By Ron Hayes
At 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 26, a 90-year-old real estate agent named Woody Gorbach took off from Palm Beach International Airport aboard a US Airways jet, bound for Washington, D.C.
At 8:20 that night, he returned.
In between, Woody Gorbach spent the day remembering a boy from Bridgeport, Conn., who enlisted in the U.S. Army at 19, sailed to Italy with the 34th Infantry Division, carried an M1 rifle into the battles of Monte Cassino and Anzio beach, rode one of the first tanks into Rome amid Italian cheers, and made it home alive. And he spent the day remembering comrades who fought just as bravely but didn’t come home.
He wasn’t alone. And he wasn’t the oldest.
Gorbach was one of 85 area veterans to join the latest trip sponsored by Southeast Florida Honor Flights, a nonprofit organization that thanks World War II vets by flying them to Washington to visit the national memorials honoring their service.
“This is our fourth year,” said Todd Tucker, a lieutenant with Martin County Fire-Rescue and chairman of the organization’s Southeast Florida branch, which has no paid staff. “Our goal is four flights a year, two in the spring and two in the fall.”
There is no charge to the vets, who are paired with a guardian for the day, each of whom pays $400 for the privilege of accompanying a veteran.
“A lot of our volunteer guardians are firefighter paramedics, so there’s almost no situation we can’t deal with,” Tucker said. “We’ve flown double amputees, and we have a 99-year-old on this flight.”
Gorbach was aboard because his wife, Lois, happened to spot a newspaper story about the most recent flight.
“Woody, why don’t you call?” she suggested.
“Well, I hadn’t seen any of the memorials,” Gorbach reasoned, “but I’ve spoken to people who’ve been and they all say it’s an experience you never forget.”
He called, then filled out a detailed application. After he was accepted, Lois learned more about her husband’s war than she’d heard in 60 years of marriage.
“At Monte Cassino, I was only there three days and I got trench foot with frostbite,” Gorbach remembered. “They sent me to a hospital in Africa for three weeks, and while I was gone my platoon was annihilated. Frostbite saved my life.”
In May 1944, he hit the beach at Anzio.
“I was in the first division to land,” he said. “All mountains, horrible weather, snow. We took a lot of casualties. The Germans were all over the beach and at the top of the mountains. I didn’t think I was going to make it back, to tell you the truth.”
Gorbach made it back in November 1945 with a Bronze Star and a Croix de Guerre. He was 21.
He got married, started a family, started law school and quit to work in his father’s real estate firm. He’s sold real estate ever since, except for a brief period in 1998, when he and Lois retired to South Palm Beach.
“I tried retirement for a month or two and it got boring,” he says. “I played too much tennis.”
Now he’s back, selling real estate at Lang Realty in Manalapan, where his son, Donald, is also a Realtor.
“I enlisted 71 years ago,” he says with a smile, “and I’m still going strong.”
A single day in Washington is scarcely enough to remember a war that lasted four years and claimed 291,557 American lives, but it was a full day.
Gorbach toured the Iwo Jima Memorial, was served lunch by the Knights of Columbus, watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and ended the day with a visit to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall.
The monuments moved him, but the surprises brought tears to his eyes.
“As we were departing on the runway,” he recalled, “a truck from Palm Beach Fire-Rescue gave us a fantastic salute, washing down our plane to salute us for our service.”
They arrived at Reagan National Airport to be greeted by a huge crowd of men, women and children waving signs and reaching to shake their hands or kiss them.
A band was playing, a choral group from West Point was singing. “It brought tears to everyone’s eyes,” Gorbach said. “We couldn’t help it.”
During lunch at a Knights of Columbus hall, he was met by three cousins he hadn’t seen in years, and at the World War II Memorial on the Mall, his grandchildren, Averi and Jared Seligmen, suddenly emerged from the crowd.
Nearby, former Sen. Bob Dole, another 90-year-old vet, sat greeting anyone who wished to shake his hand.
“He saw my nametag and said, ‘Hello,’ how’s everything in Florida?’” Gorbach recalled. “A real politician, but he seemed sincere.”
And then they were back at PBIA, with another crowd cheering and waving signs.
“Seeing my wife and son in the crowd — well, I cried again. … God bless America. What more can I say?”
About 16 million Americans served in World War II. Today, only about a million survive and most, like Woody Gorbach, are in their 90s.
“At the age these folks have reached, they’re not always able to fly with us because of health,” says Tucker, Honor Flights’ chairman. “We’re finding we have to call two veterans to get one.
“We’re accepting applications from Korean War vets, but currently we’re just for World War II. It’s a race against time. ”
For information about Southeast Florida Honor Flights, call 1-855-359-2838 or visit www.honorflightsefl.org.
Photos: ABOVE LEFT: Woody Gorbach displays his World War II-era medals and documents. ABOVE RIGHT: Gorbach, pictured in Pisa, Italy, served in Europe. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star