Vito Mastrangelo was 20 years old when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 — the date emblazoned as D-Day.
He was assigned to dig graves. The Visalia, California, native and member of the 6th Engineer Special Brigade would bury 458 fellow soldiers in Normandy over the next 24 hours. Over the next two years, he’d bury more than 70,000.
“I took charge,” Mastrangelo, now 92, said in an interview. “I had to.”
On Tuesday, another June day 72 years later, Mastrangelo sat in a wheelchair in the midst of the vast World War II Memorial. Dwarfed by the 17-foot-tall granite pillars circling the memorial’s expansive plaza, he was one of 66 WWII and Korean War veterans that Central Valley Honor Flight flew in from Fresno, California, this week to visit sites that honor them.
“It’s been wonderful,” Mastrangelo said of the experience. “The whole flight has been great.”
Founded in 2013, Central Valley Honor Flight has raised more than $1.5 million to bring 668 veterans and their guardians from California to Washington to visit memorials, tour the city and attend events. This is the nonprofit’s 10th honor flight, and its third-to-last, as the WWII veteran population is rapidly declining, said Al Perry, the president of the group.
“We’re running out of World War II veterans,” Perry said. Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces during WWII. Today, fewer than 700,000 survive.
Just 21 of the veterans on this week’s honor flight served during WWII; the other 45 served in the Korean War, Perry said. But no matter their age, all honor flight participants, from 25 hometowns across California, are following a jam-packed three-day itinerary, which includes visits to the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Vietnam and Korean war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery.
The veterans and their guardians will depart for Fresno on Wednesday evening.
“It’s an honor to have this flight to remember what all of our nation’s veterans endured,” John Trevino, son-in-law of WWII vet Alfred Duran, said in an interview. “Freedom isn’t given, it’s earned, and these guys earned it for us.”
Though veterans don’t pay a penny, guardians like Trevino spend $1,000 to accompany their friends and family. Each trip costs the nonprofit around $175,000, which breaks down to about $1,500 per veteran. The group pays for the trip’s aircraft, buses, accommodations and meals; other expenses are covered by donations from individuals, small businesses and service clubs across California.
Duran, 94, also landed in Normandy on D-Day. As a private first class, the Dinuba, California, native fought for a year longer, traveling on foot from that fateful beach in France to the final battleground in Germany.
“It was a rough war, but I made it through,” said Duran, who was wounded but returned to active duty after weeks of hospitalization. “This is the best country in the world; I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Like Mastrangelo, Duran uses a wheelchair. This is his first trip to Washington; he wishes he could have come when he was able to move freely.
“I can walk a little, but I’m so tired,” Duran said. “I need to rest.”
It’s also the first trip for fellow WWII veteran Wilbur Herring, 89. The Pasadena, California, native served in the Navy for almost two years. He met his best friend aboard the USS Winged Arrow, his transportation to Europe. The pair remained friends for 70 years, until his friend’s death two years ago.
“I guess he’s waiting for me,” Herring said.