Tuesday, May 17, 2016

World War II Veteran Sebastian Rio

Sebastian Rio at the World War II Memorial, April 2016 (Photo by Laura Orr)
For the past six years I’ve worked at HRNM, I didn’t know Sebastian Rio was a World War II veteran.  Like many of that generation, Sebastian talks more about his family than he does about his own accomplishments.  It was only this past November when he mentioned in passing that he was the last veteran wearing the World War II victory ribbon at his church the Sunday before Veterans’ Day.  That led me to think about Honor Flight Historic Triangle Virginia, an amazing non-profit group that takes World War II and Korean War Veterans to visit their memorials in Washington, D.C.  When I found that Sebastian had never been there, I immediately began conspiring to get him on the next Honor Flight.  He was easy to convince—I simply gave him the application and offered to act as his “guardian,” which meant I would spend the day with him in D.C. and help him out with anything he needed that day.  I was excited to make this happen—but I had no idea it would be such a life-changing experience.

When we stepped off the bus on that rainy Saturday and I saw Sebastian’s face as he looked at the World War II Memorial—HIS memorial—I knew it was all worth it.  In that one day, I learned more about Sebastian Rio than I ever knew before.  Sebastian is one of our dedicated Naval Museum volunteers.  He has volunteered at HRNM since the Battleship Wisconsin arrived in 2001, making the transition to working in our library after the ship was turned over to the City of Norfolk in 2009.  While I’ve spoken to Sebastian on a regular basis, I never learned about his background until this trip.

Sebastian Rio in 1944.
Sebastian, a native of Boston, joined the Naval Reserve at the age of 17, in 1944.  As he told me, “Boston was a Navy town. Everyone in my neighborhood joined the Navy as soon as they were old enough.”  Sebastian was sent immediately to a year of radar training school, from which he emerged in 1945.  It was the end of the war, and he served aboard USS Iowa (BB-61) as a member of the occupying forces in Japan.  When we were discussing whether he had photographs of himself in uniform, Sebastian shook his head and said, “Now that I’m looking back at it, I wish I had carried a camera with me during my time in Japan.  But it was all so devastated—at the time, I just couldn’t think of taking photographs of it.  Now, I want to be able to remember what I experienced.”  He may not have photographs, but his memory draws a picture that made me feel as though I was there.  Sebastian remembered going into Tokyo for liberty, when he and the other Sailors were allowed to go only into the areas already cleared by the Army.  One time he went to buy some silk for his sisters and, before he entered the shop, he could hear the women inside talking away.  He entered and they became completely silent the whole time he was there.  He related, “The Japanese people were very respectful to us, but they had been shown propaganda about the American people throughout the whole war, so they didn’t go out of their way to be friendly.”

Top: Sebastian attended World Series Game 5 at Wrigley Field while attending radar school in Chicago. Bottom: This is a scan of one of the beer tickets the Navy gave Sebastian in Yokosuka, Japan. (Courtesy Sebastian Rio)

Sebastian served aboard USS Iowa (BB-61) in Japan for about five months.  This experience drew him to become an HRNM volunteer when he heard that Iowa’s sister ship, USS Wisconsin (BB-64), would be berthed here in Norfolk.  As a young teenager reporting to Iowa, he remembered how beautiful she looked, and he was so excited to serve aboard her.  When I asked him about coming to Wisconsin years later in his life and whether that brought back memories of his time aboard Iowa, he said, “I don’t care what they say—as an adult, Wisconsin looks so much smaller than Iowa looked when I was just a teenager!”  Same ship, much different perspectives.

Sebastian served in the Navy until 1946, then spent the rest of his career as a mechanical engineer.  Since volunteering at the battleship and HRNM in 2001, he has accrued approximately 1600 hours.  He spends half his year here in Norfolk and the other half in Nova Scotia, where his wife's family is from.

We have so many dedicated, amazing volunteers at HRNM.  I feel lucky to be able to spend time with them on a daily basis, and Sebastian will always be special because of the Honor Flight experience we shared.  I will never forget that day, and I hope he doesn’t, either.  Sebastian, thank you for being you.

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