Vincent Calvagno first met David Marshall, a World War II veteran, at Oceanside High School where he was a student.
He met Marshall again Sunday at the Barry and Florence Friedberg Jewish Community Center in Oceanside, where Marshall and seven other WWII veterans were honored in a ceremony hosted by the Jewish War Veterans Post 717.
Calvagno, 18, graduated from high school this summer and is heading to Adelphi University to study history. Nearly 80 years ago in 1943, Marshall, then 18, was drafted into the Army to fight a war, a fact that did not escape the teenager.
“The bravery that he exhibited at such a young age, an age that I now know, is just unparalleled,” Calvagno said. “Words are not sufficient to speak about how brave he was.”
Marshall, 97, had a different take on bravery.
“I don’t know if I was brave. I did what I was told to do. I did what I had to do,” he said. “There's not a single soul in this world that's not afraid. … But you overcome it. You overcome it because if you're afraid and you act afraid, you're going to die because you will do things that are wrong.”
Before the pandemic, Marshall, of Baldwin went to speak to the high school students at least once a year and he used to tell them about the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major offensive campaign on the Western Front during the war.
Marshall carried a photo wallet that included the only photo of him in the war. In it, he was dropping a rocket in the mortar tube next to another solider in a foxhole in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, which lasted six weeks between December 1944 to January 1945.
But in the end, his message was not about the war but life.
“The only thing you can do in life is to do the best you can honestly and earnestly,” Marshall said. “That’s what I tried to get across to them.”
Calvagno, who plans to teach history one day, said it’s first-person accounts from veterans like Marshall that brings history alive.
“He is Exhibit A in how history is a human story,” Calvagno said. “While there's certainly a tendency to look at history as a procession of events on a textbook page, … I look, hopefully, to broaden history not just to that procession of events but rather a procession of people who have given their all to allow the world we live in today to exist.”
The other men honored Sunday were Arthur Feltheimer, Daniel Breier, Emil Kesselman, David Reisman, Herbert Alberg, Abraham Ring and Robert Schatz, according to John Robbins, commander of the post. Their ages ranged are from 95 through 100. Except Ring and Schatz, six veterans attended Sunday’s ceremony.
Breier, 98, of Lynbrook, came with his grandson, Myles Breier.
“I’m happy to be here to see my comrades, you know, people that served - not with me – but in World War II,” Breier said. “You don't find too many World War II [veterans] these days.”
Peter Hingle, 22, interviewed Breier, Feltheimer and Marshall and put together a short biography for each as part of Sunday’s program. Hingle, who lives in Rockland County, was connected to the veterans through his grandfather, George Israel, of Long Beach, who is a member of the post.
Hingle, who studied history in college and graduated from SUNY Oneonta in May, said he’s found it a special experience to speak to the veterans.
“These guys can get into great details because they're what drove the events of history,” he said. “The events of history are what happened to them. They lived through it.”