One Hundred Years After Influenza Killed His Twin Brother, WWII Veteran Dies of COVID-19

In the days before his death, the New York man spoke often of his lost twin and the lessons humanity seemed not to have learned

100-Year-Old WWII Vet Dies of COVID-19
Philip Kahn, pictured on his 100th birthday with his grandson, Warren Zysman, and great-grandson Warren Zysman

New Yorker and 100-year-old World War II veteran Philip Kahn died of COVID-19 on April 17, just over a century after his twin brother, Samuel, succumbed to the 1918 influenza pandemic, reports Carolyn Gusoff for CBS New York.

“My grandfather Phil and his brother were pandemic bookends,” grandson Warren Zysman tells Natalie O’Neill of the New York Post. “He knew the devastation of the first one—and he told me, ‘Warren, my boy, history repeats itself.'”

Samuel died just weeks after the brothers’ birth on December 15, 1919, according to the New York Times’ Katharine Q. Seelye. The twins’ father, a European immigrant, ran a bakery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“He really didn’t know his twin brother, but it was something that really weighed very heavily on him psychologically—he held this void, this twin brother he never got to experience growing up with,” Zysman tells Megan Flynn of the Washington Post.

The 1918 influenza pandemic—which, despite its name, lasted from January 1918 to December 1920—claimed the lives of an estimated 50 million people worldwide, with roughly 675,000 succumbing to the illness in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Comparatively, COVID-19 has killed more than 50,000 people across the U.S. to date.

Philip Kahn stands next to WWII B-29 bomber plane.
Philip Kahn prepares to board a B-29 bomber during World War II. Warren Zysman

Khan, a decorated sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Force, was stationed in Japan during World War II. Serving as an engineer and co-pilot, he survived sniper fire and a traumatic brush with a booby trap during the Battle of Iwo Jima, reported Martin C. Evans for Newsday in 2017.

“All I remember was I was standing in one place one minute, and the next I was 15 feet away,” Kahn told Newsday. “I was spinning and bewildered from the shock.”

His own brushes with death, as well as the destruction he witnessed while flying bombers over Japan, weighed heavily on Kahn.

After returning from the war, he worked briefly as a roller-rink dancer, then spent decades serving as an electrician, according to the Washington Post. Kahn was even an electrical foreman on the construction of the World Trade Center.

The World War II veteran and his wife, Rose, married in 1946 and remained together until her death last summer. The couple had two daughters, including Zysman’s mother, and, eventually, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Kahn’s battle with COVID-19 lasted just a few days. Though he was tested for the virus, his results didn’t arrive until after his death, reports the Washington Post.

Philip Kahn standing at the top of the World Trade Center..
Philip Kahn standing at the top of the World Trade Center, which he helped build as an electrical foreman Warren Zysman

“He had always wanted a large military funeral, but we weren’t able to provide that [for] him,” Zysman tells Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio of CNN.

Still, the cemetery did its best under the circumstances, arranging for two members of the armed forces to perform a military ceremony on April 20. A lone bugle played “Taps” at the service, attended by just ten people due to the pandemic; per the Washington Post, Kahn's casket was draped in an American flag.

One of the individuals in attendance was Khan’s friend Sampson Lester Friedman, who served with him during World War II, reports CNN. Zysman provided the outlet with a video of the service, which included a tribute by Friedman: “[There was] something about him that was very, very special,” the fellow veteran said. “On our airplane, he was an engineer, and he was the hardest working guy aboard that airplane."

As Kahn’s cough and respiratory symptoms worsened in the days before his death, the centenarian spoke with his grandson by phone.

“He kept telling me,… ‘I lived a long time, 100 years, but 100 years is not a long time for history,’” says Zysman to the Post. “‘We could have been better prepared for this.’”

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