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.
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 email@example.com.