My grandfather served in the Army Corps of Engineers during WWII. He wanted to serve, enlisting at age 32 before the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor and was drawn into the war. His unit served under the auspices of the British 14th Army, under the command of General (Lord) Slim, and labored to build the gasoline pipeline that accompanied the construction of the Stilwell Road. The China-Burma-India theater of the war is probably the least known, its battles and soldiers untold in more than a passing fashion in history books – yet they are part of how I grew up to understand the conflict, and my grandfather.
It is not uncommon that his experience profoundly influenced him, or that his stories, his army friends, and his outlook influenced me. My grandmother, because of severe rheumatoid arthritis and parkinson’s disease, was unable to travel; when I became a teenager, my grandfather took me to many gatherings of the CBI Veteran’s Association and, closest to his heart, the Burma Star Association whose gatherings I attended frequently enough with him that I was awarded “Friend of the Burma Star” status. I was fascinated by the place in history these people occupied, largely unnoticed. My exposure to these men and women led to my discovery of the Kohima Epitaph, a few words of which ring in my head and heart every time I see a flag-draped coffin or read of a soldier lost in defense of freedom: