The nation’s oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor is on a train heading home today traveling first class, where he belongs. Joe Eskenazi never rose above the rank of private first class during his service in World War II, but this past week, on the eve of his 105thbirthday, PFC Eskenazi was treated like a Five-Star General.

From the moment he climbed aboard Amtrak’s 10 p.m. Sunset Limited in Los Angeles to be honored at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, it’s been all salutes and cheers for the Redondo Beach great-grandfather.

Standing beside his wheelchair through it all was his family — his daughter, granddaughters and great-grandson, Mathias, who turns 5 next month. A hundred years may separate the two, but thanks to the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Soaring Valor Program, they’ve had a chance to grow closer than ever before it’s too late.

“I am just so grateful my great-grandson could be here and experience all this with me,” Joe said. “This he’ll remember his entire life. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank everyone involved. You brought back so many old memories and created new ones for my family.”

At every whistle stop along the way, decorations were put up in his honor, and local residents gathered on the platform to cheer the nation’s oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor, waving back to them from his private room.

“When we arrived in New Orleans Sunday night, there was a big American flag all lit up and a crowd of people waiting to greet dad,” said Belinda Mastrangelo, 68, Joe’s daughter who traveled with him.

“That train trip was the beginning of many tears and emotions we would share throughout the week,” she added, after getting her dad down for a much needed nap.

It’s ironic that nearing the end of his life he’s getting the recognition he never sought. Seldom had she heard her father talk about his years in the service, and not a word about Pearl Harbor.

  • World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years...

    World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, holds a photo of his younger self, at an event celebrating his upcoming 105th birthday at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, center, who at 104...

    World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, center, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, sits with fellow Pearl Harbor veterans, at an event celebrating his upcoming 105th birthday at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. Left to right are Wallace Johnson, Gordon Wilson, Eskenazi, Billy Hall and Tony DiLisa. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • Joe Eskenazi of Redondo Beach, 104, the oldest living Pearl...

    Joe Eskenazi of Redondo Beach, 104, the oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor, blows out candles on his birthday cake in the dining car of the Amtrak train he will take to New Orleans. Eskanazi will take the train to New Orleans where he will visit the National WWII Museum as part of actor Gary Sinise Foundation’s Soaring Valor Program. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Joe Eskenazi of Redondo Beach, 104, the oldest living Pearl...

    Joe Eskenazi of Redondo Beach, 104, the oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor, center, joined other WW II veterans at Union Station in Los Angeles Friday, January 6, 2023. Eskanazi was boarding an Amtrak train headed for New Orleans where he will visit the National WWII Museum as part of actor Gary Sinise Foundation’s Soaring Valor Program. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Joe Eskenazi of Redondo Beach, 104, the oldest living Pearl...

    Joe Eskenazi of Redondo Beach, 104, the oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor, and four other WW II veterans, arrives at his train at Union Station in Los Angeles Friday, January 6, 2023. Eskanazi was boarding an Amtrak train headed for New Orleans where he will visit the National WWII Museum as part of actor Gary Sinise Foundation’s Soaring Valor Program. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • WW II veterans, L to R; Bill Stewart, Wallace Johnson,...

    WW II veterans, L to R; Bill Stewart, Wallace Johnson, Joseph Eskenazi, Billy Hall, and Gordon Wilson. The group met at Union Station in Los Angeles Friday, January 6, 2023. The group are headed for New Orleans where they will visit the National WWII Museum as part of actor Gary Sinise Foundation’s Soaring Valor Program. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years...

    World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, sits with fellow veterans and his great grandchildren Mathias, 4, and Audrey, 1, at an event celebrating his upcoming 105th birthday at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years...

    World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, sits with his great grandson Mathias, 4, at an event celebrating his upcoming 105th birthday at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • World War II veteran Billy Hall, 96, participates in an...

    World War II veteran Billy Hall, 96, participates in an event celebrating the upcoming 105th birthday of fellow veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, at the National World War II Museum to in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. According to the museum, Hall enlisted in Aug of 1941 at the age of 15 and flew over 150 Dauntless dive and Avenger torpedo bomb missions as a rear tail gunner in the Pacific over Guadalcanal, Peleliu and Munda. According to the museum, he is believed to be the last living veteran who enlisted before WWII, and saw combat in WWII, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • World War II veteran Harry Hammer, 94, participates in an...

