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Honoring World War II heroes: Military Museum remembers on anniversary of D-Day

By Staff | Jun 6, 2019

The SWFL Military Museum & Library honored the memory of World War II heroes, still with us or gone, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day with a luncheon on Thursday afternoon.

There was not a seat to be had as veterans, widows of veterans, loved ones and military supporters across the region gathered for a meal and remembrance.

Charley Valera, award-winning author of “My Fathers War: Memories from Our Honored WWII Soldiers,” gave a presentation about World War II with information he has gathered from talking to World War II veterans about their personal experiences — including many that participated in the Normandy Invasion.

“It’s so emotional. It’s so humbling,” said museum director Missi Lastra, of getting to gather with veterans, hear their stories and remember those who have lost their lives for this country. “Just the amazing respect that I have for these men and women — that we all have obviously (of those that were there). Every day in this building is a humbling experience, but an event like this where you’re surrounded by the greatness of the greatest generation, is very inspiring.”

D-Day saw Allied troops deploy more than 5,300 ships, 11,000 aircrafts and 160,000 troops. Of those numbers, nearly 4,400 troops — most still in their teens — lost their lives. By late August, the Allies landed 2 million troops in France where more than 72,900 were killed or missing, according to the White House. An additional 150,000-plus were wounded.

Museum curator Jim Zbick holds the greatest generation’s efforts near and dear to his heart, as he had an uncle who was part of the Normandy invasion in the 101st Airborne Artillery, as well as his father and five other uncles who served World War II.

“On D-Day morning, he came in by ship rather than paratroop in with the other airborne soldiers. They had howitzers, that’s why they came in by ship,” Zbick said.

His uncle did return home after World War II and had a long and good life.

“These guys need recognition. They’re leaving us so fast and there aren’t too many left, so, to have a World War II veteran (present) it’s just really special,” said Zbick.

There were three World War II veterans in attendance, as well as two widows of greatest generation military members to honor a day that changed everything for the United States and the Allied nations, as it began the liberation of German-occupied France from Nazi control.

Wally Cortese, a World War II and Korea veteran was in attendance. He served in the Navy and enlisted when he was 17. He attended boot camp in the Great Lakes Region, went to San Juan, Puerto Rico where he served at the Naval Air Station and attended gunnery school there. Eventually, he was assigned to his squadron and served in Africa and Italy.

“It’s humbling to come to an event like this,” Cortese said. “It’s humbling because the guys that are the real heroes are up there (on the military tribute banners) — that didn’t make it. Friends and comrades that didn’t make it.

“It seems to me that most of us in our generation — maybe it was because we were attacked — seem more gung-ho about serving our country. It’s humbling to be amongst other veterans and be able to honor those who served on D-Day, especially today.”

Cortese said that he greatly values the experience he gained from his time in the military, and shared that one of the most valuable lessons learned was to follow through with a commitment.

“The experience that you gain from it are so varied and so many,” Cortese said. “It’s too hard to pick on one that’s better than the other. Though, I will say that when you commit to something, see it all the way through to the finish. Don’t quit halfway through. To me, that’s one of the major traits I got being in the service.”

It’s safe to say that the country is glad that Cortese had this mindset, along with many others who fought during that time.

The effects of the war were felt not just on the battlefields overseas, but in homes across the country when wives and children saw military police with a folded American Flag solemnly arrive at their doorstep, bringing the news they feared the most.

For those who were lucky enough to see their loved ones come back, may not have got that same person. Many suffered from traumatic PTSD, not wanting to speak of what happened during their time, battling distressful images of war and death ingrained in their memory.

“They didn’t talk much unless you pinpointed them and cornered them,” said Zbick of his family returning home from war. “Later in life, especially, they tended to talk more about it mostly to each other.”

“You think, on your worst day, that it’s nothing (compared to what veterans had to go through) — you can do it. It makes everything seem more achievable,” added Lastra.

The SWFL Military Museum holds a veterans luncheon every Tuesday beginning at 11:15 a.m. It was started by five Korean War veterans almost a decade ago and is open to all veterans, families and the public.

“I know they’re leaving us fast,” said Zbick of World War II veterans. “We really have to honor them with the time they have left,”

The SWFL Military Museum is at 4820 Leonard St in Cape Coral.

For more information, visit www.swflmm.org.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj