NEWFIELD — World War II veteran Gus Siciliano could hardly contain his emotions on Saturday afternoon as he raised two flags in front of his house in this rural Gloucester County community.
Siciliano, 92, of East Weymouth Road, raised Old Glory and a black POW-MIA flag. He hadn’t been able to raise them since a summertime storm took down his flag pole.
“The big storm tore down his flagpole, and he was upset. This is our gift to him,” said Faridah Jones, 50, of Glassboro.
Siciliano, who suffers from mesothelioma and brings a portable oxygen bottle with him everywhere he goes, has been a patient of Jones, who works for South Jersey Hospicecare in Salem, for two years. Jones knew how proud Siciliano was of his service with the U.S. Army Air Corps, including serving time in a German prison camp, and knew how he loved his flags. She contacted a group called Twilight Wish to get Siciliano a new flagpole.
More than 50 people, many of them veterans, saluted Siciliano as he stood next to his new flagpole on Saturday. There was a short pause. It seems Siciliano thought somebody else would raise the flags.
“Gus, you’re going to raise your own flags, sir,” said Richard Resh, of the group Warriors’ Watch.
Siciliano grabbed the rope and started pulling.
“This is one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had. I just can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it,” Siciliano said.
The new 25-foot flagpole was made possible by Twilight Wish, a national nonprofit organization with 12 chapters in 10 states that grants wishes for low-income senior citizens deserving of such help. They must be over 68 years old. Recipients, more than 1,760 of them since 2003, are not just veterans.
“These are low-income seniors who give back to their community,” said Jan Stumpf of the Twilight Wish chapter in Doylestown, Pa.
Siciliano gave back to his community in World War II. A tail-gunner in a B-17, he was shot down over Germany and spent a year in a prison camp.
“He escaped twice and got caught,” said Helen Siciliano, his wife of 60 years.
He escaped once though a latrine trench but was caught. A second time was when the Russians were coming and the Germans marched the prisoners away from the camp.
“We have our freedom because of you. Thank you sir,” said Resh.
Siciliano was modest about his service.
“We just went to do a job, and when we came home we went to work. Something like this is just icing on the cake,” Siciliano said.
Stumpf said the Doylestown chapter put the word out over the Internet about the request, and it only took a couple days to raise the money. The chapter is supported by the Bucks County Service Industry Charities, a group of restaurant workers including bartenders and servers.
At the time of the request Resh happened to be doing some work at Stumpf’s house and pledged to get Warriors’ Watch groups in New Jersey and Pennsylvania involved. Many arrived on Saturday on motorcycles.
Resh presented Siciliano with a POW-MIA coin. Dutch Rievley, of Warriors’ Watch and retired from the U.S. Air Force, presented Siciliano with military beads of different colors. Red represented the blood the soldiers spilled defending their country. White is the purity of their cause. Black represented POW-MIA soldiers. Gold represented gold star families.
“Blue stands for the blue field of our American flag, selected by our founding fathers to represent heaven and freedom of religion the nation was founded on,” said Rievley.
Siciliano also received proclamations and numerous salutes.
“I salute you as a hero,” said Resh.
“Once a soldier, always a soldier,” said Siciliano.
The old veteran saluted his flags before returning to his house.