Joseph Hall’s crew mates have all passed away. So has his wife of 67 years. He told the Tampa Bay Times last month that his March 8 birthday would be celebrated alone.
Some readers refused to let that happen. On Friday, Mission United, a United Way Suncoast leadership society that works to support the military and veteran community, hosted an outdoor birthday gathering for Hall.
The 97-year-old World War II veteran put on the uniform that went viral and ambled down the grass to the waterfront park within Mediterranean Manors in Dunedin, where he lives.
Over 60 people were waiting for him, wearing masks and sitting in beach chairs. Some came from his church. Others were neighbors who had lived alongside him for decades.
All he had wanted was one final way to honor his late crew mates. He’d hired a seamstress in Dunedin named Susan Williams to recreate his old Navy uniform as his burial outfit.
But after a February story on the project in the Times was syndicated by the Associated Press, readers around the country reached out.
Several have offered to pay for his uniform. Over 100 people have sent cards and letters. He saved each piece of mail in a scrapbook.
And once a week, he and the seamstress meet for breakfast.
“He has been so very happy with people contacting him,” Williams wrote in an email. “Two weeks ago he looked up at the sky and said, ‘Thank you Lord. I was so lonely.’”
Last weekend, someone brought a cooler filled with water bottles. Another brought individually wrapped cupcakes with red icing. Many stopped Hall to take photos together.
“He really doesn’t like the attention on himself,” said Laura Griffin, his neighbor of nearly four decades.
Retired nurse Merria Agnew came after reading the article. She had worked with Hall and his late wife for over 30 years.
“You look wonderful,” she told him as they reunited.
“She took care of me,” he explained, nodding to Agnew. “That’s why I’m here today.”
Mission United advisory council member Mike Bedke wanted to organize a gathering for Hall after sharing his story with his children.
“These are heroes,” said Bedke, whose brother and dad served. “They should be honored because they did all the right things.”
Five men from the United States Marine Forces Central Command headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base came to wish Hall a happy birthday. On behalf of the general, they presented him with a Command Coin in recognition of his service in WWII. Hall plans to wear it on his uniform as part of his final resting outfit.
The men clustered together, listening to Hall explain the details on his uniform and speak quietly about his memories of serving with the Navy.
“For us, it’s a great opportunity to talk with and learn from someone from the greatest generation,” said Col. Devin Young. “When we talk to someone like that it gives us perspective.”
George Howell, a Tampa attorney on the advisory council of Mission United, gathered everyone together to present Hall with a gift. First, Hall shared some memories with the crowd of his days in the Navy working alongside the Marines.
“When we got to shore, I don’t know how they got the liquor,” Hall recalled. ”But...I didn’t want to go back to the ship.”
“We were really buddies. We worked together and it was great. I love them. Thank you.”
Howell presented Hall with a colorful gift bag.
“If you already have this, don’t tell me, OK?” Howell said.
Hall was silent as he pulled out a thick white book from the bag — an anthology of the Navy published by the Naval Historical Foundation.
“Oh, oh, oh,” Hall said. “It’s beautiful.”
He dabbed his eyes with a tissue. “All I wish is that my crew was here.”
“They’re here,” someone called from the crowd.
“They’re here,” said another. Then, the crowd started clapping.
“Thank you for your service,” Howell said.
The party resumed. Folks continued passing out cupcakes. Neighbors lined up for their turn to take photos with Hall.
“I didn’t know there were so many wonderful people in the world,” he said.