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WWII veteran a living, historic icon

Louis Castano, a Colombian immigrant answers calling to serve country.

WWII veteran a living, historic icon. Louis Castano, a Colombian immigrant answers calling to serve country.

As the 79th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War II passed on Dec. 7, a hard fact settled home about those who served and returned.

Their numbers are dwindling… and quickly.

Doing the math, the numbers don’t lie. A long time has passed since 1941-45. Those who served during those years are well into their 90s today.

An individual born on Dec. 7, 1941, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and drew the U.S. into the war, would be 79-years-old today. Continuing the math, add another 15-20 years to get those of age, who served and returned home.

WWII veteran Louis Castano, presently 97, but coming up on his 98th birthday in January is one of those. To call Castano a historic relic would be almost insulting even when no slight is intended. He is a living hero, more befitting the term, an historic icon, he is a living piece of history, who served and returned home at the war’s conclusion… and has lived a very long time to talk about it.

Castano is a native of Labano Colombia and came to the United States in 1944 at the age of 19 to attend UCLA and become an engineer. While he bears the scars of living such a long life, he is a survivor in many ways beyond enduring the passage of time.

“It was my dream to become an engineer, but I got sidetracked along the way,” said Castano, from the living room of his nephew’s Loganville home. “I answered the call.”

But all things in their own time. Castano’s story follows a time line and there’s no jumping forward or back. The journey is linear and moving one way, constantly forward.

At nearly 98 years young – his birthday is Jan. 15 – Castano has lost his wavy locks of dark hair. Whether he misses them or not, he doesn’t say only to infer he’s saving money on haircuts these days as he rubs a hand over his smooth, bald pate.

He doesn’t get around as fast as he used to, “Unless something is chasing me,” but he still manages to stay a step ahead of the fray. He needs glasses – “But who doesn’t?” – and he remains, to this day, a voracious reader.

“I love books. I love to read. It is my favorite pastime today,” he said.

His hearing has suffered, but for this Sunday afternoon he has a living hearing aid in new friend Pat Nesmith, who relays questions for him to answer.

Though the events of his young life took place more than 75 years ago, Castano’s story would fit right into today’s current affairs and news headlines – racism, abuse, an immigrant coming to America to fulfill his childhood dreams, and find a new life and opportunities here that he couldn’t accomplish back home in South America.

“Louis loves poetry and he loves to read novels,” Nesmith said. “He is a constant reader.”

Make no mistake about it, Louis Castano is a romantic. He is a man of passion. He has outlived two wives whom he loved dearly and misses them desperately.

“I love books and beautiful women.”

Castano’s story begins with a singular prompt, “Tell us what happened,” and he takes the stage, a virtuoso of words, dipped in the romantic Latino accent, like dipping strawberries into chocolate.

There is no need to take notes.

Just turn on the recorder, sit back and enjoy a really good story.

“I came to the United states at the age of 19 in 1944. I wanted to go to college… at UCLA in California, to become an engineer. I did not know any English at all. I saw the sign where Uncle Sam was calling me… he was pointing his finger at me. You need me. He wanted me. So, I volunteered.

“Young people at that age, we volunteered. The recruitment office was huge, they had cubicles with all these different languages. There was Spanish, and French and Japanese, for all of these young men who couldn’t speak English. I went to the cubicle where they spoke Spanish.

They asked me if I was a citizen and I said no. He asked me where I came from and I said Colombia, South America. This old man asked me, why do you want to volunteer? You’re not a citizen. I said, I want to volunteer.

“Two weeks later I got a letter in the mail that said, ‘I was accepted.’”

Training was quick and intense as the United States was four years into a world war fought on both sides of the globe.

“They sent me to languages school to learn how to speak English. Most of them were foreigners, like me. We had three months of very hard training. From five o’clock until noon was out in the field. From after lunch in the classroom. We learned the military lingo. They weren’t training us how to take a young lady out to dinner, they were training us about bombs, rifles, pistols, grenades, airplanes, boats… things like that.”

Castano said, most of the young men were mediocre.

“They didn’t have much education like I did. I passed and was sent to Shepherd Field in Wichita Falls, Texas.”

In 1944, in the U.S. South, Texas was not immune to racism… especially involving Latinos.

“Training was pretty tough… it was bad, very bad. For me… as a Latino. In those days, they hated – in the South – particularly in the South, they hated blacks. They hated Latinos and I was not welcome there in Texas. The soldiers, they want me out. They did me horrible. Latinos were endangered then.”

Castano recalls an incident during training that made him consider this future path as perhaps not being the best idea in the world.

“There were three fellows then. Soldiers. Students like me. They got me and yelled at me. Called me ‘wetback.’ They knocked me unconscious. Someone found me and took me to headquarters. The commander of that particular headquarters was a bigot like the one who had beat me and rather than punish them, they punished me. Two weeks restriction on the base. That they told them that I had started the fight.”

During this restriction, Castano found his reason to go on… to not give up… and not quit.

“There was a lady, Jewish, who saved me. She was a librarian. A wonderful woman,” he said. “I was… all my life I’ve been loving books. Not just books but I wanted to know more. She saw me with a face like that and she wanted to know ‘what happened to you?’ So, I told her what had happened.

