Soldiers and aviators who served in the `forgotten theater' of China-Burma-India gather this week for the 60th anniversary of V-J Day.

WWII veterans' group celebrates `last hurrah'

August 30, 2005|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Across those 60 years, Helen Rogan Heil has never forgotten the tall, blond kid from Minnesota. She, a nurse at a remote field hospital in World War II Burma, and he, a soldier with a life-threatening stomach wound, fought a looming darkness together for two weeks.

"We prayed, talked when he could ... then one day he was evacuated out," said Heil, of Crofton. "I never found out what happened to him. His image has never left me."

Starting today in Washington, Heil, 83, and her fellow World War II veterans from the China-Burma-India theater will observe the 60th anniversary of V-J Day, commemorating the victory over Japan. These veterans of what has been called the "forgotten theater" will have a weeklong reunion, their last.

"Everyone is old or gone," said Heil. "Lots of others are sick or physically unable to make trips. This is like a family breaking up. The reunion is our last hurrah."

Of the 250,000 soldiers and aviators who served in what survivors call "CBI," about 600 veterans and their spouses, many from Maryland, are expected, organizers said.

Rudy Gaum, an aircraft mechanic who served in India for two years, said CBI veterans' reunions have "kept a strong bond alive. We have guys telling war stories and such, but the gatherings have been about friendship all these decades."

The Gaithersburg resident and retired engineer said V-J Day has personal meanings for each World War II veteran. "Nobody really wins a war, but the atomic bombs brought the war to a conclusion. The additional loss of life would have been horrible had we invaded Japan. I'm talking about both sides."

Americans learned of Japan's surrender on Aug. 14, 1945, although the documents ending the war weren't signed until Sept. 2, 1945.

The demise of the national CBI veterans group reflects the war's ever-diminishing voices from, many historians argue, the most significant chapter of the 20th century. Each day, about 1,000 World War II veterans die.

Military historians call China-Burma-India the forgotten theater. The campaigns in Europe and the South Pacific were better known in the United States because of higher troop concentrations, increased news coverage and, partly, military politics, experts say.

"You had [Gen. Dwight D.] Eisenhower in Europe and [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur in the Pacific; the other theaters of operation were relegated to obscurity," said Daun van Ee, a historian at the Library of Congress and former editor of the papers of President Eisenhower at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Having said that," van Ee explained, "the CBI theater was where a lot of irregular warfare was born, from long-range penetration units to supplying guerrillas by air. It's amazing what they went through, that any of them are alive today."

CBI was known through films such as Flying Tigers, Merrill's Marauders and The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as the comic strip Terry and the Pirates.

But to those who served there, the region was one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Veterans, news accounts of the time and historic accounts describe monsoons that lasted up to five months and dumped 15 inches of rain on some areas in a day. The result: ground turned into a sea of mud.

Aviators who flew much-needed supplies to Chinese fighters over the Himalayas, or "The Hump," encountered some of the most dangerous flying of the war because of hazardous altitudes, enemy aircraft and unpredictable weather.

Thick jungles were home to tigers, panthers, elephants, poisonous snakes, leeches and a wide variety of insects. Many units were hit hard by malnutrition, combat fatigue and diseases, such as malaria, dysentery and typhus.

Joseph Konopacki, a resident of Bethany Beach, Del., was a member of Merrill's Marauders, a group of behind-the-lines operatives storied in film and military lore. Being with that group, however, proved costly, Konopacki said.

He was wounded in the battle for Myitkyina and contracted malaria and typhus. Konopacki said that the Marauders marched 425 miles to sneak behind the Japanese lines and that the fight for the strategic airfield and town lasted 51 days.

"I was down to 120 pounds," he said. "They air-dropped us K-rations, which didn't have enough calories to keep up our weight and energy. The monsoons turned everything wet and when the rain stopped, out came the flies. Thank God we had mules and horses to carry the big loads through the jungle and over the hot plains."

In spite of the hardships, Konopacki said he is "proud of what we did, that concept of the Army Rangers was sharpened in CBI. It's sad that the group of CBI veterans is disbanding. ... I guess we're just fading away, like old soldiers are supposed to do."

Historians point to another precursor to special operations, "Detachment 101" of the Office of Strategic Services, which had outposts throughout CBI and ran guerrilla teams that conducted sabotage, ambushes and intelligence gathering. The OSS also rescued about 400 downed pilots.

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