Florida. North Africa. Italy.
That was the route that Eleanor Rizutto of Franklin Square, 99, took when she served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Rizutto is one of nine veterans — and the only woman — set to take a one-day trip to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 3, organized by Honor Flight Long Island, a nonprofit that has flown over 240,000 veterans to the nation’s capital since 2005.
“This special Honor Flight gives nine of our ‘Greatest Generation’ Americans an opportunity to contemplate their military memorials, meet representatives of their service branches, commiserate with fellow veterans and exchange World War II stories,” said Bill Jones, the president of Honor Flight Long Island.
Born in New Jersey, Rizutto later moved to Floral Park with her late husband. Today she lives in the Franklin Square retirement home Plattduetsche Home Society.
Before the war broke out in 1939, Rizutto was studying to become a nurse. After graduating from a three-year nursing program in Brooklyn, she said, it was obvious to her and a group of fellow nurses what their next step should be: joining the war effort.
“I had just graduated from nurses’ training and the war broke out,” Rizutto recalled. “So a group of us decided to join up.” She described the decision nonchalantly: “We were young, and we thought, there’s a war, and we’re nurses … we should join up.”
The hospital where Rizutto was working before the war organized a group of soon-to-be members of the 37th General Unit, a hospital unit comprising doctors and nurses who all knew one another from working at the hospital. They were initially sent to Florida for a month of what she described as intensive physical exercise similar to basic training. Next she was shipped to, and stationed in, North Africa for a year at the height of German general Erwin Rommel’s deadly attacks on the continent.
Rizutto described her year in North Africa with one word: “Intense.”
“That was rough,” she added. After Rommel was defeated by U.S. forces, Rizutto and her unit were sent to Italy, to a hospital on the outskirts of Naples. They also helped treat wounded soldiers, she said, inside tents and buildings near the hospital.
After that, Rizutto was moved northward across Italy, from Bologna to Verona to Udine. “That was almost the end of Italy, and that was almost the end of the war,” she said.
As she reflected on her experience in the Army, she emphasized that her unit was always on call to serve wounded soldiers. “If they were injured, we took care of them,” she said, noting that the unit traveled alongside fighting units.
Rizutto said she was nearly sent to Japan to assist in the Pacific theater of the war, but, she added, “The war ended, and we all went home.”
Despite the intensity of the war, she said she cherishes her memories of the time. “It was a fabulous experience,” said Rizutto, who will turn 100 on Sept. 28. “It was interesting and I was young and I learned so much, and it was nice to meet other people, and you grow up — that’s what happens. But I wouldn’t want to do it again.” When she returned to the U.S., she continued working as a nurse.
Rizutto was on a long list of veterans scheduled to take Honor Flights, because the trips were suspended during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Honor Flight Long Island officials decided to hold a one-day trip to Washington this fall rather than wait until next spring.
On Oct. 3, nine veterans and their family members will visit the World War II and Iwo Jima memorials and later attend a changing of the guard and a special wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Rizutto, who has visited the capital in the past, said she was excited to visit the memorials dedicated to the Army.