When John Noga reported aboard the USS Tanner at the end of 1964, he was met in the receiving station by Johnny Pearson, a fellow radioman with a thick Kentucky drawl.

On the surface, the two young men didn’t seem to have much in common. The shy and quiet Noga grew up in Cleveland, while the emotional Pearson was raised on a farm in Bowling Green, Ky.

Despite their differences, they quickly bonded, becoming inseparable.

The two U.S. Navy servicemen worked the same shift in the radio shack on the geographical survey ship and explored cities together whenever they were in a port — and lamented at the time what they thought were serious girl troubles.

They also both realized that the military wasn’t going to be their career.

Noga and Pearson were crushed the day in 1966 when Pearson finished his service time and was released. Noga still had several months left to serve.

They spent Pearson’s last day touring Newport, R.I., and exchanged contact information before Pearson boarded a Greyhound bus for the first part of his journey home.

The two men wouldn’t see each other for another 50 years.

What happened?

Noga and Pearson — who had developed such a strong friendship — wanted to stay in touch.

They couldn’t imagine not remaining friends. But the unthinkable happened. They lost each other’s contact information.

Then, life got in the way.

Noga got married. So did Pearson. They each had three children.

Pearson went to college and started running a farm in Oakland, Ky., raising tobacco, cattle and crops spread out over 2,000 acres. Noga went back to work as a printer in Cleveland, later worked as an activities director at a nursing home and moved to Twinsburg.

Time passed.

But they never forgot about their friendship or the times hitting up Broadway shows or walking over the Brooklyn Bridge to get back to the ship during a power outage or hanging out in Miami Beach or just being at sea on missions.

Noga often shared stories of Pearson with his wife, Pat, and their three children. Pearson did the same with his family.

It ate away at them that they lost touch. This was before personal computers and before it was easy to track someone down.

Noga tried, even calling the Social Security Administration to try unsuccessfully to get the federal agency to hand over his friend’s address.

When Noga’s children bought him a computer more than 30 years ago, one of the first things he did was search for Pearson but had no luck. About once a month, he would get on his computer and do an internet search, each time frustrated that he couldn’t locate his friend.

Then for some inexplicable reason this year on the last Sunday in February, a couple of Johnny Pearsons popped up on his computer screen.

One was Johnny Ford Pearson of Oakland, Ky. Noga looked at a map and discovered Oakland is near Bowling Green. Could it be?

There was even a phone number.

Noga dialed. It wasn’t a working number.

But there were three relatives listed, each with a phone number. The first number was busy. The second number just rang and rang.

He got a voicemail on the third number and started leaving a lengthy story about how he was trying to track down his friend Johnny Pearson. A woman picked up the phone.

“Johnny has been trying to locate you,” Pearson’s ex-wife Judy Pearson said into the phone.

Noga started to weep.

She promised to give Pearson his number.

Ten minutes later, the phone rang and both friends started to shed tears together, remarking how long it had been. They talked for well over an hour catching up on each other’s lives.

They later exchanged photos and Pearson invited Noga to come for a visit — the first time they would see each other in more than a half-century.

The reunion

Their much-anticipated reunion took place May 6 at the Nashville International Airport in Tennessee, where Noga had to fly in before making his way to Oakland.

Noga, 77, and Pearson, 73, hugged as soon as they spotted each other.

“He couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe it,” said Noga, who suffers from severe arthritis.

Pearson said: “He changed a lot but it was still him.

Pearson, who entered the Navy at age 17, credits Noga with grounding him during his military experience.

“I kind of looked up to him,” he said. “He was kind of a little calmer than I was. I was just a kid. … I thought I knew everything but didn’t know anything.”

Noga, who has become much more talkative and outgoing over the years, stayed for a week at the farm, catching up with his friend, learning about the farm operation and sight-seeing, including a visit to the Mammoth Cave National Park.

Pearson said it’s amazing that they were able to reconnect after all those years.

“All that time goes by and you lose track of people and you think about them but it doesn’t come together,” he said.

For Pearson and Noga, though, it did come together, and they plan to stay in touch.

“We picked up right where we left off,” Noga said. “That 52 years seemed like yesterday — except we were older looking.”

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.