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Thursday, February 6, 1997
Pottsville Republican/Evening Herald

War efforts overlooked, veteran says
Sacrifices made in Asia
By Ed Schreppel
Community Editor

Sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War, the early 1950s fighting on the Korean peninsula is often called the "Forgotten War" and those who served in it the "Forgotten Veterans." Korean War veterans aren't alone.

As far as one Shenandoah Heights veteran of World War II is concerned, the worldwide hardship and devastation that came with the conflict that ignited the planet in the late '30s and through the 1940s also have forgotten veterans -- and a forgotten theater of operations. "If you say to someone, 'I served in the CBI Theater during the war,' they probably won't even know what you're talking about," said Andrew T. Popalis during a recent visit to The Evening Herald office in Shenandoah. He's probably right.

In most history classes and in television history presentations about World War II, the overwhelming concentration is on the European and Pacific theaters. Even fighting on the Eastern Front in the former Soviet Union seems to get more play than the operations in the China-Burma-India Theater. And yet, Popalis said, the CBI effort by the Allies was an essential part of the ultimate victory against Nazism, fascism and militarism.

In making his case, Popalis brandished copies of Ex-CBI Roundup, a "reminiscing" monthly magazine established in 1946 "by and for former members of U.S. units stationed in the China-Burma-India Theater." That's where Popalis served. He was stationed in the area near India now known as Bangladesh, about 150 miles north of Calcutta. He was with crews that serviced fighters, bombers and other planes that ferried supplies, men and equipment over "The Hump" -- the Himalayan Mountain range often called the "top of the world" -- into China to fuel Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's fight against the Japanese invaders who occupied much of southeast Asia. It most often involved a struggle to survive in some of the worst conditions imaginable -- insect-infested jungles and swamps, sniper-lined rice paddies -- or defending clandestine temporary airfields established deep behind enemy lines.

"Flying The Hump was like playing blackjack against a professional dealer: Do it long enough and you lose," wrote Don Downie, one of the many CBI Theater veterans who contributed personal accounts for Ex-CBI Roundup. From Burma, the Japanese had pushed the British back toward the borders of India and China and managed to close the famed Burma Road supply line by April 1942. That's what spawned the dangerous Himalayan airlift, which by 1943 was able to deliver 3,200 tons of supplies a month to anti-Japanese forces. But it wasn't enough and, at the suggestion of General Joseph W. Stilwell, thousands of Chinese worked to build a new Burma Road, also called the Ledo Road, from Ledo in India to the old Burma Road beyond Mytkyina, Burma. It was a 2-year project carried out in treacherous mountains.

"Here, you can look these over when you get a chance," Popalis said in presenting several copies of the Roundup. "At home instead of watching TV you can read these. There are some interesting personal accounts here." We didn't have to read all of them to quickly get a sense of hardship and heroism, courage and sacrifice and persistence in the face of heavy odds. It soon became clear that CBI veterans, largely unappreciated today, contributed in no small measure to the comfort and freedom we enjoy.

There are CBI veterans scattered throughout the region. Former Shenandoah jeweler Paul Shockites is one, Popalis said, adding he knew of others in the Saint Clair and Bloomsburg areas. "When the veterans are gone, who is going to remember this?" Popalis asked.

Pinned to his hat was a rectangular metal clip that carried an American flag, Nationalist Chinese flag and some Chinese words. He called it a "Blood Chit." A "chit," he explained, from ancient times, was a message given by perhaps a warrior to an underling to deliver to someone. The "blood" comes from the red in the Chinese flag. In this instance, the "chit" conveyed the message that the wearer was one who fought alongside the Chinese in the war against invaders. It identified the CBI veteran as a friend to be treated with respect and not harmed.

Popalis was able to rattle off the names and uses of different planes of the era as though he were the one who designed them. The first B-29 bombers were sent to India to be tested to "iron out the bugs," he said. They were used in bombing raids on China, southeast Asia and later Japan itself. He spoke of a novel invasion of northern Burma in which troops, equipment and supplies in gliders, towed by giant Dakota transport planes, landed deep behind enemy lines to establish "jungle beach heads" and clear and secure landing strips for the next wave of troop transport planes. This method was used to take the Japanese by surprise and avoid having to launch massive frontal assaults through thick Burmese jungles.

Campaigns in the CBI Theater were united Allied efforts involving troops of many nationalities and ethnic groups including British, Indian, Gurka (Nepalese), American, Australian, Burmese and Chinese. Stilwell was aided by two guerrilla groups, the British "Chindits" or Wingate's Raiders under Orde Wingate, and the American Merrill's Marauders under Frank D. Merrill. They protected the Burma Road and prevented the Japanese from moving into India.

Popalis is a member of the China-Burma-India Veterans Association Inc. Among his memorabilia is an unidentified reporter's dispatch, labeled "Urgent," to the London Daily Mail, regarding the glider invasion. Here's a portion of it: "The men of the first air commando force worked like slaves. First they ringed the field with lights; then they got busy clearing away wreckage so that the bulldozers and scrapers could go into action. At 6 a.m. they started on construction of a strip for light planes for evacuation of wounded. At 11 a.m. the same morning the first light plane touched down." Later, the dispatch continued, "Here, 150 miles behind enemy lines, you have an Allied aerodrome which is as busy now as any airfield in friendly India. Yet it is surrounded by Japanese on all sides and depends for supplies by air." It may be hard for those who have had the good fortune to never have been involved in mortal combat to fully appreciate its impact on those who have.

When men like Popalis ask who will remember after the veterans are gone, it is really a plea for people to understand the high price of freedom -- and not to forget combat's horrors so there is no repeat of wars, forgotten or otherwise.

(Ed Schreppel is Community Edition editor of The Herald. His column appears on Thursdays.)

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