The Fourth of July may be America's birthday but for one World War II Army veteran, it is the day his dream was fulfilled.
MSgt. Joseph Stolmeier, 97, one of the last living WWII veterans in San Diego County, has never been in a parade before despite being a Purple Heart and Silver Star recipient. So the Del Mar Foundation chose to feature him as the city's 2019 Fourth of July Parade "Guest of Honor."
As the parade progressed down Coast Boulevard, Stolmeier saluted the crowd. Meanwhile, people thanked the WWII veteran for his service, calling him the hero of the day.
He said it was the first time in his life he ever felt overwhelmed.
"It’s amazing and I appreciate it and I’m sure that many of my paratrooper friends who are now deceased would really appreciate it," he said.
He recalled the feeling of seeing servicemembers in parades when he was a child in Davenport, Iowa, where he was born in 1921.
"As a little kid I remember my uncle holding me on his shoulder and we watched the soldiers from World War I in a parade on the Fourth of July," he said.
Stolmeier joined the Iowa National Guard at the age of 17 and was inducted into the Army in February 1941.
As one of the first U.S. Army 82nd Airborne paratroopers to fight the Nazis, Stolmeier was there through it all, from the trek through Africa to the first air jump into Sicily and into the Swiss Alps. He was part of famous battles that helped lead the U.S. to victory, including the Battle of the Bulge where he confronted thousands of Nazis.
"It’s the toughest job I ever did," he said, getting teary-eyed. "If I’m emotional, I don’t mean to be. But it's difficult to spend two-and-a-half years fighting the Germans."
Stolmeier has been wounded multiple times and has lost a lot of men. And while he earned a Purple Heart and Silver Star during his services, he says it is his fellow soldiers who deserve the medals.
"All the men did everything they could,” Stolmeier said. "The men deserve all the credit. I only directed them and encouraged them and showed them how to do things."
When asked what drew him to serve his country, the answer was easy: freedom.
"Independence is something I’ve had all my life, ever since I was a baby and if anyone tries to take it away from me I’ll fight like hell."