Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston — On a day when many San Antonians’ heads were tilted upward trying to catch of glimpse of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds’ fly-by, one local veteran was the guest of honor at his 94th birthday drive-by.
World War II veteran Raul Garza was surprised by a neighborhood parade May 13 that included vintage jeeps owned by Army veterans working at U.S. Army Installation Management Command and elsewhere, who took some personal time to pay respects to a vet.
Garza’s granddaughter, Stephanie Palacios Morris, started planning his birthday party weeks ago to honor a relative she calls “an amazing, awesome man.”
“My grandfather always tells us that he wasn’t a hero during the war,” Morris said. “He doesn’t consider himself a hero. He says the fallen soldiers are the heroes.”
When social distancing forced a change in plans, Morris and other friends and family created banners and signs to set up in front of her grandfather’s South Side home.
Although Garza missed seeing the Thunderbirds’ flyover, which honored pandemic health care workers, he was surprised and pleased that his relatives, neighbors and even strangers had gathered outside his home for a celebration that included a parade of 50 cars and trucks.
Garza, a native San Antonian, joined the Army when he was 18. He started as a ball turret gunner in B-17s in the Pacific theater, served for 26 years after the war, and retired from the Army Air Corps, which was transitioned to the U.S. Air Force.
Following his military service, Garza and his brother ran a mechanics shop, from which Garza retired four years ago, at age 90.
The drive-by party, which included two vintage jeeps and vets wearing period uniforms, was created by circles of friends and friends of friends – drawn together by their military past, their interest in historic military vehicles, and the San Antonio Police Department.
Morris’ daughter, 15, is in the SAPD’s Explorer group, and mentioned her great-grandfather’s upcoming birthday to one of her instructors, which set into motion a network of volunteers eager to make Garza’s 94th birthday a special occasion, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Dan Martin, an inspector general in IMCOM IG, said, “Being an Army type of guy, I opted to skip the fly-by and attend a drive-by of a World War II veteran.”
Martin took his jeep, a Willys MB dated December 1944, to Garza’s party for display.
Martin was drawn to the event by his friend, Eric Herr. The two men worked together at U.S. Army South, where Herr still works in the sustainment division.
Herr, who owns a 1985 M998 HMWVV, volunteers with the San Antonio Police Department’s search and rescue crew. He heard about the event through his police contacts.
Another vintage jeep at the party was a July 1944 Willys MB, owned by Martin’s friend, Bob Shaw, who retired from the Army in the 1980s as a field artillery forward observer.
“Dan and Bob definitely stole the show with their vintage jeeps and WWII uniforms,” Herr said.
Martin said that when family members helped Garza into the jeep alongside him, “that’s when the stories started.”
“Mr. Garza said, ‘This brings it all back.’ He talked about flying to Hawaii in a B-17, then said, ‘I never saw that thing again.’ I believe he spent the rest of the war in B-29s.”
Garza, who uses a wheelchair, was thrilled and overwhelmed by the drive-by party, his granddaughter said.
“When we got him outside, we heard sirens coming from the right and realized the parade was for him,” Morris said. “He enjoyed himself very much.”
Martin said networking is common among retired military in San Antonio.
“Historic military vehicle owners in San Antonio are always notifying each other about events,” he said.
Col. Joseph O. Ritter, IMCOM Inspector General, praised his employee’s generosity.
“Dan Martin took the time to help a WWII veteran celebrate his 94th birthday by doing a drive-by ‘reenactment’ in traditional military uniform and gear of that era — it was a great day,” Ritter said.