written by Frank Santucci
Frank Santucci is an Army veteran who has been attending VBC events and sharing stories for many years, along with his brother, Ralph Santucci. Frank is a one-person repository of stories especially about his beloved hometown of Verona, PA. Tiny Verona sits 13 miles up the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh, and Frank has called it home his whole life. There’s even a section of the Verona Historical Society website devoted to Frank and the history he carries with him. Below is a story he shared at our events many years ago about running into another Verona native half way round the world in Tokyo.
Korea in 1959 was also my first year of marriage. Married in October 1958 to Mollie and by December I was in Korea.
The war in Korea had ended in 1953, but the United States kept 50,000 troops there, and I was one of them stationed at Pusan (Busan) Port working in the Ordinance Depot as a truck and auto parts specialist. Not too hard physically, but difficult being away from home.
I played basketball for the base team during the winter months and softball in the spring. During some of the weekends, I volunteered at a medical clinic manned by Maryknoll Sisters, and one night a week I taught English to adult Koreans.
This program educated adults so they could get paying jobs at the U.S. bases.
It was the policy of the Army to offer a week of Rest and Relaxation (R&R) in Japan after six months of a one-year tour.
In June, I got orders to go to Osan Air Base, and flew to Tokyo in a C-37 along with 25 other excited G.I.’s.
An odd thing was that we sat backwards on the short flight from Korea to Tokyo. Upon landing we were driven to a R&R Center outside of Tokyo. This secure base had Japanese nationals running the hotel. It was great to sleep in a real bed in rooms set up for two to a room.
Three meals per day could be ordered from the menu and were free. One day, as we were visiting a large Catholic Church, the local Japanese approached us and, for a small price, asked if we would like to take a tour of Tokyo.
Two of us agreed. Two Japanese Christians, a male and a female, guided us to the train station for an impressive tour of Tokyo and the Ginza shopping district. While there I bought Mikimoto pearls for Mollie and some small ivory pieces that we still have today.
No curfew in Japan, and we soldiers were pretty much on our own. One night, after midnight, | was awakened by my room partner stating he had found a great little restaurant in downtown Tokyo and insisted we should go. By now! was fully awake so | washed up and dressed in civilian clothes.
Four of us headed to the train station to board the bullet train to Tokyo. No turns, just a straight ride, and in no time we were in downtown Tokyo.
Now, this little restaurant was on the second floor of a tall and narrow building. The room was quiet, few patrons, dim lights and Japanese music playing softly in the background.
As was their custom, the waitress brought a basket with moist and warm rolled towels for each of us to wash our faces and wipe our hands before eating.
We placed our simple order of some meat that was cooked in a batter that tasted extra good with the beer we were drinking. We ordered more of the same and other Japanese food.
It was a great place, although not worthy of getting out of bed at midnight. Little did I suspect, the best was yet to come.
As we were preparing to leave, a tall gentleman, perhaps alittle older than us, came over and introduced himself as the owner of the restaurant.
He was white and American, which seemed odd to me. My bias must have showed.
He asked where we were located in Korea. We exchanged information, and he stated he also was stationed in Korea when he was in the US Army. He asked our hometowns.
“Pittsburgh,” I said.
He perked up. “Where in Pittsburgh?”
“Verona,” I responded. And our host laughed.
He then reintroduced himself as Mr. Laris, formerly of Verona, and stated he once had been the manager of the popular Olympic Theater there.
Questions began to flow. He asked how things were doing in Verona and about particular residents, especially the Greek families–Plutis, Lewis, Argeros, Gemellas—all familiar names to me.
It was like a smorgasbord of Greek food.
He told us sit tight and left our table, but quickly returned. Within five minutes, a tray of new food arrived, different from anything we had eaten. Then, Mr. Laris pulled up a chair and sat with us for over another hour.
All our meals were paid for by this Greek gentleman from Verona.
The Olympic Theater he had managed was started in the 1930’s by the Plutis family offering the main night life for the local youth with Friday night double features, 300 seats with some rows having unique double seats where two people could sit together.
Sadly, the movie house closed in November 1957, five months before I got drafted.
Sixty-four years ago, that restaurant incident enabled me to survive the next six months in Korea.
A simple train ride and a single meal became a festive holiday and one of my most unforgettable Korean memories.
As Shakespeare wrote a long time ago, “Two Gentlemen from Verona” met in Tokyo.