The few and the proud
World War II veterans visit memorials dedicated to themselves in nation’s capital
By Chris O'Neal 11/07/2013
Paulino Romero was 19 when he enlisted in the army and was shipped off to fight on the front lines of World War II. Growing up in Ventura, Romero knew that he had to get out or face relying on his parents for money.
“I told my mom, I’m gonna get out of school. Why? Because I’m going to enlist and you don’t give me any money,” said Romero.
The year was 1944 in the final days of World War II. After enlistment, Romero was shipped off to basic training and from there to the UK, where he landed in Liverpool and crossed the English Channel to fight in Germany under Gen. George Patton.
After suffering an injury to his leg that left him with shrapnel embedded in his tissue (that remains to this day), Romero was sent home to recover.
Seventy years later, back home in Oxnard, 88-year-old Romero, alongside WWII veterans Emanuel Davis and Jerome Escover, traveled to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials dedicated to servicemen like him, a trip Romero never expected to happen.
“I told them I didn’t think I could make it,” said Romero. “I’d seen the doctor and he told me that I’m sick. I started to feel better, and I told my daughter, OK, I’ll go.”
The Ohio-based nonprofit Honor Flight chose Romero to be the recipient of an all-expenses-paid trip from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., after Romero’s daughter, Diane Mancini, nominated him.
Honor Flight, founded in 2005, gives American war veterans an opportunity to visit Washington, D.C., memorials erected in their honor. Veterans are nominated or sign up for the opportunity and are usually added to a waiting list based on several factors, of which the most important is health and ability. World War II veterans are currently the top priority.
Romero, after a recent diagnosis, was moved to the front of the list, making him eligible for his trip on Oct. 25.
Since its inception, Honor Flight has given more than 135,000 WWII veterans the opportunity to travel to D.C.
A little more than 42,000 veterans call Ventura County home, and of those, only 10 percent — 4,200 — are veterans of World War II, according to Mike McManus at Ventura County Veterans Affairs. According to the national Department of Veterans Affairs, a little more than 600 WWII veterans die each day. Of the 16.1 million who served in the war, 90 percent have already passed away.
At the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) Veterans Home in Ventura, 59 veterans — from WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam or other conflict — are treated for both physical and mental health issues in the assisted living environment.
“Every veteran is treated with dignity and respect,” said Jeanne Bonfilio, a public information officer with CalVet.
For aging veterans, programs like Honor Flight, which is not associated with CalVet, provide an important service for aging veterans, says Bonfilio.
“We really admire what they’re doing and we know they’ve helped a lot of WWII veterans,” said Bonfilio. “It brings about camaraderie with other veterans. When they see a fellow soldier, there’s a camaraderie that just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, between veteran and veteran.”
Diane Mancini, Romero’s daughter, nominated her father after learning about the program on a visit to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Los Angeles. After convincing her father to go, Mancini accompanied him, along with her brother and two sisters.
On Oct. 25, Romero joined Davis and Escover on the long flight to Maryland, where they were met by uniformed service people who escorted the group, along with 40 other veterans, by bus to the memorials.
Leading the way were the Honor Riders, volunteer bikers who guided the bus to the memorials. Upon arrival, Mancini and her father were stunned by their reception.
“It was a very moving experience,” said Mancini. “Complete strangers were coming up to him in Washington, shaking his hand and saying thank you for serving our country.”
Brooklyn native Jerome Escover has lived in California for more than 50 years and was nominated by his stepson, Capt. Mark Martinez of the L.A. Fire Department, to take part in the Honor Flight. After a year and a half on the waiting list, Escover traveled to D.C. and was moved by the sheer size and detail of the various war memorials.
“It was quite a living experience,” said Escover.
Only 17 in 1945, Escover served as a seaman aboard the Coast Guard cutter Anemone in Woods Hole, Mass., running transports and responding to distress calls while patrolling the Atlantic coast before being transferred to Staten Island. Escover never saw action overseas and was discharged in 1946 after the war’s end.
Escover was moved by the VIP treatment that he and his fellow veterans received, from arrival at the Hilton hotel. It was at the Air Force Memorial that Escover’s most memorable experience took place.
“It’s up on a hill, and when you look down, you can look at the Pentagon,” said Escover. “There’s a complete guide path from where the plane crashed [on 9/11]. You can see the old stone and the new stone and can tell where the plane crashed.”
The size and scope of every memorial visited — from the Vietnam Memorial Wall to the Korean War memorial — impressed Escover and his son, but the iconic Iwo Jima Memorial stood out.
“It’s gigantic,” said Escover. “I couldn’t believe how big it was.”
Escover hadn’t met Romero or Davis prior to the flight and appreciates the time and effort spent by Honor Flight to give him and his peers an opportunity that might not have happened otherwise.
“It’s quite a testimonial to the people who lived during that generation,” said Escover. “My son found it very touching. He’s sitting in with a generation that’s dying; it’s a fading generation.”
Romero, from his home in Oxnard, recalled the one event he could never forget from his time served in WWII, the day the German army surrendered.
“We saw them coming down the road by the hundreds,” said Romero. “Everyone was getting up on the vehicles and whooping it up. It sounded like the World Series. We were just enjoying that we had won.”