By John Huthmacher
KENESAW, Neb. (AP) — Never in a million years did Kenesaw resident Woodrow “Woody” Rossell imagine that he would ever reunite with the young Filipino boy he befriended during World War II.
Rossell, now 93, drove a tank for the U.S. Army’s 43rd Infantry Division during his stint in the Philippines.
The boy, a local orphan who lived with his aunt, spent his days sitting on Rossell’s bunk, waiting for him to come back from his daily missions.
“I couldn’t talk his language nor could he talk mine,” Rossell remembers. “I just called him ‘Buddy,’ and stuff like that. He was one of the very nicest little fellas you ever did see.
“Never did he touch anything of mine on my bunk that I was sleeping on,” Rossell said.
After spending several months in the boy’s hometown near Manila, Rossell’s unit pushed on to other islands in the vicinity.
As Rossell left, the boy presented him with a humble gift that reduced them both to tears, a paper sack containing two red tomatoes and a few chicken eggs.
“It was the only thing he had to give,” Rossell said. “I tried to console him a little bit because he was crying. I did shed some tears too.”
Upon returning to the States, Rossell relocated from his home state of Michigan and settled in Nebraska with his wife, Frances “Mickey,” in 1951. She’s now deceased.
Rossell says he never forgot his young friend from the Philippines, but eventually gave up hope of ever reuniting with him.
Fate intervened on July 28, 1978, while Rossell was working as a salesmen for J.M. McDonald Department Store. A customer, who Rossell recognized as Filipino, came into the store with his wife to purchase clothes.
As the two men conversed, their recollections of the war seemed too similar to be coincidental.
Then came the clincher. Rossell recalled the gift the boy had given him the day he left.
The visitor was the boy from the Philippines, Mario Espiritu.
“He didn’t know I worked there, and I didn’t know it was him,” Rossell said. “What are the odds of that? One in a billion? More.”
The two men have remained in close contact ever since, exchanging telephone calls about every other week.
Espiritu, now 78, is a doctor. He insisted on giving Rossell a complete physical as a gesture of friendship when Rossell first visited him in his hometown of Hays, Kan.
When Espiritu moved to Huntsville, Texas, to accept a job as a physician to death row inmates, he invited Rossell for a visit.
Health issues have kept the pair from getting together in recent years. But nothing will ever diminish the close bond between them, Rossell said.
“He calls me ‘Dad,’ ” Rossell said. “He’s a very good man.” ♦