"I had to be there," said Fortunato, who was a member of the artillery that supported the 106th Infantry during the famous Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in 1945.
Fortunato first made a call to Rep. Robert Menendez' office and asked for help. "Congressman Menendez' staff was very courteous and told me what I had to do," said Fortunato, who was a police officer in North Bergen for 30 years, then was the commissioner in charge of Public Safety and also served as the township's director of Public Works. "They treated me royally. After speaking with them, I couldn't wait to get there."
Fortunato took the journey to the nation's capital last weekend with his son-in-law, Kyle Gehan, determined to pay tribute to many of his colleagues and comrades who were not as fortunate as Fortunato to return home from World War II.
"It was unbelievable," Fortunato said of the new memorial, which was visited by more than 500,000 people during its first weekend of operation. "It was amazing how many people were there. All you saw everywhere was gray hair and little American flags. I'm 80 years old and I was one of the youngest ones there. It was very emotional for everyone who was there."
While Fortunato had no idea that the turnout for the opening weekend would be so immense, he was still happy he was there to take part in the commemoration.
"It was a little hectic and I couldn't get close enough to take pictures," Fortunato said. "At first, the people were coming in dribs and drabs, but then, all of a sudden, there were tons of people. I didn't want to step over anyone to get closer. It would have been hard to do so."
It didn't take long for Fortunato to feel the emotion of the moment.
"I'm telling you, I still get choked up now," said Fortunato, fighting back tears as he recalled the feelings he had last weekend. "You see men 80, 90 years old, all doing whatever they could to get to that monument and all crying. These men knew they were home and that they had a home there. It brought back a lot of memories for me."
Fortunato, who was nearly mortally wounded while testing ammunition in a training camp in Wales in 1944, recovered quickly enough that he was sent to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, although don't dare ask him about the movie that starred Henry Fonda.
"We were sent there and within 24 hours, two entire regimens were wiped out," Fortunato recalled. "You see all these movies and pictures about the Battle of the Bulge and unless you were there, you have no idea. There was snow, fog. It was hell. The one movie with Henry Fonda I particularly hated because they make it seem like he won the battle by himself. There was nothing about the guys in the trenches."
Fortunato has been able to go back to Belgium twice and visit the scene of the historic battle. He went back for the 50th anniversary almost a decade ago, then returned again a few years later after making some friends in Belgium.
"I lost a lot of friends in battle there, too many to count," said Fortunato, who retired from the North Bergen Police Department in 1979. "Our artillery unit was a pretty lucky outfit. We were wondering when our luck was going to run out, when we were going to get hit hard. But if we would have lost Belgium, we probably would have lost the entire war, because they would have had an open road to the English Channel. So we all stayed there and fought."
Fortunato has so much pride in being a veteran that he has a daily reminder of the freedoms he served to protect. "I've been flying the American flag outside my house since the day I returned home to North Bergen," Fortunato said. "I rebuilt my home and purposely put the flagpole there."
Fortunato has also been a member of the North Bergen American Legion Post 33 and a member of the Veterans of Foreign War Post 2645 for many years.
Despite the crowds, Fortunato said that he was more than pleased to visit the new monument last weekend.
"It came a little late in life, but it's better late than never," Fortunato said of the memorial. "It was definitely worth the while. People were coming up to me, asking me if I was a World War II veteran. When I said, 'Yes,' they said, 'Thank you.' That really meant a lot to me."
Fortunato said he hopes to return to visit the World War II Memorial soon.
"As long as the good lord allows me, I'm going back," Fortunato said. "If there's a bus tour, I want them to take me back, take me home. I have to go again. When you see it, it's so emotional. If you don't get choked up by it, then you never will. My son-in-law wasn't in any war and he got choked up."