WWII Vets & WHS Students Develop Strong Bond

WWII Vets & WHS Students Develop Strong Bond

For 20 Wantagh High School students, accompanying their country’s greatest heroes to the National World War II Museum was the honor of a lifetime. Juniors and seniors were paired with World War II veterans for a trip to New Orleans from April 19-21, and it was an experience they will never forget. 

The Soaring Valor program is sponsored by the Gary Sinise Foundation to bring World War II veterans to the museum that was built in their honor. The opportunity became available to Wantagh High School in March and despite the tight time frame, it came together very quickly. Principal Dr. Paul Guzzone said within 48 hours of the announcement, 53 students submitted essays expressing their desire to attend. 

“We knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Dr. Guzzone said. “At its core, the program is to honor the service of these heroes, who put everything on the line at the age that our students are now.”

Senior Lilly Sloves expressed interest in attending because she wanted the experience of meeting World War II veterans. She was also inspired by her older brother, who visited the museum last year.

Each veteran was paired with one student from Wantagh High School and one from Lake George High School. Lilly’s veteran hails from Manhattan and at nearly 98 years old works as a Big Apple greeter. They sat together on the plane and were able to get to know each other before arriving in New Orleans. She was struck by his stories, especially how he helped free Japanese prisoners in the Philippines after the war ended.

Angelina LaMacchia’s veteran was 96 years old and she said that they have kept in touch since the trip, texting daily. She recalls his story about being a deep-sea diver while stationed off the coast of Texas. With an uncle who was in the Marines in the Vietnam era, Angelina has deep respect for those who served in the United States military. She applied for the Soaring Valor trip because she knew a chance to meet World War II veterans would never come around again. 

Ryan Arbeit was paired with the oldest veteran on the trip, a 102-year-old from Maine who was a Navy pilot dive bomber and flew off the USS Ticonderoga. He noted that his veteran was very warm and witty, and told stories with great detail. When he got home, he shared many of those stories with his family and friends. 

“They were just so humble,” Ryan said of the veterans. “They made tremendous sacrifices. They didn’t have to do it, but they did do it. We wouldn’t have the world we live in without them.”

Sean Browne’s veteran was a 98-year-old from North Carolina. He said they quickly developed a strong bond and Sean was able to hear many stories from his veteran, including his time on a transport ship from Boston to Japan. Sean noted that his veteran was particularly thrilled to see a picture of one of the ships he was on at the museum. 

“Even though it was only two days, you really got to form a relationship with your veteran,” Sean said. 

After a dinner on April 18 in Hauppauge, students departed early the next morning from Wantagh High School. They arrived at MacArthur Airport for a chartered flight with their veterans and chaperones. Students were amazed by the huge display of patriotism, from bagpipe players to a gathering of veterans from other eras to simple applause from other airport patrons.  

“It made you realize how big of a deal it was,” Lilly said.

In New Orleans, the students visited the seven-building museum with the veterans. There was a performance by the Victory Belles, who sang popular 1940s songs, and a 4D movie experience that documented the war. Students and their veterans toured museum exhibits, which focused on different aspects of the war including the conflicts in Europe and the Pacific and notable moments like D-Day. 

Students said that the trip put their own lives into perspective. Recognizing that the veterans were fighting a war at their age, the stresses of school pale in comparison.

“We’re lucky to have this be our struggle, that I’m 18 years old and not having to go off and fight in a war,” Ryan said.

The students said it was gratifying to know how much their presence meant to the World War II heroes. Angelina said the hardest part of the trip was saying goodbye to her veteran on the last day. 

“Hearing how much I meant to him was life-changing,” she said. 

The 20 students were accompanied by eight chaperones – Dr. Guzzone, Superintendent John McNamara, Assistant Principal Dr. Christopher Widmann, Director of Humanities Julie Rosslee, social worker Iris McNulty-Kline and teachers William Jackson, Deanna Pepe and Maria Prisco.

Mr. McNamara thanked the Gary Sinise Foundation for providing this opportunity to Wantagh students, and said it was the best field trip he has ever been on. 

“It was a great privilege to be a part of it,” he said. “Our students got so much out of the trip. To be able to experience the World War II Museum with a World War II veteran was eye-opening for our students. I was so proud of how they interacted and engaged with our veterans.”

Wantagh provided the veterans with several gifts. The school gave each a “mail call” booklet with messages of gratitude from students, staff and residents, as well as a Wantagh hat with an American flag “W.” The Wantagh Foundation for Education Excellence gifted each veteran a mug, and the Booster Club gave them Wantagh shirts. 

“Our students were outstanding,” Dr. Guzzone said. “They were compassionate and eager to learn. They really made the veterans feel special.”