With just days before his 105th birthday, Redondo Beach resident Joseph Eskenazi is ready for the quiet life, but the attention is hard to resist when you happen to be America’s oldest living survivor of Pearl Harbor.
It certainly followed him to Union Station in Los Angeles on Friday night, January 6, where a crowd gathered to cheer him on as he traveled by Amtrak to New Orleans, where, courtesy of the Gary Sinise Foundation, he received the National WWII Museum will visit Soaring Valor program.
“There were so many kids who were good young people in their 20s, and I hate to think that they were all killed without warning,” Eskenazi said, reflecting on Pearl Harbor as he passed. “What bothered me the most was seeing these wonderful people go to another world without a chance to enjoy it.”
Eskenazi was a private first-rate of C-Company, 804th Engineers, and survived being shelled by a Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter jet on the day of the attack. More than 2,400 Americans, including civilians, were less fortunate and perished.
“Every morning when I wake up I think of those fine young people who were killed in vain,” he added.
As the living memory of World War II moves further and further from the nation’s collective consciousness — it is estimated that fewer than 500,000 World War II veterans live today — efforts such as the Soaring Valor Program seek to recognize veterans for their bravery and others for them immense sacrifice to remember. Since its launch in 2013, the program has brought over 1,500 World War II veterans to the National WWII Museum, said Tom Gibbs, education manager for the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Eskenazi, who is traveling by train rather than plane due to health concerns, was due to arrive in New Orleans Sunday night. He was joined for his farewell by four other local WWII veterans. Along with four other Southern California-based WWII veterans, they will fly to join Eskenazi at the museum in New Orleans.
While at the Big Easy, a historian sponsored by the Gary Sinise Foundation will record oral histories of the wartime experiences of all nine veterans for preservation for future generations.
Even though Pearl Harbor happened more than 80 years ago, Eskenazi still remembers it like it was yesterday.
He was just 23 years old and asleep at Schofield Barracks when, at 7:55 a.m. on December 7, 1941, he was awakened by the sound of Japanese bombers.
He and his comrades rushed from their bunks to witness the terrifying sight of Zeros hurtling overhead. They knew immediately they were being attacked.
Eskenazi felt the vibrations of the Japanese torpedo bombs detonating on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, 17 miles inland from his barracks.
When its captain asked for volunteers to help clear the airfield next to Pearl Harbor, only one hand went up – Eskenazis.
As he was following his captain’s instructions to salvage a bulldozer, he noticed a black dot on the horizon. Suddenly that black dot got closer and bullets started raining down on it.
“When people call my grandpa a hero, he kind of corrects them, ‘Actually, I’m not a hero. I’m a survivor, but he really is,” said granddaughter Marcella Mastrangelo. “He knew the mission was dangerous and my grandpa’s hand was the first to go up, so that’s a hero to me.”
Luckily, Eskenazi survived a Zero fire that day. Now, more than eight decades after his death, Eskenazi is preparing to celebrate his 105th birthday on January 30th.
As he boarded the train to New Orleans, he was surprised by an early birthday cake.
There are many family theories about his longevity secret.
His granddaughters, Marcella Mastrangelo and Raquel Mastrangelo Nassif, said it’s because of his active and healthy lifestyle, regular schedule and desire to stay connected and learn new skills – like how to use an iPhone.
“He’s a really carefree young heart, a spirited guy, he loved to sail, he loved to travel. He hated having his driver’s license taken away at 98. He still wants to drive,” said Marcella.
“He’s like, ‘Hey, that’s just because of my eyesight, not because I can’t drive,'” Raquel added, laughing proudly at his steadfast independence.
His daughter Belinda Mastrangelo says his long life was partly due to his Mediterranean diet, which he inherited from his Spanish and Greek family, who immigrated to the United States from Turkey in 1911.
Eskenazi was born in New York in 1918 and also lived in Mexico City for several years. It was here that he met his wife, Victoria Faradji, after the war. The two married in 1947 and settled in Redondo Beach, where they raised Belinda.
Belinda also credits Eskenazi’s close relationship with Victoria for its longevity as the couple were happily married and best friends for 74 years. Many of his final years were devoted to caring for Victoria, who died in June 2021.
“He never wanted to leave her side. He would always hold hands with her. He was very loving to her and no matter how bad she looked, he would tell her, ‘Oh, my beautiful wife,'” Belinda said. “He was always so sweet to her.”
After Victoria’s death, Eskenazi has found a new community and purpose to tell his story as America’s oldest living survivor of Pearl Harbor. For most of his life, it was a topic he didn’t talk about often, Belinda said.
“Well, that brings him joy and connects him to the world,” Raquel said. “I think through all that ‘hero recognition,’ he’s found new people to talk to and friends his own age.”
Eskenazi also served as an inspiration for his grandson, Mike Mastrangelo, who continues Eskenazi’s military legacy by serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy. Soon that legacy will be recorded forever at the National WWII Museum.
https://www.ocregister.com/2023/01/07/heroic-la-sendoff-for-pearl-harbor-survivor-soon-to-be-105-en-route-to-new-orleans-wwii-museum/ Heroic farewell from LA for Pearl Harbor survivor, who will soon be 105, en route to WWII Museum in New Orleans – Orange County Register