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to a Forgotten War
A daughters search for her father. By
Helene Hollander Lepkowski
Podwil C'88, This Has Happened #3, 1998 oil/linen. Courtesy
T19 Galerie, Vienna.
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. Im here because my dad isnt.
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 Id grown up with.
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, theyve 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 forgottenthe China-Burma-India Theater (CBI).
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 Im 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. Im also finding
a lot more.
journey into my dads 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 Feninear the Bay of Bengal, two hundred miles east
of Calcuttain what was then part of India, and now, Bangladesh.
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 Clubs monthly birthday parties.
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
nights sleep away, hundreds of miles on the other side of Burmas rugged
and steep Chin Hills.
I came to the reunions I gleaned from my dads flight log the basics about
the 75 missions he flewship 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. Stilwells
Chinese divisions and American special forces like Merrills Marauders,
could defeat an implacable enemy.
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?
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 dads closest war buddies, Frank has taken
me under his wing.
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.
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. Im 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.
relative stranger, I feel welcome nonetheless. As Daves daughter, Im
admitted into this circle of camaraderie whose bonds have only strengthened
with time. Its been over half a century since any of the men last saw
my dad, but they talk about him as if hed been fighting a war with them
yesterday. Im gratified that hes remembered with affection and respect.
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 didnt do too bad.
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.
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 sharedwhat
Frank calls the S word.
Dave is up there in that nose, and he says, Im scared when I get in
that airplane, Im scared while Im in it, and I dont get unscared until
I get out of it, says Brooks Pinnick, a pilot from Warsaw, Indiana.
inside an accordion of time. The mens 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 Couchs 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?
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 dadeven his
intensity for his antiques business, which he couldnt 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.
listen as a veteran addresses the squadron, whose numbers dwindle each
year. He refers to those whove already died. Unprepared, my eyes tear.
Frank puts his arm around my shoulder.
dinner we compare my dads 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, hes glad that Im seeking out their forgotten theater.
He recalls when I was born, two weeks after his own daughterour births
celebrated with lots of Carews booze half a world away.
you be my adopted daughter? Frank asks.
and touched, I tell him, yes.
Lepkowski CW66 GRP78 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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