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World War II veterans meet decades after serving o...
World War II veterans meet decades after serving o...: Two World War veterans shopping at the same mattress store, on the same day, are reunited by a ball cap. Store owner Mike Bookbinder honors the men with a small gift on Tuesday.
Wister Baisch, left, and Bob Bruce share stories about their time on the U.S.S. New York, a destroyer they both served on during World War II. The two met for the first time at Nirvana Mattress in south Fort Myers. / Guy Tubbs/The News-Press

What are the odds?

That’s what two World War II veterans are asking themselves after a reunion in a decidedly unlikely place: Nirvana Mattress in south Fort Myers.

In 1945, Pennsylvania-born Wister Baisch was working in the radar room of the U.S.S. New York, a huge Navy battleship patrolling the Pacific.

Robert Bruce, a dairy farm boy from Tennessee, was the ship’s quartermaster. “That means I collected quarters,” the 87-year-old jokes.

Actually, it was Bruce’s responsibility to steer the New York, nicknamed The Old Lady of the Sea, as it supported the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in Japan.

Carrying more than 1,800 soldiers, the New York was the size of a small town, which is why it’s easy to understand why Bruce and Baisch never met.

“You stayed pretty much with your group,” said Baisch, 88.

After the war, Baisch went to business school at Temple University, became an insurance CFO until he retired and began spending winters in Fort Myers with his wife, Harriet. The rest of the year, they live on a Pennsylvania farm, where they raise corn, soybeans, sheep and other livestock.

Bruce followed a business track as well, returning to Tennessee to attend Vanderbilt University before also going to work in insurance, then becoming a traveling manufacturer’s representative before retiring and hitting the road as a snowbird in his R.V. with his wife, Peggy. Every year, the couple, who’ll be married 65 years this November, come to the Groves R.V. Resort in south Fort Myers, near Sanibel.

It just so happened that both men and wives were bed shopping at Nirvana Mattress last month.

It also happened that both men were wearing their navy blue U.S.S. New York caps.

Store owner Mike Bookbinder and wellness/sales consultant Joann Patrick aren’t sure who it dawned on first.

“I saw they both had the same hat on. Were they together? No — they were each shopping with their wives and didn’t know the other gentleman was there,” said Patrick, the daughter of a Navy deep sea diver. “I thought, ‘What an amazing coincidence.’ ”

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When she pointed the veterans out to each other, they were as surprised as she was.

“To have served over there and then meet by chance here ...” said Baisch. “Wow.”

Soon, all the usual sales chatter stopped, as everyone in the store realized what was unfolding. “It was one of those rare moments when you drop everything and just focus on what’s happening,” Patrick said. “All of us had tears in our eyes.”

The meeting was especially poignant for Bruce, because one by one, all his military buddies have passed away.

“He was the last one left,” said Peggy Bruce. “And those men feel such a kinship, whether they know one another or not.”

The two will soon have the chance to get to know each other better, thanks to Bookbinder and his staff, who gave them a gift certificate for dinner at the Prawnbroker in south Fort Myers.

“We wanted them to be able to visit, to reminisce, and we wanted to thank them for their service to our country,” Bookbinder said. “If it hadn’t been for them — and men like them — we wouldn’t be here.”

Amy Bennett Williams’ Field Notes videos are on The News-Press’ tablet site at 8 p.m. Thursdays and on the Web at news-press.com Fridays. Read her column in Tropicalia on Sundays as well.

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