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Glen Cove honors local heroes

Vietnam vet and Tuskegee Airman among those thanked

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For the past 50 years, residents of Glen Cove have known Ronald Oldenburg, 89, as the veteran who waves the Prisoner of War banner during the city’s annual Memorial Day parade. Ben Farnan, commander of Glen Cove’s VFW Post 347, described Oldenburg as a fixture in the community, which was why Farnan selected Oldenburg to be this year’s honoree at the city’s annual Veterans Day ceremony on Monday.

“We’re proud of Ron,” Farnan said. “The Veterans Day holiday is a time for all veterans who served willingly and openly to be recognized.”

Oldenburg served as a rifleman in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division Regiment from 1967 to 1969. He was deployed to Vietnam in April 1967, wounded in action on July 15, 1969, and honorably discharged. He then returned to the U.S. and was honored with a Purple Heart.

On Monday, Oldenburg thanked the community for singling him out, and said he thought back to the months after he returned from Vietnam. Like many veterans of the war, he said, he had felt neglected by the country he had spent two years fighting for. “When I came back,” he said, “I never even got a thank-you.”

“When our vets came home, there were no parades waiting for them,” State Sen. Jim Gaughran added at Monday’s ceremony. “People weren’t coming along to thank you for your service, and that will always be a blemish on our nation.”

Gaughran, Glen Cove Mayor Timothy Tenke, Nassau County Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi all presented Oldenburg with special proclamations in honor of his service. “On this day, we stand united in respect for you,” Tenke told him.

The Glen Cove Senior Center also held events celebrating local veterans, including a presentation on the history of the Tuskegee Airmen on Tuesday. The Airmen were black fighter pilots who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. Formed in 1941, the group was the first of its kind, because black men had never been allowed to fly military planes. 

At the presentation, William “Joe” Johnson, 94, remembered growing up in Glen Cove, and watching planes fly over the North Shore when he was 12. Back then, he said, all he wanted to do was fly. In 1943, Johnson chased his dream and joined the Tuskegee Airmen as a cadet. Although he enjoyed taking to the skies with his fellow pilots, Johnson found life on the ground much less free, because he encountered discrimination in what was then a segregated U.S. military.

William Thomas Jr., a historian for the Airmen, explained that while black pilots faced racism at home, their actions and ingenuity on the battlefield earned international praise from the French and British, the latter of whom teamed up with the Airmen to design the P-51C Mustang, the iconic fighter plane the Airmen flew.

“The British, everyone, wanted the [Tuskegee Airmen] to escort their bombers because they had a reputation of never failing,” Thomas said. “But the Germans would say, ‘Why would you fight for a country that doesn’t even respect you?’”

Johnson said that while he faced discrimination in his country, it was his job to help change it for the better through his service and that of his fellow Airmen. By gaining fame, completing missions and serving with excellence, he said, the Airmen shattered prejudices against black Americans and helped shaped the nation into one that could accept all people, regardless of their skin color.

“When the opportunity comes to change something like that, you take it,” Johnson said. “We changed this country.”

“Their legacy is truly one to be remembered,” Thomas added. “I have to travel just to meet with them, so you’re lucky that you have one in you own town.”