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Honoring those who served in World War II
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Manteca Realtor Bill Castillo displays his medals including the Silver Star from World War II for his service with the 75th Infantry assigned to the 291st Infantry Division as he prepares to visit Washington, D.C. - photo by GLENN KAHL

Bill Castillo was a U.S. Army machine gunner who refused to give up his post after being wounded by German artillery near the end of World War II.

For that reason he is joining others from the Greatest Generation in Washington, D.C., this week as part of Honor Flight Northern California.

Given the prestigious Silver Star for his gallantry under fire outside a small village in snow covered fields in Northern Germany, it was one of the last battles of the war. The retired Manteca Realtor shows definite excitement in his voice as he talks about visiting the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall with his son at his side.

Castillo’s son Frank, a veteran of the Vietnam era conflict, is traveling with his dad who is now in his early-80s.  The airliner that will be filled with “Honorflyers” is scheduled to leave out of San Francisco Friday morning traveling on Virgin Air Lines headed for Dulles International Airport.  They will be returning home on Sunday May 22.  The vets are being given VIP treatment to be housed in the Holiday Inn in Washington in a whirlwind of activity, free of cost to the senior vets.

The fact that his son is flying to D.C. with him on the emotion-packed journey has added a special dimension to his trip, Castillo said.  He feels that his son, Frank, needs to see the memorial to his fallen Vietnam comrades as he himself looks forward to experiencing  and remembering what he and others endured during the Second World War.

The longtime Manteca Realtor said that he knows the memorial “will be very personal” to his oldest son when he steps onto the site with other former military servicemen and women and experiences the wall’s impact first hand – looking at the carved-out names of those who gave their all for freedom and didn’t come home.  

“I’m going to be looking forward with a lot of reserves about what I knew happened,” Castillo said.  “This is going to be a trip that goes back many years thinking about those who died because they had a belief in their country – because it’s the best country in the world.”

Honor Flight Northern California was created to add another level of dignity to the veterans of the U.S. for their sacrifices by taking them to tour Washington to visit and to reflect at the memorials, including Arlington National Cemetery.   The World War II memorial was dedicated in 2004 – some 60 years after the end of the conflict.  The Vietnam Memorial was completed in 1982.

It is the oldest veterans from World War II who have been selected first to go on the flights along with any additional vets who may be terminally ill at this time.  Those making the trip with them and serving as guides must pay their own expenses.    

The movement to honor surviving soldiers, sailors and Marines was spurred by the fact the United States is losing some 1,200 World War II vets per day now due to age.  Donations have made it possible that the older service men and women to travel free – most for the first time – to visit what is described as hallowed ground in tribute to their fallen comrades.

Castillo had left  Manteca High School  before graduating to join the Army  and to stand up for his country –  meeting  his fate in April of 1945 in an action that nearly cost him his life and that put him in hospitals  for over a year – first as a paraplegic.  

A citation signed by commanding Major General Ray Porter awarded him the coveted Silver Star.  The citation read:

“Private First Class Porfirio J. Castillo, Company B, 291st Infantry, for gallantry in action in connection with military operations against the enemy on 7 April 1945, in Germany.  The lead platoon was heading southeast through the woods north of Kottenberg (Germany) when it encountered heavy self-propelled artillery bursts and small arms fire.  Building up his position on the firing line, Private Castillo sent heavy machine gun fire toward visible targets.  He was hit by artillery fire and in spite of serious wounds, continued firing his machine gun until he was relieved.  This demonstration of courage and extreme fortitude exemplifies the finest traditions of the military service.  Entered military service from Lathrop, California.”

As a result of his wounds, Castillo was unable to walk for more than a year and doctors didn’t believe he would ever be able to father children. He and his wife Jenny have eight.

He added that he still believes that because of what he experienced and what he observed, it made him become a better person throughout his life.   

Earlier in the war, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge for over six weeks in a heavily forested war zone.  The freezing temperatures turned his canteen to ice. He tried to sleep in his foxhole at nights with only his machine gun to keep him warm.  It was known as one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

He was also presented with the Purple Heart, the combat badge and a campaign ribbon with three battle stars.  

It was some 90 days later that he remembers shells after artillery shells beginning to rain down on his position.  During his stay in several hospitals, skin was grafted onto his legs from his hips, he recalled.  

To the many who have come to know and to respect Bill Castillo over his years serving the Manteca community, they can now understand why he walks with a decided limp with a brace on his leg.  He insisted that his life has been all the better for his experiences – more than anyone should expect.

There are over 5,000 veterans from WWII on the waiting list to travel to Washington in the Honor Flight Northern California program with many more expected to apply.  Over 70 have reportedly passed away while waiting their turn to visit the memorials.

The only spouses that are allowed to go are those who are veterans themselves.  Some family members are allowed on the trip to act as guides and supporters for those with certain physical handicaps due to injury or age.  A normal ratio is said to be three for every eight veterans.