Honor Flight Nevada Marine has chance meeting with Holocaust survivor
LVN Editor Emeritus
Raymond Stefanko wanted to serve his country during World War II, but by the time he enlisted after high school, Japan had surrendered, and an international force occupied Japan in its postwar rebuilding.
The Illinois native of Ukrainian descent, who later moved to California and then to Reno years after he retired, became a Marine on Aug. 28, 1946, four months before the eligibility period ended for classifying servicemen and women as World War II vets. He also had a brother who served in the Navy.
The 90-year-old Stefanko and his nephew Stephen Stefanko of Napa, Calif., rode on the last Honor Flight Nevada, but it may be a chance meeting between Stefanko and Polish author Sonia Kaplan that he will remember most. She was signing copies of her book, “My Endless War” at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Her story recounts her life of a Jewish woman living under the Nazis and the murder of her family. Kaplan eventually began a new life by immigrating to the United States. When Kaplan heard World War II vets were visiting the museum as part of Honor Flight activities, she wanted to meet them. She wanted to thank them for liberating Europe.
“I found out she was Polish, and I greeted her in Ukrainian. They’re similar languages, and she understood,” Stefanko said, with a wide grin. “I thanked her for being kind to me.”
Kaplan and the veterans gathered near the museum’s bookstore and posed for both group and individual photographs.
Although Stefanko was born in the United States, his parents immigrated to the United States when they were in their late teens and spoke their Ukrainian language until they acclimated to the new country.
During the four-day trip to Washington, D.C., Stefanko said he enjoyed attending the Marine’s Drum and Bugle Corps and silent march team and seeing the exhibits at the Navy museum.
Although Stefanko didn’t serve overseas, he was assigned to the 22nd Marine Regiment based at Quantico, Virginia. Stefanko, though still has distinct memories of the time he served in the Marines. Despite the end of World War II in 1945, Stefanko said the Marines still trained as if they were still going to war, but one of his duties at the time was serving on the honor guard.
“Our honor guard appeared before President (Harry) Truman and (Admiral Chester) Nimitz,” Stefanko said. “Nimitz was very impressive. He was tall, good looking and brown-faced for being out on the bridge.”
Stefanko, who had met retired U.S. Sen. Bob Dole at the World War II memorial, said the Kansas senator told him he loved Nimitz as a leader. Even Nimitz had joked about Stefanko, the marine, being on the honor guard.
“You’re not bad looking Marine,” Stefanko remembers the commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet and commander in chief, Pacific Ocean Areas.
Stefanko said he had pondered staying in the Marines after his enlistment ended. Because of his test scores (he was second on the list), his commanders wanted him to apply and attend Officer Candidate School. Instead, Stefanko finished his enlistment, moved back to Illinois and earned a degree in civil engineering, the profession that took him to the Golden State. Among his many projects, Stefanko was an engineer on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge when improvements to the structure were made, and was with the firm that built the Antioch Bridge that crosses the San Joaquin River. He credits his success as an engineer to his military service.
“The military gave me the ability to work with others and helped me with my civilian employment,” he said.
Stefanko also met the love of his life and they married in Gardnerville. Their love of skiing brought them to Truckee often, but they decided to move to Reno’s Caughlin Ranch community and bought a house that overlooks the city.
Stephen Stefanko said Ray’s neighbors encouraged him to go on the Honor Flight, and his uncle came away with opinions on the state of the military. After visits to Marine Barracks Washington and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Ray Stefanko noted the dedication of both the Marines and soldiers.
Stefanko’s eyes began to water … then he spoke.
“I’d serve with any one of them with pride.”