Honoring our veterans (VIDEO/PHOTO GALLERY)
Grass Valley gathers to celebrate 100-year-old World War II veteran
When 100-year-old World War II veteran resident Joe Durkin was asked what the secret was to living to 100, his reply was blunt.
“Just don’t die,” Durkin quipped.
On Wednesday morning at the veteran’s residence in Grass Valley, family, friends, public officials, and fellow veterans gathered to celebrate Durkin’s 100th birthday. As the event kicked off, members of the American Legion Frank Gallino Post 130 conducted a procession of military vehicles, packed full of veterans anxious to meet and salute Durkin in person.
Among those in attendance was American Legion Commander Claude Hessel, who shook Durkin’s hand and thanked him for his service on behalf of the legion. Grass Valley Mayor Ben Aguilar also attended, wishing Durkin a happy birthday and handing him an honorary pair of keys to the city.
Durkin, who has lived in Grass Valley since the end of World War II, also received multiple certificates for service to the city of Grass Valley — one bestowed by a representative of U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa and another by Robin Davies, executive director for the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Born in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, in 1921, Durkin later moved to Grass Valley with his mother and younger brother, and was ultimately drafted into the Army in 1942.
Durkin said that his entire unit that shipped out to war in September 1942 mistakenly thought that they were going to Europe to fight against Nazi Germany. Instead, Durkin ended up in the Pacific theater of the war, fighting the Japanese in numerous island campaigns, including a series of battles in the Philippines.
In 1944, Durkin said that he narrowly escaped death when Japanese “kamikaze” planes launched a wave of suicide attacks on U.S. ships during the battle for Mindoro, one of the Philippine isles. Surviving this engagement, he ultimately ran into his younger brother on the Philippine isle of Leyte. While catching up aboard his brother’s docked ship, the elder Durkin brother said he narrowly avoided going AWOL from his unit when he failed to notice that his brother’s ship was leaving port.
Moving back to Grass Valley after the war, Durkin worked various construction jobs, including a job setting up poles for a phone company, and ultimately married his wife Frances Johnson in 1947, with whom he had four children.
His wife died in 2013 after nearly 70 years of marriage, but all of Durkin’s children are alive and live in the area, according to family friend Janeth Marroletti.
Marroletti works for Meals on Wheels, a national program that provides meals to seniors such as Durkin.
On Wednesday, in addition to military veterans from different branches, police officers, public officials, and family friends, various community residents came from around the county to celebrate with Durkin and thank him for his legacy of service. Pastor John Fairchild with Twin Cities Church in Grass Valley gave Durkin a cake on behalf of the church, calling Durkin a “gift” to the community.
“We’re so grateful for your life, Joe, and you yourself are just a gift to so many people,” Fairchild said.
Hessel said that the legion has identified 26 surviving World War II veterans in the Grass Valley area, and said that the legion is prioritizing celebrating each individual birthday for these veterans.
“We’ve just got to honor our World War II veterans. They’re the reason why we’re free today,” Hessel said.
Wednesday’s celebration of Durkin was put on with assistance from several different local entities, including Meals on Wheels, Gold Country Senior Services, and the American Legion.
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