.

They moved to Pittsburgh, went into the furniture business and had three children — Brett of Columbia, Paula Moore of Chicago and Robert Levine of Pittsburgh.

They recently moved to Columbia to be near Brett.

Why hasn’t Levine seen the memorial? “We’ve been too busy living, I guess.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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