While stationed at the Johnston Island Air Force Base in the Pacific Ocean during the end of World War II, a then 30-year-old Louis Forte would often lighten the mood with a joke before climbing aboard a military plane.
“We’d say, ‘Ok sharks, have a good dinner today’,” referring to the choppy waters surrounding the base.
Sitting in the sun on the deck of his Heritage Hills home, at 104 years old, it’s clear the veteran hasn’t lost his sense of humor or his sense of adventure.
“I charge $500 for interviews,” he says, upon greeting The Somers Record editor.
His daughter, Dorothy Forte Rotolo, laughs and waves off his comment.
The 1-mile island of “pure white sand” was where Forte spent most of his time as a corporal in the Air Corps from Oct. 1, 1942, to Feb. 8, 1946, when he was honorably discharged. Forte served as ground crew, but would often go flying with the pilots.
He was a driver for the White House during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration—at one point for Winston Churchill’s secretary—when he was drafted. He remembers being told that anyone fit for overseas service had to go.
The island stored ammunition and was a refueling base for planes; the threat that the whole island could light up at any moment loomed over the soldiers, hence the need for some comic relief.
“We had more gas than fresh water,” Forte said.
Forte had come to America as a child from Positano, Italy—a fishing town with homes built into the mountains—and grew up in the Bronx with his parents and two older brothers.
At 16, his father died and Forte said he made the heartbreaking decision to drop out of high school to work to support his mother.
“I quit school and the principal, when I told her I was quitting—I’ll never forget it—she was like my mother, she hugged me. She said, ‘Louis, you can’t.’ I said, ‘My father died. My mother, she’s too old to go to work’,” Forte said.
He started saving all his change, selling the newspaper and doing odd jobs to make money. He would pick pennies up off the street until he had about $7,000 to buy a piece of property.
The money was enough for a piece of land on Eastchester Road and Mace Avenue, but plans were put on hold while Forte served in the war. When he came back he opened a grocery store where he would later meet his wife, Dorothy, (after which they named their daughter) while she was food shopping.
“She came to buy some vegetables or something, and I looked at her and I liked her,” Forte said. “She would come on the weekends. That’s how we got together.”
Dates would start after midnight as Forte would be at the grocery store from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and then first go home to shower and shave before picking her up for the evening.
They married in 1955, had three kids—Louis, Dorothy and Lawrence—and moved to New Rochelle, then Mahopac and then Heritage Hills, where Forte’s lived for about 24 years.
On Memorial Day, Forte and many of his children and grandchildren (he has seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren) were invited to the Yankees game where Forte became the oldest veteran honored for his service.
The crowds roared as his age and service record went up on the Jumbotron. Forte, wearing Mariano Rivera’s jersey, number 42, walked proudly out onto the field.
His daughter Dorothy described her parents as two of the Yankees’ biggest fans. Forte grew up going to watch the games for a quarter at the old stadium in the Bronx.
Several years ago, daughter Dorothy arranged a dinner with Rivera, Forte’s favorite player, who told Forte how shocked he was to be picked by the Yankees after being scouted playing on the streets.
“He told me the whole story,” Forte said. “He’s a great man, very down to earth.”
At the Yankees game on Memorial Day, Forte was the star. Kids came up to thank him for his service and he got a surprise visit from SNL’s Kenan Thompson, too.
At 104, his daughter Dorothy said Forte has become something of a local celebrity. Around Heritage Hills he’s known as the Bocce champion. He helped grow the club and taught many how to play. He only stopped driving at 100 and up until last year he lived completely on his own.
He’s only recently started saying that he feels like he’s getting old.
His family believes its this mindset, his sense of humor and many friends that have kept him young. Plus, he’s maintained the same healthy diet he had as a kid in Italy. He eats organic vegetables, some of which he grows on his deck, and lots of fresh fish. In Positano, his family would get milk from a goat walked from house to house to fill up the bottles for the day.
He exercises as much as he can and says moderation—“eat well, don’t overdo anything”—has helped him thrive.
For his family, seeing him out on the Yankees field was emotional. Especially, too, because the month before he battled viral pneumonia and his doctors were unsure if he would pull through.
“It’s something we always talked about,” said granddaughter Christa Rotolo. “It’s incredible to see him combining the two things he loves. One, he’s most proud of serving his country. And it’s something growing up that we always knew, Grandpa and Grandma had to have the Yankees on.”