Separated by war, reunited after 63 years

2013-11-10T00:00:00Z 2013-11-12T16:38:48Z Separated by war, reunited after 63 yearsLauri Harvey Keagle lauri.keagle@nwi.com, (219) 852-4311 nwitimes.com

Ted Erceg spent 63 years wondering if the boy who grew up a block away in Gary's Kirk Yard neighborhood made it out of the Korean War alive.

Erceg, a soldier in the U.S. Army, and childhood friend Joe Pupillo, a Marine, ran into each other on a hill in Korea some 7,000 miles from home during the war on Oct. 20, 1950, and didn't see each other again.

Last week, The Times reunited the men after Times Videographer Brian Vernellis realized the connection.

"Joe! I'd be lying if I said you didn't change a bit," Erceg said as the pair embraced through laughter and tears Tuesday.

"We're lucky, blessed or fortunate that we're alive," Pupillo said.

In August, Vernellis recorded video of Erceg as part of The Times' ongoing series documenting the stories of local Korean War veterans. He did the same with Pupillo about three weeks later.

It wasn't until late October when Vernellis was editing the video he shot of Erceg and heard him say the name Joe Pupillo that he made the connection.

"My jaw hit the floor, and my heart started beating faster because I knew we just interviewed him," Vernellis said. "He said he hadn't seen him since."

The Times contacted the men and arranged the reunion at the newspaper's Crown Point office last week. Pupillo lives in Dyer, just 25 miles from Erceg's Valparaiso home.

"I met you on the road," Erceg told Pupillo during the reunion. "You were marching up going on the hill. I had 'Gary, Indiana' on my jacket. I heard a guy call, 'Hey, Gary!' and that was you ... You opened a can of C-rations, some kind of slop."

Pupillo offered some to Erceg, but he declined. They visited for about 10 minutes, then went their separate ways.

Erceg said he kept two books when he was in Korea, one with the radio procedures he needed to follow as a radio operator and the other as a calendar/diary where he kept daily entries.

"That little book kept me company that whole year," Erceg said. "I thought if I ever write down my experiences in Korea, I have to find some way to write it down."

He kept the journal for years after the war and lost it in a move.

Erceg, now 83, wrote about his experiences in the war, including the chance meeting with Pupillo, in an article in the September/October 2013 edition of Serb World USA.

"That is the last time we speak. I will not hear from him ever again," Erceg wrote of his encounter with Pupillo.

Erceg grew up at 268 Harrison St. and Pupillo at 237 Tyler St., just one block away.

Erceg recalled the shoe shop owned by Pupillo's father, Tony's Repair Shop, at 825 West Fourth Ave. in Gary. Pupillo, now 82, brought a photo from the shop to the reunion.

"His dad and my dad were pretty good friends because they knew each other from the shoe shop," Erceg said. "His dad and my dad were as completely different as two individuals could be, but they had the same work ethic."

Both were first-generation Americans -- Pupillo's father was Italian and Erceg's was Serbian -- and enlisted in the service.

"We were proud to be Americans, and we wanted to do our duty," Pupillo said.

The friends laughed and cried remembering the old neighborhood and time served for their country.

"You've got a nice sense of humor," Erceg told Pupillo. "You always did."

They asked about each other's families as their wives, Kathleen Pupillo and Donna Erceg, chatted and watched. They learned both men went into sales before retiring.

Erceg said he took a job at Valparaiso High School after retirement and once encountered a student named Pupillo.

"I said, 'Pupillo? Who is your dad?'" Erceg said, hoping the boy might link him to his childhood friend, but found he did not know Joe.

"I did try to get ahold of you," Erceg told Pupillo.

"It's funny how life works," Pupillo said.

Vernellis, the videographer who orchestrated the reunion, was there when the men met again last week.

"I was just excited for both of them because it meant so much for them on that hill in Korea," Vernellis said. "Now for it to come full circle, I don't know if it's fate that we're doing this series, but everything all just clicked and fell in line."

Vernellis said he got a lump in his throat more than once during the reunion.

"As we were walking them out -- they were saying their goodbyes -- you knew that this friendship was starting up again," Vernellis said. "That's the best part."

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