Honoring those who kept us safe

Hudson Valley Honor Flight takes two Monroe vets to visit National WW II Memorial

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  • Hugh OíNeill, the retired Naval Gunnerís Mate, Second Class.

  • The 87 veterans plus their "guardians" also visited the Iwo Jima Memorial during their trip. Gathering in front of it are Antonio Mangiaracina of Monroe; Chris Waugh of Pine Bush, who served as his "guardian;" and retired Marine Henry Thorben of New Paltz.

  • The National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

  • World War II veteran Hugh OíNeill of Monroe makes his way around the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

— What a day. What a fabulously great, memorable day.

That’s what Hugh O’Neill and Antonio Mangiaracina, two World War II veterans who live in Monroe, felt about their trip to the National World War II Memorial last Saturday as guests of the National Honor Flight Network.

Hudson Valley Honor Flight, the network’s local chapter, took 87 World War II area vets plus their volunteer “guardians” on the pilgrimage to see the memorial.

The World War II memorial opened in 2004 to honor the 16 million people who served in the U.S. armed forces at that time, the more than 400,000 who died, and all who supported the war effort from home. World War II is the only 20th century event commemorated on the National Mall’s central axis.

For O’Neill and Mangiaracina, it was their first trip to the site.

And the impact that the 56 granite columns, with their bronze and water elements which symbolize the wartime unity among the 48 states, seven federal territories and the District of Columbia had on them was tremendous.

A bright blue spring sky served as the outdoor canopy for the group as they left Stewart Airport in Newburgh in the early morning on a chartered flight and arrived at Reagan National Airport for their trek around the National Mall, featuring a special itinerary created just for them.

Gunner’s mate, second class

“It was a very beautiful trip,” said the 88-year-old O’Neill. “The memorial is divided by the Pacific side and the Atlantic side. I saw the places (listed on the memorial) I went to during World War II. I actually broke out crying when I saw the names of the battles written out on the monument. It brought back days of when I feared for my life and it brought back memories of how scared I was when I hit the beaches.”

O’Neill began his military career at age 16 in 1942, as a gunner’s mate, second class.

During his Navy career, O’Neill was part of 14 invasions in the South Pacific, including the Solomon Islands, the Marianas Islands, the Philippines, the Mani Islands and Okinawa in Japan. “I’ve been to most of the islands in the South Pacific that were invaded,” he noted.

“I was stationed on the Battleship Wisconsin for six months, and then the USS Norris in Sing Tao, China until the Korean War broke out,” said O’Neill. “I made two invasions in Korea and was part of the evacuation of Hungnam on Christmas Eve in 1950. Then I came back to the U.S. onboard the USS Bears. That’s where I was when I was discharged.”


Mangiaracina had similar emotions about seeing the memorial.

“It’s so close to my heart right now,” he said.”Every time I think of it, I start bawling. It (being there at the memorial) made me feel very good. Those guys (who served) before me, they sacrificed more than me. I can never forget this.”

Mangiaracina served in the Army from July 1945 to December 1946 with a C-5 Corporal ranking.

“I served in the tail end of the war; we used to see the bombed out cities,” recalled Mangiaracina, who will celebrate his 86th birthday in two weeks. “I had basic training in Florida, landed in France and then went to Augsburg, Germany, into my infantry outfit. They saw on my resume that I played the trumpet. So they gave me a trumpet to play, listened to me and then they said, ‘Okay, you’re going into a band.’”

From that point on, he was a member of the Ninth Division Marching Band, traveling all over Germany to entertain troops and play at official functions.

“I played for Eisenhower when he came to inspect the troops,” he added.

Thank you

The Honor Flight group also visited the Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and witnessed the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“I’ll never forget that,” said O’Neill. “I was very proud to see how the men would stay out in any type of weather to guard the tomb. It was such a beautiful ceremony.”

Each veteran was paired up with a “guardian,” a Hudson Valley Honor Flight volunteer who had the responsibility of ensuring the veteran has a great day.

Both veterans said they became emotional when total strangers - including teenagers - approached them at the memorial and thanked them for their service.

“I had my World War II-Korean hat on with all my pins that were on it,” said O’Neill. “I had my on white shirt they gave us that said ‘Hudson Valley Honor Flight April 20.’ I was surprised to see how many young teenagers came up to us to say thank you for our service at the memorial. It made me feel a lot better because I remembered the teenagers in the Vietnam War (era) and they didn’t respect the veterans at all.”

The two men wouldn’t stop praising Hudson Valley Honor Flight organizers and volunteers for all they did to make the day so outstanding for them.

“It was awesome, everything was awesome,” said Mangiaracina. “They treated us like royalty.”

O’Neill added: “It’s a day that I’ll never forget. It was almost as good as the day I got married. It was that wonderful.”

By Nancy Kriz

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