SILVER SPRING, MD (June 20, 2012) - If ever there was a standard-bearer for the great American Dream on July 4th, there is none better than the likes of Riderwood retirement community resident Esko Hallila.
Plenty of framed pictures are on the walls of his Riderwood apartment in Silver Spring, MD, most with added photos stuck into the glass. But there is a difference -- not glaring, but held in honor. The photos are mementos of consequence. They reflect a story of a lifetime worth telling, especially this time of year..
Esko passed through Ellis Island in 1926 as the six-year-old son of a shoe maker/mechanic. His father proudly proclaimed that Esko had a job with relatives already in his new country. The start was good, propitious.
Esko's pride in his native Finland bolstered his service to his new country, and he made it doubly sure that that the old-country work ethic and care to detail whetted his resolve to achieve. Early on, swimming became the sport of choice. He was good at it and won local tournaments at school and the YMCA.
He was a budding electrician when Pearl Harbor was bombed. That was when he made a career choice that lasted a lifetime. Early 1942 it was off to Parris Island and his induction into the U.S. Marines.
With his civilian experience as an electrician paving the way, training and assignment to the expanding Marine aviation was a perfect match. In a short, three years, Esko was a master sergeant in charge of fighter squadron maintenance up and down the Atlantic Coast. His requests for combat duty were duly noted but never answered, and by February 1946 he was placed on the rolls of the reserve.
This finally led to a wish being granted. When the reserves were called up in the Korean War, he was assigned first to a fighter squadron in Korea, then in charge of electrical maintenance of squadrons on three different carriers. He saw combat in the Yellow Sea.
In and out of these duties there was swimming: first, on base as a coach and competitor, and finally to star in the Senior Olympics. Proudly, he was to win a national title in the 220 meter race for the Quantico marines.
His Finnish background made him a better American, for there was no one who served this country with such enthusiasm and devotion. Even in retirement, on Flag Day, Esko recited a poem written by a fellow patriot and warrior, a stirring bit of prose that suited his own feelings of what it meant to be an American.
With all of the medals and trophies, accolades, proclamations and Hall of Fame, his excellence in the sport of swimming, competing in the Senior Olympics over the years, Esko has definitely left his mark.
As noted, in government employ in later years, he designed that bright and beautiful illumination of the Washington Monument, a tribute to the first of many great American leaders.
But the crowning achievement -- his citizenship, and that of his mother and father -- still brings tears to his eye as he recalls the day in a courthouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, when his mother stood with a few others and pronounced the oath that hard work and study had brought about.
Semper Fi, Esko.