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Tuesday, Mar 21, 2023
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Military Reunions Provide Financial Salute to S.D.

His business associates know him as Louis Sander, but in the early 1960s, he was a lieutenant junior grade who shipmates on the USS Rankin called “Skip.”

When the 65-year-old Pittsburgh resident had to put together a second reunion of the USS Rankin Association, Sander and his fellow Navy veterans had no lack of options. But they chose San Diego.

The venue made sense, Sander said, since the ship’s 2004 reunion was on the East Coast, and older members of the ship’s crew live in the West. Though the Rankin, an AKA-class attack cargo ship, was based on the East Coast during his era, Sander said members of the World War II generation have memories of San Diego.

So San Diego it will be: The group has booked space at the Red Lion Hanalei Hotel from Sept. 29-Oct. 2, during Fleet Week.

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Sander and his shipmates are not the only ones to pick San Diego as a reunion spot.

“We are the largest destination for military reunions in the country,” said Dale Vandergaw, the director of military and defense affairs for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, estimating that the community hosts 300 such events per year.

Among its other visitor attractions, San Diego offers an excellent view of today’s military, Vandergaw said, via ship tours and base tours, meals at officers’ clubs, and graduation ceremonies at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

The Navy and Marine Corps offer “extraordinary cooperation” to ConVis, he said.


‘Everybody Loves A Carrier’

Military-related sites are “a huge hook” for reunions, said Ray Casey, proprietor of Military Reunion Planners of Grapevine, Texas. In San Diego, that might mean Naval Station San Diego (known to many as the 32nd Street naval station) and North Island Naval Air Station.

“Everybody loves a carrier,” said Casey, who recalled a recent opportunity to take a group aboard the brand-new USS Ronald Reagan.

Putting retirees aboard an aircraft carrier makes them “like kids again,” he added.

Casey said the typical military reunion group draws 200-250 people, though it can be as large as 1,000 people.

San Diego’s climate and its nonmilitary attractions, of course, draw the reunion business, said people familiar with the industry. Casey said San Diego is much like Washington, D.C., in that “there’s always something new.”

People leaning toward a West Coast venue most often pick San Diego or Seattle, said Dina Coffey, office manager for Military Locator and Reunion Services of Hickory, N.C. The business is organizing the Rankin reunion as well as a local reunion of the destroyer tender USS Bryce Canyon a couple of weeks later, Oct. 13-16.

Coffey said her employer, which is a small family operation, organizes three or four San Diego reunions per year.

Vandergaw said that from his point of view, operations such as Coffey’s and Casey’s are rare. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he said, a volunteer from a reunion association handles arrangements.

The typical military reunion lasts three or four nights, includes a Saturday evening banquet and concludes on a Sunday, according to several sources. Agendas can be so similar that Sander described them as “cookie-cutter” gatherings.

But it’s the attendees, not necessarily the agenda, who make reunions special. Vandergaw said that one must-have feature at a reunion hotel is a hospitality suite, where long-separated unit members can simply get together and talk.

Locally, some 50 hotels compete for the reunion business through ConVis, said Vandergaw, who is that agency’s employee specializing in military travel.

Reunions plus other military meeting-and-convention business accounts for 80,000 hotel room nights per year in San Diego, he said. That number does not include members of the Navy and Marine Corps who travel individually. They account for 500,000 room nights in commercial hotels, Vandergaw said.

All told, the bureau books two or three official Defense Department meetings per week and five reunions per week, Vandergaw said.

Though San Diego’s military travel business rides on today’s Defense Department priorities, history exerts a strong tug. Veterans come to reunions with memories of shipping out of San Diego during World War II, or attending boot camp here, Vandergaw said.

It’s likely the USS Rankin passed through San Diego just after it was built in World War II. As for the ship today?

Many crew members are still around, according to a Web site assembled by Sander, who left the Navy, got an M.B.A., went into sales and has since retired to Pennsylvania.

The actual ship is in rougher shape. It’s at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The government sunk it seven miles off Stuart, Fla., in 1988 to create an artificial reef. The hurricanes of 2004 reportedly broke it in two.

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