“What has Hungary done for me? I was glad to leave it. It wasn’t my decision, but as an adult that would have been my decision,” said Gero, 88, a resident of River Run Apartments in Woodbridge.
His name on the ship’s registry is Zoltan Gold, listed under his mother, Jeany Gold. He changed his name from Zoltan Gold to a more Americanized Harold with the last name of his father, Samuel Gero.
His father was captured by the Russians, so he never knew him, because the Russians, then as now, do not release prisoners, he said. He does not speak Hungarian.
That was a long time ago for Gero, and it is just one part of his identity, as with the rest of America. “We’re all immigrants, all of us,” he said.
He went on to grow up in New York City, train personnel on B-17 bombers in the war, spend 20 years with the Air Force air traffic control, and retire in 1967 to Chatham on Cape Cod with his wife.
He is two months shy of his 89th birthday, but he looks much younger than his age, probably because he maintains a curious mind, keeps sharp on his woodworking and drives his 1999 Mustang convertible.
He speaks his mind when local politicians visit the senior center. He is a “quite a character,” as his one daughter, Stephanie Anderson, describes him. He leaves a “permanent wake” that makes it hard for people to forget him.
Gero has a soft spot for New York City, and on Sept. 11 he saw his hometown city and new home in Virginia hit by terrorists, acts that are “so far back in civilization we don’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “We have really paid the price for not being alert … I think this was equal to what happened at Pearl Harbor, and to some extent even more so [important].”
He admits he has a bias against certain cultures, but he asks: Where is the room to mediate with Middle Eastern countries that send their children strapped with bombs to the enemy? What kind of people resort to flying planes into buildings?
America has been an oasis to the rest of the world, and now those who hate it are using its liberty and abundance against it, he said.
“We both agreed, this slowed us down, but didn’t kick us down completely,” his daughter said. “We’ll do our part to live our lives like Americans.”
Gero’s generation has a lot of stories about World War II, and an understanding about the sacrifice made in war, that is quickly being lost as they die.
He remembers a torpedo bomber survivor from the Battle of Midway — there weren’t many — whom he sat next to on a flight who said he never talked about it at home. Another veteran of the infantry in Europe he knew in Texas said he never talked about the war.
Before Gero bought his Mustang, he said the Chrysler salesman didn’t understand when he said he couldn’t buy a convertible Sebring out of principle; its engine is made by Mitsubishi, which made the Japanese Zeros in the war.
When he goes to the Fort Belvoir commissary, he jokes with the guards, telling them after 20 years in the service, they too will get a dream car like his Mustang. “All you have to do is tell them what color you want,” he said.
Of course, Gero had to wait 86 years to get his.
He lived in New York City until 1942 when he joined the Army Air Corps to teach air crews how to repair the B-17 bombers. He wanted to fly but being Jewish, as the times were then in the United States, he had the wrong religion, he said.
He met his wife, Sue, on a blind date, right outside Macy’s in New York City. Sue was from Brooklyn, he was from the Bronx, and she became the love of his life.
“She became a military wife with no problems whatsoever,” Gero said.
She died from liver cancer in 1990, and he moved to Texas to live with his daughter.
Gero was an air controller for 20 years, guiding planes out of the sky to the moment they touched down. Military planes, unlike their civilian counterparts, follow strict railroad-like flight paths directed by radar units.
When he was stationed in Iceland, the Navy was patrolling the icy North Sea and several pilots got socked in fog and were sent to land in Reykjavik. After two aborted attempts, Gero told one pilot to stop looking for the runway lights because each time he did it threw the plane’s glidepath off 2 to 3 degrees.
“You have to tell them to have more trust. Stop looking out the window, just keep your eyes on the gauges,” he said.
He says the work led to ulcers and cost him much of his hearing because of the headphones, but “it was worth every minute of it.”
He moved to Woodbridge three years ago, almost by accident, after seeing an ad for the River Run senior center in the newspaper when visiting a niece in Burke.
That “green tunnel” of trees as he described it, Va. 123 in southern Fairfax, was unlike anything in Texas and he liked the single-living accommodations. He keeps up with his hobby, model shipbuilding, with a mini lathe and drill press, and he has started to use e-mail to keep in touch with his family. His daughter has finished chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer that was diagnosed in December. They look alike, both bald, she said.
His car will be hers, with its blue and white color scheme she liked.
“You just can’t take it with you, and he’s living every moment like it’s his last,” Anderson said. “He takes nothing for granted and advantage of everything.”