While people across East Tennessee gear up for several big Veterans Day celebrations next week, a World War II veteran from Dandridge has already spent the last month saturated with salutes to his service.
Peter Gambino's 97th birthday coincided with his trip to Washington, DC, with the HonorAir Knoxville flight on October 9. WBIR accompanied the veterans on the October Honor Flight and showed footage of the crowd at McGhee Tyson serenading Gambino with an enthusiastic rendition of the Happy Birthday song.
"It really made me feel good. I'm getting all of this attention I normally wouldn't have gotten," said Gambino during the HonorAir trip.When the whirlwind trip to the World War II Memorial was done, Gambino returned to Dandridge with a surprise stack of well-wishes. It was then that the honors truly started to unfold for the U.S. Army veteran.
"Somebody says, 'Here's mail for you.' They gave me this whole package full of birthday cards," said Gambino while standing above an overstuffed manila envelope in his living room Thursday afternoon. "Look at all of these cards. They're all handmade by school kids."
Gambino opened and read from one handcrafted birthday card, then another, and another.
"This one says, 'Mr. Gambino, thank you for your service.' This is a good one that says, 'Happy Birthday! You are a hero!' It is unbelievable," said Gambino.
When the final card count was complete, Gambino's well-wishes broke the century mark.
"It was over 103 birthday cards I got. I've never known anybody to get more than 100 birthday cards in my life, and I've lived a long time. And these are all handmade," said Gambino.
The cards came from students of all ages from schools across East Tennessee, with most of the cards originating from Morristown.
"This one says, 'I attend East Ridge Middle School. I appreciate all you have done for our country.' I've got this other one from a teacher who organized these cards and it says it is from Morristown East High School."
With enough cards to cover the living room carpet, the 97-year-old veteran honored by so many others wanted to make sure to honor the service of the school children.
"I wish I could thank each and every one of these students for taking time out to write these cards. It's amazing. Unbelievable."