Earlier this year, Charles “Charlie” Montanaro skydived to celebrate his 100th birthday. Today, the centenarian flies with the angels. The World War II veteran, who served in the Merchant Marine and inspired thousands of veterans everywhere, died Tuesday at the Reno Veterans Affairs Hospital after a short illness. “Charlie … he was somewhat of an angel,” said Adam Wygnanski, who accompanied Montanaro on his first Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. in November 2017 and also arranged for Montanaro’s skydiving in Arizona in late January. “I had the opportunity to put together the parachute jump for him,” Wygnanski said. “During the (2017) Honor Flight, I asked him what he wanted to do on his 100th birthday. He wanted to sky jump, and I made him a promise.” Wygnanski said he was glad to make Montanaro’s birthday wish come true. “I wanted to make it happen for him,” said Wygnanski, who waited on the ground. “He sky dived with a Green Beret, and that was an honor for him to do it.” Montanaro, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, lived in the Carson Valley and at one time in Mound House. He especially touched people around the world with his sky jump. Television and newspaper accounts provided those outside Northern Nevada a glimpse of a centurion who wanted to touch the clouds. After Charlie and a small number of Honor Flight Nevada travelers returned home, Wygnanski remembers an interview Montanaro conducted. A Japanese newsman interviewed the newly minted sky diver to gain his perspective. “His story went all over the world,” Wygnanski said. In retrospect, Robert Plant of Reno said Montanaro persuaded him and his friend Loni Weaver to jump out of an airplane. “It was the most exceptional experience of our,” Plant said. “The freefall was the best part. Loni too. All because Charlie was such an amazing individual and friend to all.”
Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group Charlie Montanaro carries an urn of a fellow Merchant Marine veteran, Knox Moore, in 2017 at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley.
Honor Flight family Jon Yuspa, founder and director of Honor Flight Nevada, said the organization adopted Charlie because he doesn’t have any living relatives. “We talk about that family,” Yuspa said. Several days before Montanaro died, Wygnanski had visited his friend at the hospital. After Montanaro died, Wygnanski paid his respects during an Honor Walk at the hospital for the World War II veteran. “He lived a good life, and I admire him totally,” Wygnanski said. “He was my hero. He was my inspiration. I really loved Charley.” Yuspa said when news was released after Montanaro’s death and within 30 minutes notice, 25 nonfamily members drove to the hospital to honor their friend’s service and involvement with Honor Flight Nevada. Jim Forbus, who also accompanied Montanaro on the skydiving trip and traveled with him on the two trips, said Honor Flight welcomed him “with open arms.” “He was an inspiration for the younger guys …. Guys in their 80s and 90s,” said a grinning Forbus, a member on the Honor Flight Nevada board. “Charlie was a 100-year-old who kept going. I want to be like him.”
Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group A warm greeting awaits Charlie Montanaro, left, at the Daniel Inouye International Airport in Honolulu in February 2020.
A great promoter Montanaro, who moved to Nevada in 2014, became involved with the veteran community and promote additional understanding for the Merchant Marine and what jobs the mariners did aboard ship during World War II. During the annual Memorial Day ceremony in 2017 at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley, the veterans coalition paid tribute to the Merchant Marine. Even 75 years after the war, the associate administrator for the strategic sealift for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration, told The Fernley Reporter the mariners serve a critical role to ensure the country’s national security and economic prosperity. Kevin Tokarski said their role was crucial in the war effort. Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Gov. Brian Sandoval, along with Congressman Mark Amodei made special presentations to Merchant Mariner mariners Bill Lepore and Montanaro for their service aboard one of the Liberty ships during the war. Four months later, Montanaro returned to the Fernley veterans’ cemetery as part of a ceremony to honor veterans as part of the Missing in America project. The remains had been unclaimed for years if not for decades. A bagpiper played a dirge while leading 27 men and women including Montanaro to the columbarium. Montanaro carried an urn containing the remains of Knox Moore, a fellow mariner who died in 1989. “All of those guys were forgotten,” Montanaro said after the service. “I asked to carry him. I saw his name on a list.” A mariner’s life Montanaro and Knox both enlisted in the Merchant Marines after the United States entered World War II in December 1941, but eventually they found their way to the Silver State sometime after the war. “We were all volunteers,” Montanaro recalled of his time as a mariner. “Nobody would take me because I was color blind.” Life aboard a cargo ship during World War II was both hard and dangerous work. Mariners died at a much higher rate than those from the other services. Both Japanese and German submarines preyed on the ships, sinking more than 700 of them from 1942-1945. During that time, 8,651 mariners out of 215,000 paid the ultimate sacrifice to their country. During his time in the Pacific, Montanaro’s ship carried ammunition from island to island. Near the end of the war and before two atomic bombs fell on a pair of Japanese cities, his ship anchored near the island of Okinawa, the designated staging area for invading the Japanese mainland. The mariners eventually attained veterans’ status in 1988 when the Department of Defense approved the measure. Although many people will remember Montanaro has an intrepid mariner, they will remember him more for his inspiration with Honor Flight Nevada and for promoting the Merchant Marine. “Charlie became the senior ambassador for the Merchant Marine, Yuspa explained. “We had heart-to-heart discussions on the videos from around the world on his sky driving.” Montanaro asked what he did to deserve this. “You are leading the charge for the Merchant Marine,” Yuspa replied. When Montanaro parachuted out of the plane, he had the Merchant Marine flag with him and flapping in the wind.
Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group Members of a veterans’ motorcycle club in Honolulu bid farewell to Charlie Montanaro after Honor Flight Nevada visited Pearl Harbor in 2020.
Memories of a veteran KOLO-TV morning anchor Rebecca Kitchen, a Carson City native, traveled with Montanaro and other veterans on two flights. Kitchen said one comment has resonated with her. "There's very few people I've met whom I didn't like,” Montanaro said, “Like I say, God made us all so we better get along." Kitchen said Montanaro was the type of person who associated with everyone and had a friend everywhere he went. He had a friend everywhere he went, and if he didn't have one, he made one. “He represents a true fighter, someone who had tough experiences but didn't let life keep him down,” she said. “He kept moving forward, and I think that is a lost skill today. He proved you can do anything, and age really is just a number. From buying a house in his 90s to skydiving at 100, if there's anyone who says they can't do something, I say look to Charlie.” Honor Nevada Flight board member Laura Meaders said she will remember his “infectious laugh and thousand-volt smile” “He could instantly make a room erupt in laughter with his sassy wit,” Meaders said. “He would give hugs from the heart and make everyone around him feel loved.” Meaders said she me Montanaro at various gathering,s which turned into adventures such as visiting the nation’s capital, Pearl Harbor and Arizona when he sky dived. “Charlie was a spitfire and had more energy than 20-year-olds,” Meaders said. Both Wygnanski and Forbus recalled specific memories of Montanaro’s two Honor Flights, especially the one to Washington, D.C. The veterans visited the Navy Memorial on their second day of the trip. The memorial honors those who are serving or have severed in the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine. Montanaro had found the bronze inscription and pointed it out to Wygnanski. “He was able to find the Merchant Marine dedication at the Navy Memorial,” Wygnanski said. “He also got to lay a wreath at the World War II memorial on Veterans Day. That was huge.” Montanaro said he was pleased to find the Merchant Marine inscription. “They didn’t forget us,” he said. An unexpected highlight of the group’s visit to the World War II memorial occurred when Montanaro met the late Jim Leavelle, the Dallas detective who was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when Jack Ruby fired a shot into the assassin’s stomach. “On his first Honor Flight, he would always wear his Merchant Marine jacket over his (Honor Flight) shirt.” Forbus recalled. “We thought we had missed him in the Las Vegas airport and looked all over. We found him with two gals.” Montanaro seemed unphased. “I told you I was meeting my two girlfriends in Las Vegas,” Montanaro replied to Forbus. Forbus, though, remembers one woman in a wheelchair and the other standing up. “He was a lady’s man,” Forbus said. Even at the age of 99 during the Hawaii trip, Forbus said Montanaro volunteered to sway his body on a wide stage to the hulu with the dancers at the Pacific Cove luau. “We had an amazing time in Hawaii on the Pearl Harbor trip with him,” said Dayton resident Lori Williams Schierholt, who was a guardian for another veterans. “There were a couple of cute memories of him. One was when he got up on stage and danced with the hula girls. He was so adorable (because) he knew how to charm the ladies.” Every time Williams Schierholt saw Montanaro at a function, she would give him a big hug. She said his reply was, “He loves a hug from a pretty lady.” Charlotte LaCombe likes one of the Honor Flight’s motto, and she said it applied to the trip she took in 2017 as a guardian. “We leave as strangers, we return as friends,” she said. “I was looking forward to seeing Charlie at the upcoming Honor Flight luncheon and possibly the Gold Star family tree lighting and his next birthday, of course. The veterans become friends of sorts, and he surely will be missed by so many he called friends.”
Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group Charlie Montanaro, right arrives at the Reno Tahoe International Airport after a 2017 Honor Flight.