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World War II veterans from LI mark victory over Germany

Santo Squillacioti, 93, of Smithtown, is greeted by

Santo Squillacioti, 93, of Smithtown, is greeted by Airforce Master Sgt. Shawn Wilkins on May 3, 2014. Credit: Sandy Schaeffer

WASHINGTON

Santo Squillacioti rose haltingly from a wheelchair to gaze across the granite expanse of the nation's World War II Memorial.

On the circular courtyard's northern edge was a pavilion dedicated to the European conflict, which swallowed so much of his youth.

"I think about the war every day, but I don't talk about it," whispered Squillacioti, 93, of Smithtown, his eyes distant. "The battles. The casualties. Burying your friends. . . . Looking for dog tags in the trees."

Squillacioti was among about 60 veterans from the Long Island area who visited war memorials in advance of Thursday's 69th anniversary of Germany's surrender to the Allies. They were flown to Washington last weekend by Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit group.

"V-E Day was the greatest day in the world," Squillacioti said Sunday.

On May 8, 1945, some 4 million American service members were deployed to Europe, North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Fewer than a million of them are believed to be alive today.

Squillacioti said defeating the Nazis ended the surreal alternating he endured between terror and monotony.

Drafted into the Army in 1941, he became a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. Five days before V-E Day, he was in Hamburg, Germany, where house-to-house combat raged.

He was more exhausted than elated when he heard about the surrender.

"I just wanted to go home," said Squillacioti, who moved to Long Island in the 1950s.

Honor Flight organizers say they arranged the Washington memorials tour to show appreciation for the more than 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, including in the Pacific, where the war continued until August 1945. Their ranks are thinning rapidly: About 550 of those veterans die each day, advocates say.

Volunteers helped escort the veterans, all of whom were in their 80s or 90s, many in wheelchairs.

Cathy Worwetz volunteered to honor her mother, Anne Santacroce, an Army nurse who served during the Battle of the Bulge. Santacroce wanted to make the trip herself but died two years ago.

"This is my first time, but it won't be my last," said Worwetz, of Bridgehampton. "It is so emotional."

Joining the tour was Ira Sunshine, 88, of Woodmere, who flew 33 missions over Europe as a nose-gunner on a B-17. He remembered assuring a fellow airman he had beaten at cards that his luck would turn.

"I said tomorrow will be your day, but his tomorrow never came," Sunshine said sadly. "He was shot down; had a wife who was pregnant. He was about to be a father."

Helen Beitter, 89, of East Meadow -- the veteran Worwetz escorted -- recalled being on Broadway in Manhattan as word spread that Germany had surrendered. Jubilant people spilled into the streets.

"They were screaming, yelling, celebrating. It was a fantastic day," she said.

The Bronx native enlisted in the Women's Army Corps and wound up doing filing work for what would become known as the Manhattan Project -- top-secret development of the A-bomb.

For her, V-E Day couldn't come soon enough.

Five of her friends died in combat, she said, and an uncle came home with wounds that eventually killed him, too.

"It was such a relief," she said of the end of war in Europe. "It was such a long, long war."

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