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2 found U.S. citizenship in Korean conflict

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Although Guevara and Sgaraglia - now Jackson Heights residents - did not meet until joining the Whitestone post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, both served in the Korean War. And both found themselves at a Seoul military installation in May 1954, where they took their oath to the American flag in impromptu and unexpected ceremonies.

On May 20 City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) honored the men with a Council proclamation on the 50th anniversary of their naturalization ceremony. Guevara and Sgaraglia were accompanied by members of their family at the event that took place on the steps of the Flushing post office.

Guevara, 74, emigrated from Ecuador in 1952. From a well-to-do and cosmopolitan background, Guevara said he arrived in New York looking for broader opportunities.

"My father thought maybe I had a better horizon outside, and I agreed," Guevara said in the flawless English he is proud to speak.

When Guevara arrived, he knew no one and had nowhere to go. "I took the bag, put it over my should and started walking," he said.

He stayed at a YMCA and then rented a room in Manhattan.

But he was not stateside long. As a resident immigrant he was required to register with Selective Services and he was drafted to fight in Korea on March 18, 1953.

Sgaraglia, on the other hand, is from Formia, a tiny Italian village just south of Rome. Having a coffee in Guevara's living room, the 70-year-old recalled he came to the United States shortly after World War II.

In 1943, he and his mother fled Formia to wait out the war in the hills surrounding the village. "We were waiting for the Americans to come through," Sgaraglia said, also in a perfect English.

When the family came down from the mountain, the village had been destroyed by German bombs.

In an odd twist, he remembered meeting two American GIs who arrived bearing a message from Sgaraglia's father, who was living in Richmond Hill and working as a grocer. The GIs gave the shoeless Italian boy a pair of boots.

"It was like we were liberated," he said.

It took several years to arrange the paperwork, but Sgaraglia's father sent for them and they arrived in Queens in 1947.

Sgaraglia would not spend much time in Queens either: He signed up for a three-year stint with the Army and wound up with a trucking outfit in the Korean capital.

"Really, seeing all those civilians, I was looking at them and seeing myself," Sgaraglia said. "I think it was the people who suffered the worst."

Guevara also wound up in a transportation unit after starting out in a heavy mortar regiment on the front lines. After two or three months, Guevara was transferred from the "foxholes to an office," where he became a supply clerk for the 24th Provisional Truck Battalion.

His assignment seldom took him far from the demilitarized zone ... except on May 12, 1954 when he was called into Seoul, where he was given his citizenship.

A similar story unfolded for Sgaraglia 10 days later.

"All of a sudden I was brought to this office," Sgaraglia said of his citizenship ceremony. "That felt fantastic. I said, 'Oh, my God, now I'm an American."

Sgaraglia returned to America, where he worked for decades as a quality control manager for Bulova and another electronics company. He married his wife, Eleanor, and the couple has two sons and six grandchildren who live in Whitestone and on Long Island. In retirement, the grandkids have become the focus of their life, he said.

Guevara returned to United States and later married Ibelisse, whom he had met before the war and corresponded with. He had always wanted to be a pilot, so he did the next best thing: He went to work for air cargo companies in management.

Today, Guevara and his wife live in the Jackson Heights home they watched being built in the 1960s. The living room walls are plastered with family photos of their two sons, who were avid Eagle Scouts. The younger, Marcelo, went to Fordham on a full ROTC scholarship and is an investigator with the state police. The elder, Marcelo, who has a master's degree in classical music, has played the organ at Westminster Cathedral in London.

Guevara and Sgaraglia remain active in the Whitestone VFW, where Guevara was recently elected post commander.

Proud of his American journey, Guevara said he has worked hard.

In 52 years he has only collected unemployment once for three weeks. And he has meticulously saved every memento from his life in the states, including his tax return forms from the 1950s.

"Basically I'm proud of my citizenship, proud of everything I've done," Guevara said. "What I lived was a normal dream."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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