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Veteran turns 105 after surviving COVID, Pearl Harbor

  • TAMPA BAY TIMES / DEC. 19
                                World War II veteran Bill Monfort celebrated his 105th birthday in December in Tampa, Fla. Momfort, who survived a bout of COVID-19 in July 2020, said that since he turned 100, he has received multiple birthday cakes each year.

    TAMPA BAY TIMES / DEC. 19

    World War II veteran Bill Monfort celebrated his 105th birthday in December in Tampa, Fla. Momfort, who survived a bout of COVID-19 in July 2020, said that since he turned 100, he has received multiple birthday cakes each year.

TAMPA, Fla. >> After Bill Monfort turned 100, the cakes began to pile up.

With each yearly checkup, his doctor’s office made him one. So did his church, and friends and family.

“One year, I got nine cakes,” the longtime Tampa resident recalled.

On Dec. 17, Monfort celebrated his 105th birthday. He’s survived COVID-19, kamikaze attacks and the assault on Pearl Harbor.

He and Forrest Gump could compare notes.

Monfort learned to drive on a Model T. He remembers getting the polio vaccine — the tasteless, odorless inoculation dropped into a sugar cube and administered right to his tongue. “It wasn’t like people are with COVID now,” he said. “People took it matter-of-fact, as something they needed to do. And they had no problem.”

He once invited Dick Cheney, vice president at the time, to a party for Navy veterans just outside D.C. Cheney came.

Sept. 11, 2001, was three days later.

It was the second time there’d been an attack on U.S. soil in modern-day history. The first time, Monfort was out at sea, 800 miles off the coast of Honolulu.

A radio operator on a destroyer ship, he was one of the first to hear the chilling message: “Air raid Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.”

He witnessed the destruction four days later.

It’s easier for Monfort to tell you what Pacific battles he didn’t fight in in the ensuing world war campaign. He missed only three: Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima.

He can talk for hours about his time in the war.

“He’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,” said Don Alexander, his son-in-law.

To commemorate his service, Monfort dons a baseball cap. It reads “Kamikaze WWII Survivor.”

“That hat has gotten me a lot of free meals,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

After World War II ended, Monfort returned to the United States.

He would go on to help revolutionize care for people with developmental disabilities in Tampa Bay.

It was the 1960s. He and his wife, Bessie, were driving more than two hours to see their first daughter, Rossie, who had developmental disabilities and was living in a state institution. At the time, the nearest state institution for children like her was in Fort Meyers.

Monfort, along with other Hillsborough County families, decided to found a local organization where people with disabilities could live in a homelike setting. Today the charity, Angels Unaware, boasts eight campuses and is the longest-running group home in Tampa Bay.

For his work, the professional hockey team Tampa Bay Lightning honored Monfort as the “Lightning Community Hero” in 2016. The accompanying $50,000 prize went right back to his group homes.

At 103, Monfort contracted COVID-19. He was living alone. His wife had died years earlier.

It was July 2020 and vaccines were not yet available. He spent three weeks in the hospital. He recovered and, after spending time in a rehabilitation center, decided to move into an assisted- living home.

“If I went back to my apartment in Tampa, I could live a lot cheaper than here,” Monfort said. “But at my age it probably wouldn’t be long before I’d be needing some help in the home. Here they’ve got everything.”

As he enters his 105th year, Monfort is content.

He isn’t sure there’s anything in particular he’d like people to know about his life. As one of the last surviving veterans of World War II, he just wants people to remember the conflict.

“Just that it happened,” he said. “We were there.”

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