A kid from the Bronx, one of five children born to parents who'd emigrated from Poland in 1912, Arthur Grabiner was a 16-year-old student at James Monroe High School listening to the New York Giants football game that Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 — the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
What did he know about bombs, about war?
"What did I know," Grabiner, 97, of Flushing, Queens, said Thursday, "about how my life was going to change."
Two years later, World War II raging in Europe and in the Pacific, Grabiner would be drafted — and he joined the U.S. Navy. Six months later, he was at sea, a yeoman aboard a 455-foot-long, single-screw amphibious attack-transport named the USS Laurens, out of Oakland, California, — bound for Dutch New Guinea and later New Caledonia.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Almost a dozen Dream Flights took veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam on 20-minute trips out of Republic Airport on Thursday.
- The Dream Flights were flown on a World War II-era Boeing PT 17 Stearman biplane trainer out of the East Farmingdale airport.
- Based out of Carson City, Nevada, Dream Flights is a national organization dedicated to honoring veterans with a free flight on their biplanes as a thank you for their service.
Over the next two years, Grabiner and his ship would be involved in the invasion and liberation of the Philippines, the invasion of Okinawa and tasked with bringing Japanese translators to postwar Japan. He'd see ships in his battle group hit by Japanese kamikazes, see ships sink.
See men killed.
All of which, Grabiner said, made him even more grateful to be honored with a handful of other military veterans Thursday as part of a series of Dream Flights on a World War II-era Boeing PT 17 Stearman biplane trainer out of Republic Airport in East Farmingdale. Based out of Carson City, Nevada, Dream Flights is a national organization dedicated to honoring veterans with a free flight on their biplanes as a thank you for their service.
On Thursday, Dream Flights pilot Jeff Klosky, an American Airlines pilot and former U.S. Air Force pilot based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, flew almost a dozen 20-minute flights out of Republic, taking up veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
"We do a little because you did a lot," Klosky, who flew a U2 spy plane for the Air Force out of Europe, the Middle East and South Korea, told a delighted Grabiner after his flight.
"It was wonderful," Grabiner said. "I can't compare this to my first time on a ship, though. … On the ship, I was putting my life at risk — and here, I was getting an appreciation of my life. This just shows life is worth living."
Among the veterans on hand for Dream Flights on Thursday were a number of residents of Brandywine Senior Living facilities serving Long Island.
John Sarar, 91, was born in Croatia and served in the U.S. Navy. Paul Dean, 86, was in the U.S. Air Force. Gordon Nesbitt served 20 years in the Army during Korea and Vietnam, while James Haropulous, 92, was in the Marines during the Korean War. Gaetano Macchia and Joseph Reiher were in the Army. Philip Levine served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.
Filmore Frank was on the nuclear missile submarine USS Theodore Roosevelt. He served from 1958-62, the height of the Cold War.
"We were off Russia for a while," he said with a wink. "We kept the world safe."
For his part aboard the USS Laurens, Grabiner was awarded two Asiatic Pacific medal stars, a Philippine Liberation ribbon, a Philippines Presidential Unit citation, and American Theatre medal, a Navy Occupation Service medal and a World War II Victory medal. A postwar CPA, he raised two sons — one, Douglas, was on hand for the Dream Flight — and now has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He still talks to students worldwide about his military experience. He's spoken to students at a number of Long Island schools, as well, including Herrick High School, Syosset High School and Great Neck South Middle School.
"Before the Navy," Grabiner said, "my world was 20 blocks north, 20 blocks east, 20 blocks west and 20 blocks south of where I lived in the Bronx. And, when I first went to war, all I could think was, 'I'm a hero.' That was what was built into us, the propaganda that was fed us."
And now? "Now," Grabiner said, "my perspective is, War is terrible. People are killed, maimed, and I was lucky I got out unscathed … It makes me realize how wonderful life is."