    World War II veteran Harry Hammer, 94, participates in an event celebrating the upcoming 105th birthday of fellow veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, at the National World War II Museum to in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. According to the museum, Hammer served in the occupation of Japan and completed his “jump school” in Japan. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • World War II veteran Gordon Wilson, 99, participates in an...

    World War II veteran Gordon Wilson, 99, participates in an event celebrating the upcoming 105th birthday of fellow veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, at the National World War II Museum to in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. According to the museum, Wilson served in the Pacific aboard the USS Lexington “The Blue Ghost”. Gordon was standing right outside the bridge when it was hit by a kamikaze. He was pulled inside by another sailor just before the hit. He received a Purple Heart. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • World War II veteran Wallace Johnson, 97, participates in an...

    World War II veteran Wallace Johnson, 97, participates in an event celebrating the upcoming 105th birthday of fellow veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, at the National World War II Museum to in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. According to the museum, Johnson joined the Navy in September 1941, serving on the USS Jamestown, a motor torpedo boat tender, making landings on Guadalcanal and Bougainville. He later worked on the Apollo space program with the original 7 Astronauts. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • World War II veteran Tony DiLisa, 98, participates in an...

    World War II veteran Tony DiLisa, 98, participates in an event celebrating the upcoming 105th birthday of fellow veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, at the National World War II Museum to in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. According to the museum, DiLisa served in England and was involved in preparing for and supplying Operation Overlord and the retaking of Europe. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years...

    World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, sits with fellow veterans, his great grandchildren Mathias, 4, Audrey, 1, and their grandmother Belinda Mastrangelo, at an event celebrating his upcoming 105th birthday at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years...

    World War II veteran Joseph Eskenazi, who at 104 years and 11 months old is the oldest living veteran to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, holds a photo of his younger self, at an event celebrating his upcoming 105th birthday at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

It’s ironic that toward the end of his life he’s getting the recognition he never sought. Seldom had she heard her father talk about his years in the service, and not a word about Pearl Harbor.

Only when he turned 95 and began getting requests to take part in local Veterans and Memorial Day parades, did his war record become known. How on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when all hell was breaking loose, his captain in Company C of the 804th Engineers Battalion asked for a volunteer to clear a runway of all the debris at Pearl Harbor.

Only one hand went up — that of 23-year-old PFC Joe Eskenazi. He grabbed a bulldozer and went to work while in the air a Japanese Zero pilot did his best to stop him, strafing the runway and bulldozer until the pilot finally gave up and flew off.

They called Joe a hero after that, but he wouldn’t accept the recognition. The real heroes died at Pearl Harbor that morning, he always said. He was just doing his job.

He took that job and made it a career in civilian life. Among his biggest engineering projects was helping design the runways at LAX, not that far removed from that landing strip in Pearl Harbor he cleared in 1941.

When the Sinise foundation offered to send him and his family to the museum, all expenses paid, Joe initially was reluctant to travel that far.

“They came over to dad’s house with a pastrami sandwich and an idea to make the trip a 105thbirthday present,” said Belinda. “I think that pastrami sandwich closed the deal.”

Their first stop in the museum was the most emotional. With his family at his side, Joe was wheeled down a long hallway lined on both sides with museum employees clapping and thanking him and the other veterans being honored.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect something like this,” Joe said, as he entered the museum’s “Arsenal of Democracy” section, which features an incredibly, moving Pearl Harbor exhibit.

“I’ve replayed Pearl Harbor so many times in my dreams, and to be here now reliving it with my family, well, I’m just so appreciative of what this museum has done,” he said. “It’s incredible.”

It is incredible. That’s why Sinise’s foundation has sent hundreds of World War II veterans and their families to the National World War II Museum free of charge.

“Men like Joe are national treasures, and we must never forget that,” Sinise said. “We owe them everything.”

Her father was sleeping in the next room Friday night while Belinda packed their bags for the two-day train ride home to Redondo Beach.

“If I could sum this week up in one word, it would be love,” the substitute teacher said. “Everywhere my father went people wanted to shake his hand and tell him about a loved one they lost who served in World War II.

“It was like touching my dad’s hand and thanking him, they were touching and thanking their own loved one again. My dad was so honored.”

The oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor never rose beyond the rank of private, but for one glorious week he became a Five-Star General.

Happy 105th, Joe, from a grateful nation.

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at dmccarthynews@gmail.com.

California

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