Friends across time: Navy buddies reunite after 52 years
By JUSTIN STORY | Bowling Green Daily News | Published: May 13, 2018
OAKLAND, Ky. — Johnny Pearson and John Noga were swapping stories and sharing laughs one recent Sunday morning, exhibiting an easy rapport and deep camaraderie that suggests the two have a longtime friendship that can weather any obstacle.
In their case, that is true.
Until a few months ago, the two Navy buddies hadn't been in contact with each other for 52 years, when their military service ended.
The two exchanged addresses when they departed in 1966, but life intervened, and the pair fell out of touch.
Some online sleuthing by Noga, 77, of Twinsburg, Ohio, enabled him to reconnect in February with Pearson, 73, of Oakland, and the two friends reunited at Nashville International Airport, a meeting more than a half-century in the making.
Pearson reflected on his friendship with Noga while anxiously awaiting his arrival at a baggage claim area.
"In life, you find certain people that mean something to you, and he's one of them," Pearson said.
After finding Pearson a few months ago, Noga called, and the two friends made plans for Noga to travel to Kentucky in the spring to visit Pearson.
"You have no idea what I have gone through trying to locate Johnny, and there was no way in hell I was going to give up," Noga said minutes after flying in from Cleveland.
When Noga and Pearson first met, the pair had each spent a few years in the Navy stationed at far-flung locations.
Pearson enlisted when he was 17, getting his mother's permission to join the military and scratch a powerful itch to leave home and see the world.
"I was so naive, I didn't know anything and hadn't been anywhere," Pearson said. "I thought I would join the Navy and be out on the sea the very next day."
Instead, Pearson took radio communications classes before being assigned to a vessel in Trinidad.
From there, Pearson found himself assigned to the USS Tanner in 1965, a World War II-era attack cargo ship that had been reclassified as a geographical survey ship by the mid-1960s and stationed in Brooklyn, New York.
Noga, a Navy radioman like Pearson, had been stationed in Puerto Rico for the previous two years and was on holiday leave in Ohio in 1965 when he received orders to board the USS Tanner.
When Noga reported in Brooklyn at the shipyard, it was Pearson who escorted him to their cramped sleeping quarters that they shared with some few dozen sailors.
Pearson and Noga hit it off right away, and they often spent time exploring New York in the rare moments when the ship was in port.
"Johnny took me to our quarters and got me situated," Noga said. "Our likes and dislikes seemed to be the same. When we'd go out on liberty, we'd go out together."
Pearson recalled Noga as someone who needed a little coaxing to open up to others, a contrast to Noga's life now, where friends in the senior apartment complex where he lives know him as "Motormouth."
As Pearson and Noga caught up with each other in a lounge area at the airport, the memories came rushing back.
Pearson remembers their ship docking once in Miami Beach, and he and Noga took in the sights of south Florida in their Navy uniforms, paying a visit to the luxe Fontainebleau Hotel.
"There were people there who had more money than I'll ever see," Pearson said.
With the ship frequently out to sea, though, communications with loved ones back home were sporadic, and Noga and Pearson would pass the time talking with each other about girlfriends waiting for them.
During their stop in Florida, the two stopped at a bar, where the owner generously allowed Noga and Pearson to call their girlfriends, Noga said.
In 1966, Pearson earned his discharge and was set to head back to Kentucky, and it was Noga who saw him off from a Greyhound station in Rhode Island to a plane waiting to take Pearson home.
Noga's time in the Navy ended later that same year, and he returned to Ohio.
Though the two exchanged addresses, the pair settled back into their lives, getting married and starting families, each having three children.
Pearson completed a degree at Western Kentucky University and worked on the family farm that he continues to maintain, raising beef cattle and crops.
Noga worked at a print shop for several years and volunteered at a nursing home, which led to him taking a job as activities director there until he retired.
His oldest son is the chief of the police department in Twinsburg, a city perhaps best known for its annual Twins Days Festival, touted as the largest gathering of twins and other multiple siblings.
Though the pair lost contact, it was clear that their friendship left a lasting impression during their many years apart.
"My children know who Johnny is just from me talking about him so much," Noga said.
If you want information, the internet is there for you, and Noga would frequently search online for any scrap that could lead him to Pearson, but he failed to make much progress.
Pearson, meanwhile, doesn't own a computer.
A search on a public records website finally allowed Noga to get in touch with Pearson through his relatives, three of whom had listed phone numbers on the site that he used.
Noga heard back from Pearson's ex-wife within minutes of calling her.
"She says to me, 'I feel like I've known you all my life because (Pearson) has talked about you so much,' " Noga said.
Pearson's ex-wife passed Noga's phone number along to Pearson and within about 10 minutes, the two were talking to each other for the first time in 52 years.
"My wife said to me, 'I should have a camera for the look on your face,' " Noga said about the phone call with Pearson. "You've got to understand, these were tears of joy."
Pearson said he was stunned to hear from his Navy buddy.
"You think about some of those guys and you just wonder if they're still living or in jail or what," Pearson said. "I was really shocked, but it was sure good to hear from him."
The two talked on the phone often ahead of Sunday's reunion, exchanging pictures and recalling bygone days.
Noga said he was impressed with pictures of Pearson's farm, and Pearson was quick with a joke in response to a question about what plans the two will have this week while Noga is in Bowling Green.
"He wanted to know what we was going to be doing, and I said I'm going to put you to work," Pearson said.