Andrew Paretti Jr. is an 86-year-old World War II veteran, and he doesn’t think he’s a hero. Nor did he want to go on an Honor Flight when his friend, John Young, a retired Navy captain he met in the Navy League, first suggested it.
“Those are for the heroes,” he said. Still, Young persisted for three years, and finally accompanied Paretti as a guardian on a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight two weeks ago to see the National World War II memorial.
Saturday, hundreds of other World War II veterans will take an expenses paid Stars and Stripes Honor Flight to Washington D.C. to visit their memorials, accompanied by volunteer guardians.
“The highlight of the trip was when we got home," Parett said. "When we passed security, they had close to 3,000 people there to greet us. It was a solid wall of people, shaking hands and this and that. An unbelievable greeting. That got to me. It takes something to get to me."
As for the day in Washington D.C., Paretti said he had seen the other war memorials, such as the Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial and the Korean War Memorial during the four years he served at the Pentagon. He’d never seen the National World War II Memorial.
“It’s quite a memorial to see – it’s huge,” he said.
There were 200 veterans on Paretti’s honor flight, and with an average age of 92, most were in wheelchairs or used walkers.
“It was commendable to see these older guys out there," Paretti said. "The guardians should get credit for what they did. They had their work cut out for them and they couldn’t do a better job.”
Paretti was only 20 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was in Manhattan College in New York City, his hometown, and could have finished his degree in another semester if he chose. But Paretti’s "old man" was in the Navy in World War I, and so following his sense of duty, “I figured I better get in there,” he said. He left for the war at the end of 1944.
Paretti was stationed in Okinawa as the assistant company commander in the fourteenth Naval construction battalion. The Battle of Okinawa had more casualties for the U.S. Navy than any other battle in the war.
“The kamikaze attacks were always coming. I thought the island was gonna sink if they put any more stuff in it,” Paretti said.
Paretti’s battalion was building Tengan Ammunition Pier. “We almost had it completed, and then two typhoons came and destroyed everything we did. Peace was declared shortly after though and it didn’t matter,” he said. “We were lucky we were alive. We lost more Navy ships from the typhoon than from the war.”
Paretti came out of the war unscathed, except for “just a little case of malaria, and later some broken ribs’” when he ran over land mines in a jeep. “They taped me up in Guam and sent me back,” he said.
“When peace was declared, they went crazy on Okinawa, firing shots in the air,” he said.
Soon after, in September 1946, he met his wife, Maria, who was attending Georgian Court College 10 miles away from where Paretti was stationed in Lakehurst, NJ.
“They would send letters to well-behaved naval men and invite them to tea,” Paretti said. “The nuns would be watching from the balcony with an evil eye.” Paretti married Maria in 1952. The family moved to Milwaukee in 1981 when Paretti got a job with the deep tunnel project under the city. In 1984, they settled down in Fox Point. They were married for 57 years. Sadly, Maria passed away two years ago. She is lovingly remembered by Paretti, their children Andrew III, Stella, Frank, and her grandchildren.
Paretti served his country not only in World War II, but again when he was called back to active duty at the Pentagon from 1971 to 1975. “That was a shockaroo,” he said. Reluctant to open mail from the Navy after the war was over, Paretti had forgotten to sign himself out of the reserve back in 1947.
While Paretti doesn’t see himself as a hero, he praised the program that is providing World War II vets the opportunity to see the monument in their honor.
“All World War II veterans should do the Honor Flight,” Paretti said.