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Sun City Center couple's dance of life now moves to different rhythm

In a small room at Palm Garden nursing home in Sun City Center, two souls draw closer.

Lit by warm incandescent light, Rita lays on a bed while John sits next to her, holding her hand. It's been this way twice a day for about four months. He visits her once in the morning, to wheel her into the activities room, and once in the afternoon.

Happily married for 68 years, John and Rita Breslin are content simply talking to each other. John, 90, makes the 2-minute drive from his condominium, where he has had to relearn a lot since Rita, 87, had to move to the home.

He has slowly been taking more and more care of her for about 10 years, he says, ever since she began having problems with her legs. Rita says John has never complained. He eagerly returns every chance he gets.

"It's all part of my life I'm very happy with. I got myself a lovely lady, and she's good to me. I think we make a wonderful pair," John says.

It's been this way since they shared their first dance in 1943. After just months together, he considered Rita his girl. Then he had to leave to fight in World War II.

Back at his Sun City Center condominium, he holds a small book with yellowing pages: his diary from his submarine days.

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Feb. 29, 1944:

"USS Cavalla was (commissioned) at the sub base — New London, Conn. I will remember it for the rest of my life. My mother and my father were both there at the birth of my first ship. To them it was also a great thrill as it was the first submarine they had ever seen."

When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, John says, he wanted to help.

"I was anxious anyway once the war started," John says, so he enlisted in the Naval Reserve when he was 17.

Before he left for the war, John and two Navy buddies went roller-skating in 1943. They made an agreement not to leave with any women they met, knowing they would ship out soon.

But John couldn't resist Rita Hughes, age 14.

"She was roller-skating with her little brother, and I was roller-skating with two sailors. I came in, and I stayed with her," John says.

They managed to date on weekends while he was in training. It could be difficult, however, because of his service and her age.

"They were going to christen the Cavalla (in November), but my mother wouldn't let me go," Rita says. "She said I was too young."

Once the ship was commissioned, John left for the Pacific.

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May 31, 1944:

"A date to be remembered, as it was the day the USS Cavalla started on its maiden run, the beginning of its first war patrol. The USS Cavalla headed seaward from Pearl Harbor and ventured into the unknown."

At sea, John couldn't stop thinking of Rita. He read a book on the Cavalla about how to write love letters and began their correspondence.

When John came home to the States, one of the first things Rita did was show him one of his letters.

He had written, "Your eyes are like the deep blue Mediterranean."

"I said, 'You better look again, because they're not blue,' " says Rita, who has brown eyes.

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June 19, 1944:

"A date I will never forget — We were running along on the surface at full speed, trying to pick up the convoy we ran into yesterday. … We got forced down by a Jap plane for a few hours."

The Japanese convoy was composed of two heavy cruisers, three destroyers and a ship called the Shōkaku, one of the six aircraft carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor three years earlier.

"While running submerged at periscope depth, we spot a (Japanese) task force of a few cruisers, and one very large aircraft carrier. The aircraft carrier is supposed to be the biggest and newest that the enemy has and it is loaded down with planes. … We are waiting for the exact moment to fire. The captain shouts, 'Goddamn them, fire one, fire two, fire three.'"

The Cavalla continued on toward the convoy after successfully attacking the Shōkaku.

"When we heard our torpedoes hit, (the captain) said over the loudspeaker 'It's now payback time,' " John says. "This all happened so fast. We were getting ready to get rammed by the destroyer, so we dive, dive, dive."

The boat dove to 350 feet, John says, where it sustained 105 depth charges in three hours.

"We thought our number was up, and most of us must have said a silent prayer. I know I did. … During this time we heard other explosions off in the distance and the sound of the carrier breaking up and going down to Davy Jones. We are the first submarine to sink an aircraft carrier in this war."

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The crew was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, and after serving in five other patrols, it was honored at the Japanese surrender ceremony in 1945. The Cavalla was one of the 12 submarines docked in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, and it was right behind the USS Missouri, where the ceremony took place.

John says he couldn't wait to go home. When he returned in February 1946, he resumed dating Rita, and they flew around the dance floor.

"(It made) all the difference in the world. I'm not a ladies man. I don't have much to say. My Rita, I felt so at home with her. … We loved dancing," John says. "Nobody can equal her dancing. They didn't know my steps."

They married that year, raised a son, and John retired as a New York Police Department detective in 1986. When they moved to Florida four years later, they went dancing every Saturday night, especially at their favorite restaurant, the Alpha Pizza House in Apollo Beach.

It was peace in paradise, full of dancing, food and sunshine, until their dancing stopped again.

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Ten years ago, Rita noticed her toes had started to become black.

"(The doctor) said 'Rita, your leg is very cold, I think you better see another doctor,' " she says. The other doctor told her "it's got to go."

Her condition is known as peripheral arterial disease, in which circulation prevents blood from reaching the extremities. At first, it affected only her lower left leg. However, an infection spread to the amputated limb, and doctors cut it up to the thigh. Then it was her right leg.

The doctors told John a few months ago that he could no longer care for her by himself.

"I was the type that have gone through a lot," Rita says. "I really didn't think that much about (losing my legs). It had to be. We had a good life. And now he's still taking care of me."

John says he is one of only five men alive from the 191 in the original crew of the Cavalla, but he won't go to the reunions because he refuses to leave Rita.

Today he's concerned about her phantom pain. Though Rita's legs are gone, when the nurse asks what her pain is from 1 to 10, Rita says 20.

"I feel if she's got the pain, give her whatever medication will make her life better. It doesn't make any difference if it makes her comfortable," John says, as they start holding hands again.

Rita says John has never complained about taking care of her. She lets him go dancing because it's important for his physical health.

Alpha Pizza House owner Nick Egarhos says John has visited on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays religiously for 25 years.

"He enjoys listening to the music," Egarhos says. "He hasn't changed at all."

Marie Johnson, 83, from Ruskin says she has known John for years and she sees him on Tuesday nights.

"He's very good (at dancing). The ladies all ask him; he rarely sits down. I've seen him almost break down into a tap dance."

But he always goes back to Rita.

Sun City Center couple's dance of life now moves to different rhythm 10/02/15 [Last modified: Thursday, October 1, 2015 4:55pm]
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