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Belated Honors

Holiday: Fifty-five years after coming home from the horrors of war, a veteran accepts the medals he once disdained.

November 10, 2000|RICHARD FAUSSET and GINA PICCALO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SYLMAR — Standing on a windy stage Thursday in the presence of a Marine Corps color guard, 81-year-old Alexander Bookston received the military service medals he didn't really want when he returned from World War II more than a half-century ago.

When Bookston was discharged from the U.S. Army Air Force on Oct. 14, 1945, he had no stomach for such pomp.

Bloody action in five major battles and the Army's anti-Semitism had left this self-described patriot and son of Russian Jewish immigrants bitter, tired and relieved that his job was over.

"I never [cared] what they thought of me these 50 years," Bookston said. "I left all the heroes over there, six feet underground."

The Sylmar resident decided recently to be recognized, however, after a granddaughter saw the film "Saving Private Ryan," and began asking him to share details of an experience of which he had rarely spoken.

At Mission College on Thursday morning, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills) noted that Bookston sought the honor "not for pride, but for posterity," before bestowing belated medals on the former jeweler and two other Valley veterans of World War II at the school's annual Veterans Day ceremony.

Berman and Los Angeles City Councilman Alex Padilla, referring to this week's presidential election, credited the American soldiers of World War II for an atmosphere that has allowed one of the most controversial transfers of federal power in decades to take place in a peaceful manner.

"This wouldn't have happened without the folks here," Berman said, with a nod toward the veterans.

In 1942, when he was drafted, the then 23-year-old Bookston said news accounts of Jewish persecution at the hands of European fascists made him want to serve his country.

"I was a Jewish boy in Brooklyn," he said. "I knew I had to fight in this war."

Bookston worked for a large New York corporation at the time, a job he landed only after claiming to be a Presbyterian.

In the service, where he served as a radio operator in a 22-month campaign through Italy, France, Germany and Corsica, Bookston said he encountered more discrimination, including being rejected from Officer Candidate School because of his religion. This was ironic, he said, given the fact that Americans were fighting to put a stop to such institutionalized practices.

After being decorated on Thursday, the former corporal said he was proud the war helped Americans confront their own prejudices.

"This is a different country now," he said. "It was rotten then. There were no good old days. There were only rotten days."

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Another WWII veteran honored at the event, Van Nuys resident Sidney Levine, said his survival in the Army's 141st Infantry Division was "strictly luck."

His original set of medals, including a Bronze Star, was destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. "I'm really stunned," the 82-year-old said of his new replacement medals. "This was a really nice event."

The third man honored, 78-year-old John Z. Rojas of San Fernando, was, like Bookston, receiving his medals for the first time.

Rojas earned a Bronze Star, among other decorations, for his service as an infantryman in the Army's 91st Division in North Africa, Northern France and Italy.

Beyond that, Rojas' story is a mystery--perhaps the day's most poignant testament to the sacrifices World War II veterans made.

Surrounded by beaming family members after the event, Rojas said the war left him severely shell-shocked and unable to remember what he did to earn his medals.

"I try to think, but it just don't come back to me no more," he said.

Also on Thursday, hundreds of people gathered in West Los Angeles at the nation's largest Veteran Affairs hospital to honor those who fought and died to preserve American democracy.

A morning parade of high school bands, elected officials and uniformed military marched and cheered their way through the grounds of the Veterans Administration, waving flags and honking their horns along the way.

A World War II era warplane buzzed overhead while scores of nurses, doctors and patients, many in hospital gowns and wheelchairs, filtered outside to watch.

Hospital officials this year held the parade on a weekday at the request of the patients, many of whom live outside Los Angeles and come in for weekday medical appointments.

"We've had so many patients who never get to see this," hospital spokeswoman Beverly Fitzgerald said.

One patient watching the parade was Vietnam veteran Jose Fuentes, 51, of Los Angeles, who lost both his legs to diabetes after serving three years in Vietnam as an Army demolition specialist. He survived malaria, dodged bullets and arrived home safely in 1970.

On Thursday, Fuentes mused on the lingering uncertainty over the presidential election.

"That's the U.S. for you," he said. "I believe that's why we're so strong, because we have the ability to laugh at ourselves."

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who is a Korean War veteran, and City Councilman Nate Holden, a World War II veteran, praised the courage and devotion of local vets.

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During his speech, Riordan called veterans "the soul and the spirit of our country." He pointed to 104-year-old World War I veteran Dennis F. Whatley of Bellflower, a man who enlisted in the Army at age 21 in 1916. His unit was among the first of the combat troops sent to France the year the United States joined the Great War.

"He's ready to fight the next war," Riordan said.

Hearing his name, Whatley raised his arms in a silent cheer.

Today, veterans will be honored with a special service at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in the Hollywood Hills.

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