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Journey to a “Forgotten” War
A daughter’s search for her father. By Helene Hollander Lepkowski

 


Jonathan Podwil C'88, This Has Happened #3, 1998 oil/linen. Courtesy T19 Galerie, Vienna.

I’m in St. Louis at a reunion of the “Earthquakers,” World War II airmen whose bombs, dropped from B-25 “Mitchells,” pounded bridges, railroad lines and Japanese supply centers in Burma and China during 1944 and 1945. I’m here because my dad isn’t.
  
A navigator-bombardier, my dad, Dave Hollander, died from a heart attack in 1961, a few years before the 83rd Bomb Squadron reunions began. He died a year before I applied to Penn, and long before I could begin to understand what made him the intense person I’d grown up with.
  
The weathered gray- and white-haired warriors beside me are in their 70s and 80s, decades older than my father was when I last saw him alive. Officers and enlisted men, they’ve traveled to St. Louis, some with wives and other family members, to talk, laugh, listen and remember a war that most others in this country have forgotten—the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI).
  
I’ve come to this, my third reunion, to continue my search for recollections about my dad during the war years, a time in his life he almost never talked about. In the process I’m learning about an overlooked but valorous struggle in which 300,000 Americans helped the British and Chinese drive the Japanese out of Burma and China between 1942 and 1945. I’m also finding a lot more.
  
The journey into my dad’s “forgotten” war began a few years ago with the discovery of his flight log and album of wartime photographs. Among the black-and-white snapshots were pictures of a monsoon-soaked, steaming jungle airbase surrounded by rice paddies at Feni—near the Bay of Bengal, two hundred miles east of Calcutta—in what was then part of India, and now, Bangladesh.
  
The photos show my dad standing in front of a dirt-floor, thatched-roofed, bamboo basha; holding a shovel inside a slit trench; grinning with his pet monkey, Saki, perched on his arm; and smiling among the celebrants at one of the Officers Club’s monthly birthday parties.
  
In one snapshot my father poses with his combat crew of pilot, co-pilot, waist-gunner, top-turret-gunner and tail-gunner. Dressed in bomber jackets, they stand beside a B-25 H-model with a 75-mm cannon and four 50-caliber machine guns in the nose. My dad, at 28, is the oldest. The youngest is 22. All look fit and focused. Their next bombing mission is a sweltering night’s sleep away, hundreds of miles on the other side of Burma’s rugged and steep Chin Hills.
  
Before I came to the reunions I gleaned from my dad’s flight log the basics about the 75 missions he flew—ship numbers, bomb loads, intervalometer settings, air time, and destinations such as Meiktila, Nyaungyan, Mandalay, Akyab, Prome, Lashio, Toungoo. Targets were bridges, railroad lines, airfields, storage tanks or motor pools. Each one had to be destroyed so that the British and Indian 14th Army, as well as General Joseph W. Stilwell’s Chinese divisions and American special forces like “Merrill’s Marauders,” could defeat an implacable enemy.
  
“Dropped 4 bombs [over Budalin, Burma]; got bridge; dropped 4 more on another run. Railroad spur and piles for a new bridge. Got same,” my father wrote on September 25, 1944. But what was it like bellying his then-lean frame through the narrow passageway into the nose, and peering through a Norden bomb sight at the target thousands of feet below? What of fear, flak, enemy fighter planes? And what of the unpredictable, often savage weather?
  
“We lost as many planes to weather as we did to enemy action,” says Frank White, a pilot from Newport Beach, California (the 22-year-old in the combat-crew photo). One of my dad’s closest war buddies, Frank has taken me under his wing.
  
“On my second mission we were coming back from the Burma Valley when we hit this squall line of cumulonimbus clouds,” Frank recalls. “We staggered the 12 planes going through the clouds but got into severe turbulence. When I came out, it was like a giant had taken a handful of planes and tossed them out of the clouds. Except one was missing. We never did find the 12th plane.”
  
I marvel at his precision. I already have pages of notes based on our long-distance phone calls and tours of air museums in Dayton and Tucson. I’m also impressed by unforgettable missions that the others recount, as well as funny and poignant tales about native bearers, tiger hunts, elephants, snakes, mongooses, rats, monkeys, craps, poker, “Carews booze for combat crews,” dysentery, malaria and death.
  
A relative stranger, I feel welcome nonetheless. As Dave’s daughter, I’m admitted into this circle of camaraderie whose bonds have only strengthened with time. It’s been over half a century since any of the men last saw my dad, but they talk about him as if he’d been fighting a war with them yesterday. I’m gratified that he’s remembered with affection and respect.
  
“You can be proud of your dad. He was a good bombardier,” says Nicholas Salakos, radio operator (waist gunner) from Shillington, Pennsylvania, who flew more than a dozen missions with him. “If we had Hollander on our crew we didn’t do too bad.”
  
“I’d no idea Dave passed away. I was just thinking about him.” … “My wife and I were just talking about your dad.” … “I always hoped to get to New York and have him show me around,” the men say.
  
They recall his handsome features, Bronx jokes, friendliness, eye for jewelry and antiques (his profession held in wartime abeyance), fondness for gambling, coolness under pressure, and willingness to admit a fear that many shared—what Frank calls the S word.
  
“Old Dave is up there in that nose, and he says, ‘I’m scared when I get in that airplane, I’m scared while I’m in it, and I don’t get unscared until I get out of it,’” says Brooks Pinnick, a pilot from Warsaw, Indiana.
  
I’m inside an accordion of time. The men’s memories quicken my own. I remember being a young child sitting on a Ferris wheel with my dad going up and up into the inky night when he became anxious and insisted on getting off. Was it the height? Undimmed images of exploding R.D.X. bombs? Feeling as a navigator-bombardier “out of control”? Or was it remembering pilot John Couch’s ship shot down and his own shot up, the prime target of a fearsome chase by Japanese Oscars from south of Mandalay to the Chin Hills in what became the longest sustained air battle in the CBI Theater?
  
I’ll never know for sure. I can never completely re-enter that time. But the more I search, the more walkways I find to understanding my dad—even his intensity for his antiques business, which he couldn’t wait to return home to. “Your dad and I grew up through the Depression. And to have a job was a really wonderful thing,” his close friend, pilot Lloyd Norkus from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, once told me.
  
I listen as a veteran addresses the squadron, whose numbers dwindle each year. He refers to those who’ve already died. Unprepared, my eyes tear. Frank puts his arm around my shoulder.
  
After dinner we compare my dad’s flight log with his, and talk about the missions they flew together. Frank gives me a book about B-25s. Like many of the other veterans, he’s glad that I’m seeking out their “forgotten theater.” He recalls when I was born, two weeks after his own daughter—our births celebrated with lots of “Carews booze” half a world away.
  
“Will you be my adopted daughter?” Frank asks.
  
Surprised and touched, I tell him, “yes.”

Helene Hollander Lepkowski CW’66 GRP’78 is currently working in the field of conflict resolution, and is writing a book about her father and the experiences of his bomb squadron in the World War II China-Burma-India Theater. She lives in Reston, Virginia, with her husband Wil and daughter Katherine. She would love to hear from any alumni who served in the CBI Theater at <Helenelep@aol.com>.



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