WWII vet's son seeks out late father's shipmate

By Danielle Thomas - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - At Tuesday's Salute to the Military were two men from different states, different generations and who, until yesterday, were strangers. Now they share a bond.

John Hairston's goal was simple. The Gulfport man wanted to find one of his late father's shipmates from World War II. With hundreds of crewman, it should have been a relatively easy task. Now, years later, the search is over, and the friendship is just beginning.

Back in 2006, Hairston helped organize a trip from the Gulf Coast to Washington D.C. so veterans from World War II could visit the memorial built in their honor.

All the while, Hairston thought of who couldn't be there. His father, Mitch Hairston, had passed away ten years earlier. Hairston said the next best thing would have been to bring one of his father's Navy buddies.

"For the trip, we had searched far and wide for a shipmate of dad's. Operation Thank You. Never could find one," said Hairston.

Two years and many phone calls later, John Hairston is now listening to the war stories of Glenn "Rocky" Rye. Even with 360 crew members aboard the U.S.S Fletcher, Rye said he and Mitch Hairston became close friends.

"Two old farm boys. He was from the Delta and I was from South Dakota," said Rye. "It was interesting because we had a lot to talk about."

Rye said he has good memories on the USS Fletcher, like he and Mitch Hairston laughing and joking. Then there are the memories of Mitch almost dying the day the ship got into a firefight with the Japanese off the coast of the Philippines.

"You didn't share your fear," said Rye. "That was something you just lived with. I find it interesting when some people say, 'Well, it never scared me.' Then you're talking to someone who is not really truthful, because if you weren't scared, you weren't alive."

On Tuesday night, John Hairston and his brother Wayne took Rye and his wife to the Salute to the Military as his special guests. Hairston said he felt his dad was watching.

"I think he'd be proud," said Hairston. "I think he'd love to see his friend. Sorry. That would be a lot of fun."

Glenn Rye and his wife live in Minnesota. Hairston said he still plans to make that trip with the couple to the World War II Memorial.