Joseph Galofaro straightened up in his wheelchair and accepted a folded American flag.
Moments earlier, the World War II veteran gazed into the courtyard where a bugler played taps following a 12-gun salute in his honor.
The ceremony at the Rivergate Terrace in Riverview this week recognized Galofaro as its oldest living veteran, as well as the other 17 resident veterans in advance of Veterans Day on Saturday.
Fellow residents, families and friends joined in the celebration, where each veteran was presented with a pin, a certificate of thanks and a gift bag. The honor was part of an effort this week by Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care at its various locations in southeastern Michigan.
Galofaro’s frail, stooped frame is evidence of his 92 years. But the broad smile and twinkling eyes belie those years, giving a glimpse of the once vivacious 18-year-old who left his parents and 12 siblings on Detroit’s southwest side to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
Although Galofaro was diagnosed with dementia about seven years ago, he is able to respond to some questions. His wife, Rose, and some of the eight family members who came to share in his celebration, filled in the blanks.
“I am so proud of Joe,” said Rose Galofaro, 87, of Dearborn Heights. She married him 29 years ago, but first met him when she was 10 and he was 15. “I felt very honored myself, not only for Joe, but for all the veterans who were there.
“I think it was a wonderful thing for the U.S. to think of our veterans, although sometimes I don’t think they’re doing enough, I’m still very proud of Joe.”
According to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, there were only 620,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II alive in 2016.
Galofaro served on the USS Chase, which, among other missions, sailed from Boston in 1945 for Pacific action waters. Galofaro was on the ship in Guam when it was struck by a Japanese kamikaze. The explosion of two bombs it carried ripped open the Chase’s hull, flooding the engine and fire rooms. In danger of capsizing, it was kept afloat by the crew until it was towed for repairs. It was decommissioned in 1946.
“A plane hit our ship,” he said. “It was terrible. I was on the deck at the time.”
Asked if he had been hurt, Galofaro responded: “No. But my feelings were hurt because I didn’t know what they were doing to us.”
He paused a moment and added, “but I loved the Navy. It served me very well.”
He left the U.S. Navy after serving about four years, and shortly after that, Rose Galofaro said her husband worked as a tool and die journeyman and then eventually worked at General Motors.
“He worked underneath the cars,” she said. “I’m not sure exactly what he did, but he retired from GM after working there for about 16 years.”
Following the veterans ceremony at the Rivergate Center, Joseph Galofaro was surrounded by two of his three daughters, a brother, great-granddaughter and other family members. While responding to questions, he tenderly reached for his wife’s hand and held it for the duration.
Their love story began decades ago and took a detour before they finally got together.
“I’ve loved Joe almost my entire life,” she said. “I met him at his home because his sister, Lena, was my best friend, and I had gone over to visit her,” said Rose. “I really liked him.”
But they grew up and married other people. He was married to his wife, Clara, for 40 years before she died. They had three daughters. Rose was married for about 14 years, had a son and then divorced.
“I didn’t see Joe during all that time, and then several years after his wife died, his sister called me out of the clear blue sky and asked if it was alright if Joe called me after telling me his wife had passed away.”
Rose said yes. Six months later, they married.
Asked about his marriage, Joe responded, “I love her. I really love her ... from the time I first met her. She’s always been so sweet to me.”
Another ceremony, about 50 miles from the Riverview event, took place at the Boulevard Health Center in Rochester Hills.
Jim Kemler, 78, also served in the U.S. Navy on the USS Fort Snelling, enlisting in 1957. Kemler said he has been living at the facility since suffering a stroke two years ago. He and 11 other veterans were recognized with veterans pins and certificates of thanks for their service.
“I didn’t want to take a chance in going into the Army because they slept on the ground, and it was cold,” he said. “Every man in the Navy is a specialist, and I worked in the engine room.”
Asked how long he served, Kemler remembered it to the day. “Thirty-seven months and six days,” he said.
Kemler served during the Lebanon crisis, which occurred from July 1958 through October of that year and required military intervention at the request of Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, according to the U.S. Navy.
“My job was to run the main engines on the ship,” said Kemler. “I loved being in the Navy because they treated me like a man. I was only 20 when I got out.”
He said his title was second class petty officer, and he was honorably discharged.
“I always treated every place I visited like I’d never go back again, and I had a great time seeing all the sights,” he said.
He also made some lasting friendships among his mates.
“I had some good friends aboard the ship,” he said. “One of the guys still keeps in touch with me.”
His personal life did not fare as well.
“My wife ran off with my best friend,” he said. But he does have two daughters, a son, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He also has two brothers, a sister, and his mom is still living at 100 years old.
After leaving the U.S. Navy, Kemler said he “did what I wanted to do to make a living.”
“I hauled gravel, steel and salt,” he said. “I was a truck driver, and I liked the way I made a living.”
And he would serve his country again if he could.
“Yes, because I am an American, No. 1,” he said proudly. “And if Uncle Sam decided he needed me, I’d go.”