World War II veterans Howard Wollman and Michael Giarla hadn’t seen each other in 69 years – until Friday.
The two men, ages 90 and 89 respectively, were stationed together in the Navy during the war on a PT 110 boat. Wollman, now a Murrells Inlet resident, was awarded a Bronze Star medal for saving Giarla’s life on Jan. 26, 1944, when the boat exploded.
The two men and one other were the only survivors.
“I was separated from him the night it exploded,” said Wollman. “I was out for five days. I woke up in a tent and said, ‘Where am I?’ ”
Wollman said he was in an Army field hospital and unable to walk for about a month. He couldn’t remember anything between the explosion and waking up in the hospital.
Forty years later, the two men began communicating after they connected through the PT magazine. It started as a yearly phone call on Jan. 26. As the years passed, the men started talking more frequently, growing a friendship but still never meeting again in person.
It wasn’t until Friday, at Villa Romana in Myrtle Beach, that the two men finally reunited in person, hugging like family and making jokes about having less hair.
Giarla was quick to point to Wollman and tell each member of his family, “This is the guy that saved me.”
He remembers the night clearly.
“I come off watch and I was going to hit the sack and this guy says, ‘Mike we’re going to make a run on this submarine, you can’t go down,’ ” Giarla said.
He said Wollman gave him a lifejacket and he went to the gun mount where he dozed off until the explosion.
“When I came to, I was paralyzed,” he said. “I said my prayers, I did the dead man float – that’s all I could do.”
Giarla, who lives in Boston, said he owes his life to Wollman.
“He saved my life,” he said. “If I had gone down [below deck] I would’ve gone down with everybody else.”
Giarla’s family decided to vacation in Myrtle Beach this year because their usual spot in Connecticut closed, and a trip to Washington, D.C., to see the WWII memorial didn’t work out because Giarla wasn’t feeling well, according to his daughter-in-law Denise Giarla.
During Friday’s reunion over dinner, Giarla’s grandchildren took turns thanking Wollman.
“I guess I probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you,” said 17-year-old Michael Giarla.
Both men said the real heroes are the ones who didn’t survive.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that it doesn’t go by your brain,” Giarla said. “Those guys that died, they’re the real heroes.”