Four Central Coast veterans who fought in World War II were honored Saturday at an event that also served as a sendoff for a Douglas C-47B aircraft headed for the Normandy coast of France to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Veterans B.J. Galvan, Sal Perez, Abby Ramirez, Jim Kunkle Sr. and Bindo Stasi Grasso stood during the informal ceremony inside the Art Craft Paint hangar, where the C-47 nicknamed Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber with freshly painted “invasion stripes” and U.S. Army Air Corps insignia was parked just outside.
Echo Group/Band of Brothers, Boots-N-Chutes All Airborne, Art Craft Paint Inc., the Estrella Warbirds Museum, Santa Barbara County Parks Department and the Santa Maria Public Airport joined forces to organize the free event that included a tri-tip barbecue and drew about 200 people.
“This is a great thing — and nicely done,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, who was among those attending. “It’s a great piece of history here.”
Band of Brothers President Steve Baird, of Orcutt, who served as master of ceremonies, told the crowd he woke up not feeling well and considered not attending.
“There were some incredible feats in World War II, and I thought about those jumpers standing in back and hooking up [their static lines] to that cable,” Baird said. “I thought what it would be like to come down and hit the ground, being separated from your team and taking fire. I couldn’t imagine that.”
He said if those veterans could do that, he could certainly show up to the event when he wasn’t feeling well.
“I stood there and looked at that plane and I got kind of emotional,” Baird said about the C-47 parked outside, adding the hangar they were in was used for Army Air Corps training. “She is from here. This is her home port.”
Stephanie Tracy, who’s in charge of events for Echo Group/Band of Brothers, urged the crowd to take advantage of the opportunity to honor World War II veterans, noting their number is dwindling.
“We want everyone to take the time to hear their stories and partake in the history that’s here today,” she said.
Perez, a paratrooper during the war, said he jumped into battle three times from C-47s, including near Bayeux, during the D-Day invasion and again in Holland. He was also at Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.
“When I jumped, there were 18 of us (in each plane),” Perez said as he stood looking up at Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber. “Now when they jump, there are 300.”
After a 51-year career with the Army, Perez, who lives in Santa Barbara, recently received the French Legion of Honor, that nation’s highest award to civilian and military individuals for their achievements and service to the country.
Grasso, a Guadalupe resident and another paratrooper who was at Bastogne, said he believes he jumped from the plane now known as Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber, because he has a photo of himself standing in its doorway.
He said he made three combat jumps during World War II, including at Normandy and in southern France near Nice, but he said he can’t remember when or where he jumped from that particular aircraft.
Grasso is apparently the last living Pathfinder — one of three men who parachuted behind enemy lines the night before the invasion to set up beacons to guide the troops that would follow on D-Day.
“We jumped in the night before behind Ste. Mere Eglise,” Grasso recalled. “In the morning, we set up the beacons, and then we set up barricades on the roads so the Germans couldn’t bring up reinforcements.
“Joe was killed the next day,” Grasso said. “John and I lived through it. I heard John just recently died. I guess I’m the last one.”
Grasso said he’s often asked how many Germans he killed. He always replies that he has no idea, because he might have shot at an enemy soldier 200 yards away and would never know if he hit the man. Plus, he didn’t keep count.
“I guess I was scared, but you have guys jumping all around you and you’re all excited,” he said of his combat jumps. “Plus I was young, and I didn’t really think about that. I just played it day to day.”
Just before his last jump into Germany, Grasso said his captain told him he had enough points to rotate out of the service. He said he only needed 113, and Grosso had 127.
The captain sent in his paperwork, and after the war ended, Grasso was sent back to New York. He had been born in New Jersey, but when they asked where he’d like to be discharged, he said California.
He went to San Pedro to be discharged, but his paperwork couldn’t be found. Eventually, he was given a 10-day furlough while they looked for his records.
Grasso moved to Guadalupe, got married, started a business, had three children, adopted two others and now has 25 grandchildren, 32 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.
Eleven years ago, while attending a veterans clinic in Santa Maria, he decided maybe he should get his discharge, and eventually his records were located.
“I got discharged 65 years after I got out of the service,” he said with a laugh.
Grasso’s granddaughter Stacy Moody, of Orcutt, a Band of Brothers member and combat veteran of Desert Storm, said she is currently working on getting a French Legion of Honor medal for him, too.
“He was at the Battle of Bastogne, and he is the last living Pathfinder,” she said.