Last year Veterans DAy with Ludie, Rudy and Ambassador Lill. Photo Credit Ludie Olenchalk
Last year Veterans Day with Ludie, Rudy and Ambassador Lill. (Photo Credit Ludie Olenchalk)

Last Veteran’s Day I got the chance to attend the Fresno Veteran’s Day Parade with my fellow Ambassadors. The day before we had spent time at Fresno State having Fresno State students, faculty, staff, and visitors sign a We ❤ Our Veterans poster. Most of us had never been to the parade, but we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to show our support to veterans. We all met up at Fresno State with our sign and drove downtown, setting up shop right on a corner where veterans in the parade would most easily see us. We had many heartfelt thank yous said to us as veterans walked by our sign, some family members of the veterans would even point out the sign making sure that their veteran saw it. After the parade we didn’t want to just crumble up the sign and throw it away – we wanted to give it to someone and I knew just the person to give it to, Rudolph Giannoni.

When I think about what lifelong service looks like, my first thought is always my friend, Rudy.
Rudy in his ealry 20’s. (

Rudy was born on April 18th, 1923 and twenty years later in 1943, though he was not eligible for the draft, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force. Rudy was a Staff Sergeant left waist gunner on a B-17 Bomber. On June 17th, 1944 on his seventh mission over Misburg, Germany, his plane was shot down.

An picture of the type of plane Rudy flew in. Boeing B-17E. (U.S. Air Force photo)
An picture of the type of plane Rudy flew in. Boeing B-17E. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Rudy spent the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft IV in Poland. During the coldest winter on record at the time Rudy was sent on the “Black Death March” walking from Poland to his Liberation in May of 1945. Upon coming home Rudy got married and he also began working for Kraft Foods, retiring after 37 years of service to the company.

Rudy didn’t begin talking about his life as a POW until one of his granddaughters asked him questions about World War II for a school assignment. Once he began talking and educating others, he couldn’t be stopped. Rudy has made over 70 visits across the Central Valley to many elementary schools, high schools, clubs, and various organizations – the theme of his visits was always, “Experiences as a POW in World War II”. 

Rudy spent a lot of his time serving at the Central Valley VA Hospital. Rudy was a member of the Fresno Chapter #1 of Ex-POWs, Purple Heart Chapter, American Legion Post 509 and 4, and was also on the Fresno Veteran’s Day Parade Organizing Committee. Rudy has also played an instrumental part in organizing the fundraising efforts to erect an Ex-Pow Monument at the VA Hospital in 2009.   

Rudy with his daughter Debbi and son Gary at the Ex POW Monument. Photo Credit Gary Giannoni
Rudy with his daughter Debbi and son Gary at the Ex POW Monument. Photo Credit Gary Giannoni

In 2013, he was part of the first Valley Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. and the World War II Memorial. On Rudy’s 90th Birthday he took a flight in a B-17 over Fresno, was recognized with the “Key to the City of Fresno,” and all of this was televised on NBC Nightly News.  Rudy was given the French Legion of Honor Medal. In June of 2015 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from VA Central California Health Care System.

Rudy has been a part of my life since before I was even thought of. When my mom was fresh out of college she took a job at Kraft Foods, her position was the one that Rudy was retiring from. My mom spent a couple of weeks learning the ways of Rudy. Rudy was a lovely Italian man that always stood up straight and always greeted you with a hug and a kiss. Rudy and I were pen pals from the end of my 8th grade year to the end of high school. Rudy was one of the few people who looks into a person’s eyes and sincerely listens.  This man had a brain filled with  knowledge and a heart full of love. And he was always willing to share. I could never be sad around Rudy because he had this incredible personality that was so contagious.

Visiting Rudy this past May because he wasn't able to see me at my college graduation. (Photo Credit Ludie)
Visiting Rudy this past May because he wasn’t able to see me at my college graduation. (Photo Credit Ludie)

Rudy helped show me the importance of love of Country and of Veteran’s Day. On this day, not only do I think of Rudy, but also the past, present, and future men and women who sacrifice their lives for the protection of others. Although Rudy is no longer with us and I can’t visit him on Veteran’s Day, his spirit has left an incredible impact not only on my life, but on all the lives of those who ever had the pleasure of meeting such an outstanding person. I will never forget my Rudy and I will always remember to thank my Veterans. I hope each one of us can take the time, today and everyday, to thank the ones that protect us. 

How are you going to thank a Veteran? Do you have a Rudy in your life?

-Ambassador Ludie