When McNicholas found out that we were being given the chance to participate in the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Soaring Valor trip, administration jumped on the unique opportunity. Colonel Todd Mayer was instrumental in the Rockets being granted this exclusive privilege. “It’s a great high school, it really is. They have great faculty… great opportunities for the students. I knew they would be a good selection because of the values the school teaches,” Mayer said on why he vouched for McNick to represent the newest generation in accompanying the Greatest Generation to the Big Easy from Southwest Ohio.
Upperclassmen were briefed on the details of the trip earlier this spring and those interested were tasked with writing an essay on why we wanted to attend and what the experience would mean to us. The Sinise Foundation describes the Soaring Valor program on their website:
“We’re bringing World War II veterans and their guardians to New Orleans to tour The National WWII Museum built in their honor… Students who accompany our veterans carry on their stories with a new appreciation for the sacrifices made by an entire generation.”
On April 24, a delegation of 40 select juniors and seniors boarded a bus headed for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) with great anticipation of the journey ahead. I was fortunate enough and feel truly blessed to have been a part of this once in a lifetime group. I began composing this article knowing there is no way it can ever come close to truly capturing the overall experience or the awe-inspiring stories and lives of the WWII veterans.
After a sendoff ceremony inside CVG and an expedited path through security, I boarded the American Airlines plane and made my way to 13B, the seat number assigned to my ticket. Little did I know just how great of an impact the men in seats 13A and 13C would have on my life, or how they would feel like family after only knowing them for a few short days.
I introduced myself to Roland Romito (93) and his oldest son of 4 children, Jerry Romito (72) and took my seat between the WWII vet and his guardian. From his place to the left of me, Roland had his black WWII Veteran’s ball cap pressed up on the window and eyes glued on the white clouds and green landscape below for a significant portion of the two-hour flight. As I would soon learn from Jerry, his 93-year-old father had been experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease for about 5 years and had not flown in at least half a century, so the flight alone was a totally new experience for him. At the immediate outset of the flight, it proved slightly difficult to break open a conversation with Roland. That all changed soon after Jerry provided me with Roland’s own scrapbook made from numerous oversize papers and filled with pictures, official documentation, notes and more from his time during and around his service in the United States Navy.
When the senior Romito noticed that I was flipping through his scrapbook, his attention was drawn from the window to his memories that filled the pages of the homemade book in front of me. Through my conversations with Roland and Jerry on the plane ride and in New Orleans, I discovered that they, too, come from a family of Italian immigrants who are now proud Americans. Roland’s father settled in the United States in 1893 and later worked on the Penn Railroad. The youngest of 8 children, Roland grew up in a household of extremely hardworking parents who spoke limited English. When I asked Roland what it was like growing up as the baby in such a large family, he laughed and said, “I milked it.”
Despite “milking it” as much as possible, the youngest Romito grew up fast. Roland was always into technology and put his interests and talents to practical use even before he became an electronics technician in the Navy. In his early years, Roland built a battery powered radio and fixed it to his bicycle. “There was nothing complicated about it besides it was different… no one else had one,” he said. In high school, he recalled being “about 57 copies behind in typing class” not because he was lazy or a poor student, but instead because he was working diligently on creating his own school’s brand new public address system since they lacked one at the time. Roland also had a special way of sending messages to his then girlfriend and now wife Elizabeth “Bucci” Romito. “When Dad was dating my mom and she was 15, lived in Pittsburgh, Dad lived in Cleveland; Instead of writing her letters, Dad made a machine that would make records… he would talk into it and it would turn the wax disc and cut the record. Instead of mailing her the letter, he would mail her the record,” Jerry said. “With my voice on it,” Roland added. “She would play the record on her phonograph, and it would be me,” he said.
Roland enlisted in the Navy in 1943 at the age of 18 and actively served off the coasts of Guam and Hawaii as a radio repairman from October of 1944 until April of 1946. That same year, he wed the love of his life, Bucci, and the pair has been happily married for the past 73 years.
Upon landing in New Orleans, I pushed Roland in his wheelchair off the plane’s ramp with Jerry walking alongside us with his camera. We entered the terminal at the Louis Armstrong International Airport and there Roland and the other WWII veterans were greeted with thunderous praise and cheering with hundreds, if not thousands of people showing their appreciation for the heroes. I watched as countless people came up to shake the veterans’ hands and thanked them for their service. During the long police escort through the airport, others looked on from a distance, held patriotic signs and smiled, or recorded the moment with their phones or snapped pictures. I was brought to the brink of a flood of tears when one woman came up directly to Roland during this hero’s welcome, took his hand and said, “I’m from Holland. I’m Dutch. Thank you.” During this whole ordeal, I expressed my amazement at the incredibly surreal moment by telling a classmate something along the lines of, “We get to experience all of this with these incredible heroes, and all we did was write an essay. We are crazy lucky to be here.”
We spent most of the day on Thursday, April 25, at the National WWII Museum and were treated to endless exhibits, videos, articles, artifacts, and more as we moved through the galleries. When we reached the floor dedicated to the Pacific Theater, we found an exhibit which featured the scenes of the war that transpired on tiny island of Guam. This moment was particularly touching as I was able to witness Roland and Jerry match up their primary source documentation from the scrapbook to the collaborating information on the plaque in the museum. Our hours at the museum were packed with dialogue across generations, the viewing of a riveting 4D Tom Hanks film, Beyond All Boundaries, reading about the war-torn world through each 1940’s inspired hall guided by the docents. For lunch in the early afternoon, sandwiched in between the many aforementioned events of the day, we were transported to the golden age of Stage Door Canteens where we enjoyed fine dining, the invaluable company of one another, and engaging entertainment that brought smiles, tears, and laughter to the room, courtesy of the Victory Belles.
The service the veterans were treated with the entire time was absolutely unparalleled. The airport employees in Cincinnati and New Orleans, American Airlines crews, the police escorts, bus drivers, Sheraton Hotel staff, Sinise Foundation workers, National World War II Museum staff and docents, and everyone else we interacted with gave the WWII heroes, their guardians and us students the experience of a lifetime. As McNicholas senior Jill Tore said, “This is first class treatment everywhere down here. I wouldn’t have it any other way for these fine gentlemen.”
These veterans deserved every bit of the celebrity treatment they received while on Soaring Valor, and so much more. Nothing we could ever do would sufficiently compensate for their sacrifice they made for us at a time when freedom was on the edge of extinction. Special Programs Manager at the National WWII Museum Tom Gibbs said to the vets, “If you guys hadn’t done the hard job 70 years ago, I wouldn’t have the job I have today.”
I believe I speak for each and every student that participated in Soaring Valor when I say I will be forever grateful to Gary Sinise, his foundation, all their sponsors, and certainly the heroes and their guardians who became our friends over the course of this life changing adventure. We teenagers who wake up to an alarm clock and go to class each morning, owe our deepest gratitude and respect to the men who were once our age arising each morning to the sounds of the battlefield and fiercely fought and ultimately overcame the forces of fascism, imperialism, and Nazism.