It was like old times when Sal Russotto of Port Charlotte, Fla. and Charles Wilson of Tampa, Fla. two Korean era vets, met for the first time in 43 years, at Russotto’s home.
They had last seen each other in 1958 when they finished a three-year hitch in Korea with the 724th Ordinance Battalion of the Army’s 24th Infantry Division. Sal and Charlie were 18-year-old high school dropouts who had decided to join the Army and see the world. These two soldiered with three other buddies they haven’t yet located: Jerry Stitzel of Portland, Org.; Fred Tarala of Auburn, N.y., and John Johnston of Pittsburgh, Pa.
“Jan. 31, 1955, the G.I. Bill went out,” Sal said. “so we both enlisted just before that to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. After basic, we were sent to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the headquarters of Army ordinance, in Aberdeen, Md., for 13 weeks of advanced training.
Following a trip by ship from California to Japan and on to Inchon, South Korea that lasted a couple of weeks, the 724th was put aboard a dilapidated old train for a very slow night ride to Seoul.
“We were 18-year-old kids and scared to death,” Sal said. “There were people along both sides of the tracks from Inchon to Seoul who were looking to take your money and anything else you might have of value.
“They told us not to stick our hands out the window because these people would pull a watch right off your arm. If they couldn’t pull it off, they’d chop your arm off to get it.
“It was a terrible, terrible trip,” Sal recalled.
None of the five teen-aged soldiers had ever been in a foreign country before — and certainly not one like Korea.
“We were schooled to become specialists in parts identification,” Sal explained. “If we picked up a part on a battlefield, we had to instantly know whether it came off of a howitzer, a tank or a jeep. The idea was that we would save these parts and reuse them.”
Their other primary job was supplying specific units with ammunition. In Charles’s case, he provided ammo for the 13th Field Artillery and the 19th Infantry Regiment.
Sal was the one that ended up with the cushy job. He was assigned to be a driver for the colonel commanding the 724th.
“I had a jeep with a .30 caliber machine mounted on it, a couple of big radios in the back and a whip antenna. I was the pride of the whole battalion. I could go in the motor pool and say, ‘I want that jeep painted yellow.’ They would do it immediately, because I was the colonel’s driver,” Sal said.
“It was an experience. It was a lot of fun,” he said.
Charles’s recollections of Korea weren’t nearly so grand.
“It was an uncivilized country. There were nothing but shacks and very few roads. It smelled of human excretion. It was a nasty place,” he said.
Then there were the good times. There was Tokyo and seven days of R&R after every four months in Korea.
“It was like going from hell to heaven,” he said.
“The Japanese were very cultured, very clean. They would be sweeping down and cleaning the streets at 6 a.m. They were very nice people and easy to get along with,” Sal said.
After three years in the Army, 16 months of that time in Korea, Sal and Charles came home to a country prospering and at peace.
Sal went to work and Charles kept on partying and razing hell until he was arrested in Tampa and told by the judge that he had better re-up in the Army “‘Because you ain’t got all the hell out of you yet.'”
He took the judge’s advice and signed up for another three years with the U.S. Army’s Guided Missile Commander. By the time he was discharged, in 1960, Charles was a sergeant in command of seven Nike-Hercules nuclear rockets, part of a battery of 21, located in Lincoln, Mass.
He and his wife, Claire, moved back to Tampa from Massachusetts. Charles went back to what he knew best — commercial net fishing. For the past 40 years, he has been in commercial fishing.
“It’s been tough ever since the net ban in the mid-1990s, but I’ve continued to make a living fishing in my boat off shore,” he said.
Sal eventually owned his own factory that produced PVC furniture he made and designed. He had four retail stores at one point. Although recently retired, he talking about going back to work again selling windows for a friend who has a window company.
It was Sal who found Charles a few days ago by calling most of the dozen or so Charles Wilsons in the Tampa phone book listed on the Internet. On the sixth call he hit pay dirt:
“I’m looking for an old war buddy of mine named Charles Wilson who was in Korea with me,” Sal told the voice on the phone.
“I was in Korea with the 724th Ordinance Battalion,” the voice replied.
“You’re my man,” Sal screamed over the phone.
They spent most of Wednesday checking out old Army pictures that showed them as little more than kids. It took them no time to get acquainted again after nearly half a century.
“If we could just come up with the other three guys, it would be just perfect,” Charles said with a smile.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, July 19, 2001 and is republished with permission.
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Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Monday, January 14, 2002
Four old soldiers got together for the first time in 44 years last week in Port Charlotte.
It all began last summer, when Sal Russotto of Port Charlotte got it in his head he was finally going to try and find out whatever happened to his Korea War-era buddies who had served with him in the 24th Infantry Division. He got his son to come up with Charles Wilson’s address and phone number in Tampa on the Internet.
They got together for the first time in decades at Russotto’s home last July. The Sun ran their story and picture. The article mentioned that the two of them were still trying to determine the whereabouts of Jerry Stitzel and Fred Tarala — all four had served together in the mid-1950s in Korea.
Jim Mazy of Englewood, a disabled Marine who served in Vietnam, read the article. He decided to see if he could find Stitzel and Tarala on the Internet. It took him six minutes. He does this kind of stuff for kicks.
Mazy called Russotto and told him he had located his two long-lost Army buddies. Stitzel was in Portland, Ore., and Tarala was in Pittsford, N.Y., according to Mazy. The Port Charlotte man couldn’t believe his ears.
In no time, the four were in contact by phone. Last August, Russotto, Wilson and Tarala flew west to meet with Stitzel in Portland for the first time in more than four decades.
“This is unbelievable,” Russotto said with a big smile as his buddies sat around the dining room table telling war stories the other day.
“We started off here after all these years just like we had just left each other the day before,” Stitzel said. “It was like nothing had changed.”
Their wives, who had not met as a group before, were having almost as good a time talking in an adjoining room.
So what’s next on their agenda?
They’re making plans to go back to Tokyo and visit the New Mori Hotel, where they stayed as young soldiers when they went on leave out of Korea. The four couples hope to make that trip sometime within the next year, if everything goes as planned.
“We all agree we’re very sorry this didn’t happen many, many years ago,” Russotto said as he put on his white ball cap with “Korea” emblazoned in big, bold, red letters on the front. Underneath in black letters it read: “24th Inf. Div., 724th Ord. Bn.”