There is nothing like running into old friends in the most unexpected places. Like on a vacation, or in a mall or even in the supermarket. It is always a time for a “Hail and how are you?” moment.
But what if you ran into your old buddies in some far-off land? Now, that would be a time for a real celebration. And it did happen. To several area men. During World War II.
Here is their story.
With millions of American men serving in the far-flung battlefields of the globe during World War II, can you imagine what it must have been like to look up and see someone from your little town in Otsego County walking down the street toward you?
It happened to Corporal Joe Field, Pfc. Ralph Leach and Lt. Maylon Clark of Hartwick. They ran into each other in New Guinea in August of 1944. I’ll bet these three guys never even heard of this South Pacific island before they signed up and were shipped out. There is not much on record of what they did during their reunion, so I guess maybe the old saying goes that “what happens in New Guinea, stays in New Guinea!”
Four young men from Cooperstown also managed to unknowingly converge together in Hawaii in July 1944. We can only imagine the look on the faces of “Big Jim” Lettis, Harold “Plumber” Butler, George “Doc” Turner, and Dick “Deak” Deakin when they first saw each other. We don’t have to just imagine what these old buddies did, however. In a letter home, Deak Deakin said they “ate steak dinners within earshot of the ocean and were served cocktails by an awe-stricken Kanaka lass whose eyes were nearly as large as our check.” The writer said the four boys laughed and caroused well into the night and ended the evening solemnly toasting to each others’ good luck in the coming days of the war.
Deakin also commented that “the four must have established some sort of a record for Cooperstown hometowners meeting oversees.”
These faraway meetups must have been especially poignant when you consider that families were pulled apart during the war, American men were scattered to the wind to fight in Europe and the Pacific and that because of the long lag time in getting news back home, loved ones rarely knew if someone was safe or not until a very old letter appeared in the very old mailboxes of our rural area. To be sure, many of these letters carried sad news. But for these lads the times spent laughing and reminiscing about home must have been a warm and joyous occasion.
And here is one that takes the cake. No fewer than five servicemen met during World War II in an unscheduled, unplanned rendezvous in Sydney, Australia, also in July of 1944. All were young, far from home, no doubt lonely for a friendly face and, yes, all were from Oneonta.
I am sure the five spent their time over a cold Australian beer, chatting about home, Mom’s apple pie, Laskaris’ candy store, the railroad yards of the Sixth Ward, hometown football games and, yes, I’m sure they pined for their City of the Hills sweethearts waiting for their safe return.
All reunions are wonderful, but imagine how sweet these must have been. I have no idea if any of these guys are still around, or if they all even made it through the war, but if they did I’m sure they can remember just like yesterday once hooking up with long-lost friends and neighbors thousands of miles from home just like it was yesterday.
The five Oneotnans who ran into each other in Sydney, and actually posed for a photo together on the front page of the Sydney Sun on May 16, 1944, were Gerald Terpenning, an adviser for the U.S. Army; James Stewart, president of the Oneonta Ice Works; Benedict deAngelo, an Oneonta college football coach; L. Colville Winsor, an Oneonta stock broker; and A.M. Learned.
All in the uniform of the U.S. military. All from Oneonta and all together, unexpectedly and for a brief time, in a place about as far away from our city as you could find on a map in 1944.
Oh, and by the way. Before A.M. Learned signed up to fight in the war, he was the city editor of the newspaper you are now holding in your hand or reading online.
Sweet reunions, to be sure.
Merry Christmas and joyous holidays, everybody.
I’ll catch you next year ...
“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find him on Facebook by searching “Big Chuck.” He invites you to contact him at email@example.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.