Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerRomain Serman

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerRomain Serman

The City honors its true heroes

Porfirio “Bill” Castillo has fond memories of San Francisco, and some not so fond.

The 88-year-old Manteca resident and Army veteran spent six months in the Presidio’s Letterman Hospital after the Silver Star recipient was wounded in combat in Europe during World War II.

On Monday, he was back in the Presidio — this time to receive a medal.

Castillo and six other veterans of World War II received the French Legion d’Honneur during Monday’s Memorial Day ceremonies at the former military base’s National Cemetery, with Mayor Ed Lee, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland and other local dignitaries on hand.

“When they told us we were going to be honored today, I said, ‘No. It’s been 69 years. How can I get honored like that?’” said Castillo, who stood in a light rain surrounded by his four sons. “But you know what? I’m happy to be alive, and I’m happy that I could participate.”

Castillo described his time as a machine-gunner who was given three combat stars on the frontlines in France, Belgium and Germany.

“When it came time to go forward, that’s what we did,” he said. “I have only one thing to do, and that’s to thank God that I’m here.”

Castillo’s fight is celebrated and well-remembered, but the same cannot be said for Bob Coffey’s war.

The fourth-generation San Franciscan, 82, served two tours of duty as a combat medic in the early 1950s — the second of which was spent on a cold, rocky peninsula in the Pacific, where Americans fought, and more than 36,000 died, against a dictator in order to keep a foreign people free.

The Korean War has become “The Forgotten War,” Cleland reminded the crowd — which included children clutching flags, barely taller than the whitewashed grave markers they stood among.

However, Monday’s ceremonies were intended to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of that war, and a new memorial to Korean War veterans is expected to be dedicated later this summer. It could not come sooner for many.

“Many of us,” said Wallace Levin, the longtime organizer of Monday’s ceremonies, “will not make the 70th.”

Coffey said he and his fellow combatants were defending South Koreans because of North Korean aggression, and were engaged in fighting with the Chinese.

That scenario might feel familiar today, with some of the 1.4 million American men and women serving in the military posted at the 38th Parallel in South Korea and a nuclear-armed North Korea “acting up again,” as Pelosi put it during her brief remarks Monday.

But perhaps that is the price of being born under the flag.

“As Americans, we believe that some things are worth fighting for,” said retired Army Gen. Walter L. Sharp. “And we believe that some things are worth dying for.”


Bay Area NewsLocalMemorial DaySan Francisco

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