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Elizabeth Cook: What happened to military buddy?

Memorial Day is supposed to focus on the men and women who lost their lives while serving in the military. But what about the comrades you just lose?

Jimmie Wilkerson stopped by the Post recently with a story he had to tell. There’s a lesson in it about searching and searching and never giving up.

Wilkerson joined the Navy in 1955 and went to Atsugi, Japan, for two years. His bunkmate was Willie Roy Turner. They were the same age — 17 — and landed in the same place.  Otherwise, though, they were pretty different.

Jimmie stood 6-foot-2.  Willie was about 5-foot-2, his old friend recalls. People called him “Short Man.”

Jimmie grew up in rural Rowan County. Willie was from Detroit.

Jimmie was white. Willie was black.

But for the bunkmates, color did not make a bit of difference.

“We were the best of friends,” Jimmie says. They went to chow together, played on the bowling team together.

They were always together on base, Jimmie says — until they weren’t.

The Korean War had ended in 1953. While Jimmie and Willie were in Japan, the U.S. started downsizing the military. Orders came quickly, and one day Willie went home before Jimmie knew he’d gotten his papers.

Just like that. No goodbyes.     

After two years of eating three meals a day together and sharing bunks night after night, they did not get a chance to exchange addresses. They literally went their separate ways.

That bothered Jimmie more and more as the years went by.

“I tried for 30 years to get in touch,” Jimmie says. Once he routed a trip to the state of Washington through Detroit to see if he could find Willie.

No luck.

When the internet came along, Jimmie went online and tried searching there once or twice a year. Over and over. Year after year.

It bothered Jimmie — losing his connection with someone who was so close and so important at a pivotal time of his life. When you’re 17, two years is a long time, and coming-of-age friendships form bonds like no others.

The urge to find Willie was always especially strong around Memorial Day and Veterans Day. But Jimmie searched throughout the year. So last month, he typed in Willie’s name for the umpteenth time, W-i-l-l-i-e-R-o-y-T-u-r-n-e-r.

“I found him.”

But he found Willie’s name where he didn’t want to find it — in an obituary.

“To my disappointment, he’d been dead five years.”

Willie had lived in Battle Creek, Mich. The obituary mentioned his military service. He enlisted on Feb. 25, 1955, in Detroit and was discharged on May 28, 1957, in San Francisco. The obit mentioned his wife, his only survivor. But that was it. There was no mention of anything else that happened between Willie’s discharge in 1957 and his death in 2009, at the age of 72. Memorials were to be made to the American Cancer Society.

The obituary did not mention work or children — nothing to help Jimmie fill in the blanks about his old friend.

“I couldn’t believe he was dead. I always wondered what happened to him.”

Willie has actually been dead almost seven years, and now Jimmie’s desire to know more about “Short Man” is as great as ever.

Jimmie called the home where Willie died, Lifespan Good Samaritan Hospice Residence, and asked them to relay a message that he’d like to talk to the next of kin.

He has received no word back so far.

He has searched for a way to contact Willie’s widow, whose maiden name was listed in the obit — Kay F. Bolden. Again, no luck. Technology made it easier for Jimmie to find Willie via the internet, but technology has also made it harder to find people via telephone listings, thanks to mobile phones.

“I would love to find his relatives,” Jimmie says.

If he were 25 years younger, Jimmie might travel to the Battle Creek area and continue his search.

He doesn’t even have a photograph of Willie.

“Of the hundreds of people I was in the Navy with, he was just something special,” Jimmie says.

Jimmie, 78, lives in the China Grove area, retired after many years of working on heating and air conditioning systems.

Memorial Day is tomorrow, and once again Jimmie will be thinking of his old friend. Willie didn’t die in action, but Jimmie will  mourn him nonetheless.

“I know a lot of vets wonder, what in the world happened to my buddy?” Jimmie says.

Don’t stop looking, he advises — and don’t put off looking, either.

Jimmie says he’s glad and sad. “I’m glad I found him — and sad that I didn’t get to talk to him.”

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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