Joe Ruggiero, a thin, soft-spoken man of 84, sat quietly at the dimly lit Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 5195 in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Several Vietnam and Korean War veterans sat with him in the smoky bar, laughing and chatting.
“It’s hard to get in touch with anyone,” he told me, referring to his World War II shipmates aboard the USS Thurston (AP-77). “We used to have small reunions, but the last one died.”
Ruggiero served aboard the troop transport ship from 1942 to 1946. He and his shipmates deployed troops and carried supplies to major battles, including Casablanca, Toulon, D-Day at Normandy, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The ship’s veterans used to keep in touch and meet regularly. Lately, Ruggiero hasn’t been able to locate anybody.
“That’s not unique when you look at the age group,” said Jerry Newberry, Director of Communications at the VFW. “Sadly to say, I know several veterans that used to have reunions. That’s just not happening now.”
Thomas Childers, author of “Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II,” agreed.
“They (the soldiers) felt closer to the men they were with (in the war) to their real brothers. After the war ended, they pledged they would stay in touch,” he said.
“After a couple years, maybe even less, their contact was fewer. They went on with their lives. A lot of them left the war behind them.”
Childers said that unit-specific organizations developed as many veterans began to retire, around the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. Many of these organizations built websites and planned activities.
“But that generation keeps passing away, thousands by the day,” Childers said.
The USS Thurston didn’t have any such central organization, Ruggiero said. When the war ended, the Navy gave him a list of everyone with whom he served.
“I kept in touch with a lot of the guys,” he said. “The Navy tried to get a reunion together, but they said there weren’t enough members. A lot of them passed away over the years.”
Ruggiero had reunions with five shipmates at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City, but hasn’t heard from them in a few years. Another USS Thurston vet living in New Jersey recently contacted him, but has since died.
Although Internet use is growing and there are websites for certain World War II units, many veterans haven’t been utilizing social networking sites to keep in contact. Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that people over 65 make up just 9 percent of the population using the Internet and 3 percent of social networking sites.
Not all World War II veterans have lost touch. Demetri Parris, 94, cofounded The Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge in 1982. The organization has been active since then and now has 5,000 members. They held a reunion in September with 200 attendees. They plan another every Dec. 16, the anniversary of when the battle began in 1944. They have chapters throughout the country and produce a quarterly magazine.
Parris suggested that veterans send letters to the American Legion and Veterans Affairs to find contacts.
But Ruggiero said that he keeps busy. He spends much of his time at the VFW post, which holds parties and events regularly. It’s crowded most weekend nights, and the people there are sociable and friendly.
Ruggiero hasn’t recently even tried to get in touch with his former shipmates.
“I could,” he said. “I haven’t tried, but I could.”