World War II veterans Nathan Garrett and Kernie Thompson, who… (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl…)
It has been more than half a century since Nathan Garrett and Kernie Thompson marched across Europe together in World War II, but they recognized each other immediately this week in the physical therapy room of a Baltimore County rehabilitation facility.
They both moved to Baltimore after the war to work for Bethlehem Steel, but they hadn't seen each other in decades. Now the two war buddies are sharing a room at Manor Care, retelling old tales across their hospital beds.
"We went through a whole lot in Europe," said Thompson, at 84 the younger of the two. "Garrett was a good soldier and a good friend."
And Thompson, Garrett said, was a bit of an explorer, always pushing to learn as much as possible about the many countries in which they were stationed. "He didn't know the languages, but he could always get along real well," said Garrett, 90, of his friend.
They both served in the Army's 599 Ordnance Ammunition Company, an African-American unit responsible for pushing bullets and shells to the front lines of major battles, including the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France, in June 1944.
They spent about three years living in tents in Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands and other European countries. They remember narrow escapes, such as when German soldiers shot up a latrine just after Thompson had walked out, and bloody scenes of animals blown apart by land mines.
"Those are things you never forget," Garrett said.
"It was a frightening experience," added Thompson - known as Tommy. "But the Lord brought us through."
Both were discharged in 1946. Thompson returned to his native Baltimore. Garrett, who was born in rural South Carolina, joined his sister and other relatives in Baltimore to take a job with Bethlehem Steel, where he was a laborer until retiring in 1981. Both men married. Garrett and his wife, Anna, have lived in a house in West Baltimore since 1957. They have two grown sons.
Thompson also worked at the steel mill, until about 1957. He later spent more than 25 years as a maintenance worker for the city of Baltimore. Thompson's first wife died in 1975, and he remarried in 1980. A daughter from his first marriage died in 1995. After he retired from the city in 1990, he and his wife, Clarice, moved to Lansdowne.
Even after Thompson left the steel plant, the men would occasionally bump into each other; for years they used the same barber on Baltimore Street.
"But then we sort of lost each other," Garrett said. Save for a phone call earlier this year around Garrett's 90th birthday, the men can't remember their last contact, guessing that it has been decades since they saw each other in person.
That changed this week when Garrett began in-patient physical therapy for his chronic joint pain at Manor Care on Rolling Road in Catonsville. In a second-floor room, he spotted a familiar face and asked a nurse "if that gentleman was called Tommy."
Thompson was there to recover from recent knee surgery.
They said they smiled and laughed about the coincidence - meeting up in a rehabilitation center, of all places, after all these years.
"When Mr. Garrett saw his long-lost friend, it was like a 90-year-old man just turned into a child," said Daniel Carper, another Manor Care patient who witnessed the reunion last week. "The whole place just stopped and watched them."
The two became roommates. Garrett's son, Nate Garrett, 61, said he is tickled that his father has someone to chat with while he is recovering. His father still talks about the war and his travels in Europe.
"Story after story after story," Nate Garrett said. "He can tell stories about all of that as if it happened moments ago."