'Here I am': Redondo Beach WWII veteran is oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor

'Here I am':  Redondo Beach WWII veteran is oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor

Joseph Eskenazi, the oldest living survivor of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, was told by his doctor that a heart condition would prevent him from flying on an airplane to attend a ceremony this week at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

That didn’t deter the Army veteran from Redondo Beach, even as he approaches his 105th birthday.

Eskenazi made it to the museum, where he and eight other veterans were honored and shared stories about their service, thanks to a cross-country train ride with Amtrak, funded by the Soaring Valor Program through the Gary Sinise Foundation.

“The train ride rocked a little bit and threw me around,” Eskenazi said with a laugh from his hotel room in New Orleans on Friday.

About 81 years ago, Eskenazi was nearly thrown out of his bed at 8 a.m. while he was stationed at Schofield Barracks, about 17 miles from Pearl Harbor.

Pfc. Eskenazi was 18 years old. As he ran outside, he watched a low-flying Japanese airplane drop a bomb about 150 feet away. It did not detonate, but another Japanese plane strafed the barracks and killed his friend as the friend ran from a mess hall.

A commanding officer arrived on a motorcycle and asked for volunteers. He needed someone to drive a bulldozer and clear bombed-out railroad tracks so soldiers could move heavy equipment and repair the airfield.

“My hand went up right away,” Eskenazi said. But while he was in the vehicle, one last plane strafed him and machine gun fire erupted around him. He was not hit.

“This was an act of God, because I came so close to getting wiped out,” he said.

Over 2,300 soldiers were killed in the attack, which eventually forced the United States into the second World War.

Over the years, Eskenazi has not shared much about that day.

Eskenazi’s daughter, Belinda Eskenazi Mastrangelo, 68, remembers growing up with a father who kept mum about the war.

When Eskenazi and his wife, Vickie, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Hawaii with his family in 1997, Mastrangelo said her father did not want to visit the war memorial at Pearl Harbor.

“Even after all that time, he didn’t want to talk about it,” said Mastrangelo, who accompanied her father on his trip to the National World War II Museum.

It’s not unusual for veterans to keep quiet about their time in the war, but there’s something about being in the museum that allows them to open up, said actor Gary Sinise, whose organization brings WWII veterans to the museum built in their honor. The Gary Sinise Foundation has helped raise millions for organizations and causes dedicated to serving U.S. military men and women and their families.

“So many times when walking through the museum, the veterans will start to talk and their family members will tell us that they had never heard some of the stories that came out during the trip,” Sinise said. “We are fortunate right now that we still have veterans of World War II living among us.”

Sinise was first introduced to the museum by actor Tom Hanks, who starred in the WWII movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Sinise later arranged for his uncle Jack Sinise to be interviewed by a historian at the museum and share his own experience as a navigator aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress.

“I thought that every single family of a World War II veteran should have something like this,” Sinise said.

Eskenazi was born in New York and his Sephardic Jewish family moved to Puebla, Mexico, when he was 7. He enlisted in the U.S. Army several months before Pearl Harbor was attacked. He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but knew that he wanted to travel.

“I wanted to live a life of adventure,” said Eskenazi, who will celebrate his 105th birthday on Jan. 30.

While at the museum, he and the other veterans were honored in a ceremony and had their oral histories added to the museum’s archives, which includes 12,000 personal accounts from the war, according to museum spokesperson Keith Darcey.

During the ceremony, Eskenazi was joined by his family, including his great-grandson, who is about to turn 5, and his 1-year-old great-granddaughter. He expects to make the trek back home by train.

“It was wonderful being there,” Eskenazi said. “Everybody would congratulate me and they would say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I never expected all of this, but here I am.”