More than six decades later, Gaeta, 85, received the recognition he was due for his wartime service in the U.S. Navy when two Long Island congressmen yesterday presented him with several medals at his Commack home.
Gaeta's wife, three children and three of his grandchildren clapped and cheered as Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) awarded Gaeta the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon and the World War II Victory Medal.
"I can't think of any more fitting time than this weekend to present Frank with a 64-year-overdue recognition," said Israel, who also gave Gaeta a U.S. flag that had flown over the Capitol.
For Gaeta, a retired Metropolitan Transportation Authority mechanic, the medals - and the visit from the congressmen - came as a complete surprise. His family had told him a few relatives would be stopping by.
"I'm really overwhelmed. I never expected this," Gaeta said of the recognition. "I'm so proud of it, but I didn't even realize I was entitled to them, to be truthful."
Gaeta, a quartermaster 2nd class aboard the USS Scurry, enlisted in the Navy in 1943 at age 17. A native of Corona, Queens, Gaeta was working with his father in a winery after graduating from high school when a childhood friend was killed in action in Germany. That's what Gaeta said called him to action. "I was just doing my job," he said.
During Gaeta's three-year record of service aboard the USS Scurry, the ship cleared the way for landings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, according to a U.S. Navy website. After the war, the vessel cleared mines outside Nagasaki and ferried prisoners of war to safety, according to the website.
His daughter, Rhonda Blair, 55, of Ronkonkoma, said that like so many World War II veterans, Gaeta kept mum about much of his experience in the service. He did tell her about how his Catholic faith carried him through treacherous times.
"All he did was pray," she said. "That's what got him through the war."
Gaeta's family feared that as his health declined he might never know what accolades he deserved. So his daughter-in-law, Ellen Gaeta, who had unearthed a few photographs of Gaeta in his sailor's uniform, wrote to Bishop for help. After research, they determined that Gaeta was entitled to an Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with three stars for his participation in four battles.
"He was very quiet about it when I was much younger," said his granddaughter, Samantha Gaeta, 19, one of his five grandchildren. "I'm extremely proud of him."