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Navy veteran, 95, from Long Island honored for WWII service in Okinawa

Retired Capt. Steve Gilmore greets William Gomez, right,

Retired Capt. Steve Gilmore greets William Gomez, right, who was honored Saturday on the museum aircraft carrier USS Midway in San Diego for his service in the Navy during World War II. Credit: Liam Alexander

He wore the navy blue cap saying "WWII Veteran," which he's put on every day for years. He wore the ring with the blue-and-white logo of Grumman, where he helped build the lunar module that landed on the moon.

On Saturday, William Gómez, now 95 and who largely gets around in a wheelchair, received another adornment of honor as he received a pin commemorating his military service on the island of Okinawa during World War II.

The former resident of Brentwood and Bay Shore, now in a San Diego elder care facility, was given the pin in a ceremony on the flight deck of the now-retired USS Midway aircraft carrier docked in San Diego.

"Being honored — it's a treasure," Gómez said of the ceremony, a joint venture between Sharp Hospice Care, which is overseeing Gómez's care, and the nonprofit We Honor Veterans. "I'm glad that I served, and I was proud to serve. I did the best I could."

Gómez was in the Navy Seabees, the construction battalion that built barracks and other structures on Okinawa as the Allies were taking control of the island from Japan. The Battle of Okinawa was among the bloodiest ground battles of the war, remembered in military circles as the "typhoon of steel," and has since been a critical strategic location for the United States.

"It was a beautiful island," Gómez recalled. "We helped [the islanders] in every way we could. It's the American way."

With the morning sun shining across the USS Midway deck, which stretches the length of three football fields, Gómez was accompanied by his son who lives locally, his daughter, who flew in from the Long Island hamlet of Bayport, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Retired Navy Capt. Steve Gilmore offered a crisp salute as he presented Gómez with the circular pin with a "V" for veteran in the center.

Gail Gómez-Hake said she viewed the ceremony as the coming together of the lines of her father's life. During his Brooklyn boyhood, Gómez helped out in his father's hardware store, where he came to love using tools. That love steered him to the Navy construction battalion after he was drafted in his high school senior year in October of 1944. He went to Okinawa in 1945.

The daughter recalled hearing his stories of the war, including when he would go swimming in the waters off Okinawa and hear bullets whooshing by overhead.

Was he scared?

"No," he said. "I went every night swimming. Eventually I got used to it."

After returning to civilian life in 1946, Gómez married a girl from his old Brooklyn neighborhood, who had been dating his older brother, but who Gómez fell for when he saw her in a red dress. When his brother and the girl parted, Gómez dated and married her in 1949.

He and his wife, Olga, moved to Brentwood in about 1954, where he built his own home with the help of his cousins, said Gómez-Hake, 70. He worked at Republic Aviation in Farmingdale and then Grumman in Bethpage, serving both as a tool designer.

Grumman was in its heyday in the 1960s, employing thousands of Long Islanders who worked on the lunar module that would be used in the Apollo 11 moon landing. The moon landing remains among humanity's greatest achievements and serves as an immense point of pride for Long Islanders.

"We watched it on the news, sitting with the family, my father brimming over with pride," said Gómez-Hake of the moon landing in 1969.

Gómez retained the SeaBees attitude of being able to build or fix anything. His son, William Edward Gómez, said that when the family moved to Bay Shore in the early 1960s, his father was the only one in the neighborhood who owned a cement mixer.

"There was always a patio to be poured, or a basketball court to be laid," said William Edward Gómez, who is 66 and lives in San Diego.

Gómez also continued his commitment to public service, serving, at various periods, as a fire department captain and Boy Scout troop leader.

Gómez's wife died in 2019, shortly before the couple's 70th anniversary, family members said.

Gómez's grandson, Liam Alexander, stood with the family on the deck of the Midway on Saturday, surrounded by flags and vintage aircraft. He watched as an American flag, which had been flown over the ship, was presented to his grandfather.

"He was just a kid from Brooklyn, a Puerto Rican kid," said Alexander, 40, an artist who splits his time between New York City and Los Angeles. "He's lived an amazing life."

The grandson added, with a bit of humor, "He's been wearing that World War II hat my entire life."

For Gómez, who has dementia and lives in a memory care unit, the ceremony was a special moment of recognition for himself and others of the Greatest Generation who risked their lives to help save the world, and whose numbers are dwindling by the day.

Afterward, Gómez returned to elder care home, still wearing his new pin.

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