“I couldn’t go AWOL… at that time they could shoot you… So, where could I go? She said, ‘these people want you out, but the United States, they want you. Just try to ignore them. If you see some bunch coming over here, you go over there.’

Beautiful advice. So, I stayed in.

I put everything under the sun to be the best. To fly an airplane, you have you have resolution, and you have to be afraid. And I was not afraid because, believe it or not, I wanted to die. I stayed in. I put everything in. I did well.

“I was one of 25 who went to advanced training on two-engine airplanes, and they sent me to Dayton, Ohio, to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I love that place. They treated me so well there. They were wonderful people… educated people. There were no bigots.

The instructor, he liked me, not because of my looks, but because of my effort. Three weeks later he invited me to his house, and his wife, and he took me to see his parents… and his sister. And she became my girlfriend. This girl, she was ugliest girl that I ever seen because she was so tall). That girl was so tall – almost seven feet tall and I was just a shrimp – but she was the most wonderful woman in the world because she was so smart.”

Castano points to a stool in the corner, by the fireplace.

And see that stool over there? My father made that stool for me so I could climb on top of that and I could kiss her.”

A mischievous glint flickers across Castano’s dark eyes. Is he pulling your leg? Only he knows that answer.

It was beautiful.

A question, “Did you marry her?”

“I wish,” is his reply. “She was outstanding, she was a great musician, a great tennis player, a champion of many things. It was beautiful.

“After I finished training I flew over there. I was ready. I was trained on the B29, the Super Fortress. That’s what I was trained on. They were training us for war, not for pleasure.

After the training I was given a three-week furlough, a break, and I went to New York to look at the city. In those days, because it was wartime, everything was free for the military – except for restaurants. I went to the movies and things like that, to the opera house and all the things were free.

After that, it was time to go, Castano said.

“After that, I left from San Francisco on a huge ship and I arrived in Guam. There were three bases there that was an Air Force base. There was two weeks of orientation and one week of practicing, the orientation was on the skies of Japan. The skies over Japan weren’t like the skies over here. They were nasty. There was fog, and clouds, and all the storms and typhoons. It was nasty.”

Castano was teamed with a man he called, “The greatest pilot the U.S. had.”

“I was extremely lucky that they put me with another young man from Czechoslovakia. George Haarutsh. He was an excellent pilot. He was the best the United States had. One of the best things George Haarutsh had, he was born without fear.

“The first thing we had to do was to take Okinawa. It took 63 days.”

Castano said when the marines came ashore in Okinawa, there were no Japanese there. It appeared as if they had fled the island, but that was not the case.

“It was like April Fool’s,” he said. “They were all hiding in these caves. It was a trap. The Japanese were entrenched in caves. These were engineered caves. They had the tanks stored down there and the cannons were shot through holes in the ground.”

It was terrible. They knew the Japanese were there. I admire the Japanese commander of that base. He was a General Tomobumi Yamashita. He commanded 125,000 men. He defended that island almost to the last man.

With Okinawa gone, it was easy to take Japan, but Japan was entrenched.

I admire the Japanese people as they were not my enemy because I am not American.

That’s when the United States dropped the atomic bomb, Castano said.

“The first one was easy. The second one was almost a disaster. They could not find the city. As I said, the weather was terrible. The skies were so foggy. But finally, it was clean, and they dropped the other bomb.

And that was that. The war was over.

No more palace.

That was it.

I got my discharge and came back home. They were celebrating the victory everywhere and I came home.

Upon returning home, Castano was awarded his citizenship as a United States citizen for his service during World War II.

“We were all at the Century Plaza Hotel, they had a big celebration. There were celebrities. Jimmy Stewart and Rita Hayworth. There was an enormous crowd of people.

“I couldn’t stand it there,” he said. “My knees were shaking. It was scary. That’s when we were decorated. And after that, I got the greatest thing. I was an American and I didn’t know I was an American. I got my citizenship. I didn’t ask for it.

“I figured I would fight in the war, go to college, become an engineer… go home to Colombia, get married and have 10 kids. I wasn’t expecting this.”

Castano earned this the hard way.

{module Louis Castano, a Colombian immigrant answers calling to serve country. Photos by Emmett Clower}

“It’s a good document. That’s me,” he said of the citizenship document he had been awarded.

He doesn’t talk about the next 70 years much other than to say he lived his life comfortably.

Castano enjoyed a prosperous career as the engineer he yearned to be as a young man.

But he never flew an airplane again.

“Remember, we were trained for war,” he said. “I could not fly a plane otherwise.”

Following Sept. 11, 2001 and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Castano heard the calling again.

“When the terrorists attacked the hotels in New York, I was the first man in line the next day to volunteer. They said I was too young.”

He married and lost two women, both of whom he loved. He raised a family. He became a grandfather.

“I had two wives. One died of diabetes and one of cancer. I had two daughters and grandkids.”

But he’s not looking for wife number three.

“I’d be running like heck,” he said, genuinely laughing.

And that’s the story.

But not without one more tug on the leg.

Still, you take him at his word, as stepping into harm’s way, that’s what heroes do.