When he was a child, Joseph Brocato watched as American soldiers rolled into his hometown in Sicily.
While the Americans had taken over his homeland with the Allied forces, he said, they were welcome guests.
“They were the most noble, the most giving and the most caring,” said Brocato, who was born in Italy in 1938. “They really were great ambassadors.”
His experience with the American soldiers during World War II stayed with him a lifetime. And Thursday, more than 70 years after Allied forces launched their famous Italian Campaign, Brocato was able to honor some of those American World War II veterans in a unique gathering.
More than 100 local World War II vets, ranging in age from 88 to 98, were invited to a luncheon at the San Luis Obispo Country Club, where they were saluted and praised for their service. Many of the vets arrived wearing hats commemorating their branch of the service. Some wore decorated uniforms.
Many moved with walkers and canes.
“The sad reality is that these guys are passing away,” said Dana Cummings, director of San Luis Obispo County Veterans Services. “If we don’t do this now, there’s not going to be an opportunity to do it.”
That’s what Brocato was thinking last spring, when he came up with the idea to honor the veterans. A corporate executive and business consultant who served in the Navy during the Cuban missile crisis, Brocato contacted Cummings about reaching out to local World War II vets.
“I have a database of 16,000 local vets right now,” Cummings said. “So I went there and I pulled out all of my World War II guys.”
After coming up with 2,000 names — which doesn’t include every local World War II vet, only the ones his office has dealt with — Cummings tried to verify which ones were still alive. Then he sent out 926 postcards. Those contacted were asked to reach out to Brocato.
“We started out very modestly and thought we’d get about 20,” said Brocato, who was aided by his wife, Diane. “We ended up with about 105.”
Two of the vets that had planned to attend the luncheon died before it happened — a sobering reminder of the history lost. Nationwide, Cummings said, 1,000 to 1,500 World War II vets die daily.
“Most of these men and women, when they came home, they just came home and went back to work,” Cummings said. “They didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t a big deal. They didn’t want to be heroes or anything like that.”
Arranging the luncheon not only allowed the vets to share their stories with each other, but also with Brocato, who witnessed soldiers occupy his country as a child and later became a U.S. naval officer as an adult.
“I’ve had the chance to see the American military from both sides,” he said.
When the Allied forces landed in Sicily in 1943, they claimed their first major piece of Axis land. Meanwhile, Sicily would become an important base for the invasion of Italy and a training ground for many who would later land on the beaches of Normandy.
The Brocato family moved to America in 1946, just after the war.
“We landed in Jersey City,” said Brocato, whose son, Vincent, traveled from Baltimore to attend the luncheon. “From day one, I never looked back.”
His event, attended by a who’s who of local officials, included a keynote speech by Brigadier Gen. Steven Garland, who said 11.2 percent of Americans served during World War II.
“Rest assured, you left your mark,” Garland told the vets.
Two weeks before Veterans Day, Brocato told the vets their stories are worth repeating. Meanwhile, their sacrifices, he said, are worth remembering.
“These are the men and women of a generation that lost their innocence and saved the world,” he said. “They gave up their dreams, their aspirations — and some all their tomorrows — so that we could inherit the bounty of liberty and freedom.”