By PAULENE POPARAD
Long-time Chesterton resident John Poparad was honored Wednesday with the
Bronze Star Medal, the Prisoner of War Medal and seven other decorations he
earned 64 years ago during World War II but never received.
The ceremony took place at the Illiana VA Medical Center in Danville, Ill.
Acting Illiana director Daniel Hendee said to his knowledge it was the first
time such an event took place there. “This is a wonderful opportunity we
don’t get that often.”
Presenting the engraved Bronze Star Medal for heroic, meritorious achievement
was State Rep. William Black, R-Danville, deputy GOP leader of the Illinois
“Words are inadequate,” Black told Poparad, explaining that his sacrifice
allowed Black to grow up in a free country and raise his children and
grandchildren safe from oppression and strife. Black later said his own
father and uncle are WWII veterans. “When I think of what they did and went
through and how many of us take it for granted, it’s aggravating.”
Poparad was drafted in April, 1943 and sent to North Africa in November. As a
member of Company L, 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Texas Division he was
among those who crossed Italy’s Rapido River Jan. 20-22, 1944 in an ill-fated
Allied plan to engage the Nazis at well-fortified Monte Cassino held by the
But amidst heavy losses, the Americans retreated back across the river
leaving many in the 36th Texas infantry either killed, wounded or missing.
Poparad was among those captured and was marched through Italy to Stalag 2 B
near Danzig, Germany. He would remain a prisoner for almost 15 months.
Poparad’s parents, George and Anna Poparad of Burns Harbor, received
notification from the German government that their son was held in captivity
and being transported to a Nazi camp before the March 12, 1944 Western Union
telegram arrived from the U.S. Secretary of War expressing his deep regret
that Poparad was missing in action.
Wednesday, Poparad was given an engraved Prisoner of War Medal depicting an
American eagle encircled by a ring of barbed wire. Making the presentation
were former POWs Charlie Dukes, John Sant and Curtis Campbell. Among the
other decorations presented by Hendee were an American Campaign Medal;
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze service
stars and a World War II Victory Medal.
Dukes, the author of “Good Morning, But the Nightmares Never End,” a book
about his experiences at both a German prison and a Russian detention camp,
gave Poparad a signed copy and an American Ex-POW group hat.
Poparad is a life member of the Porter Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2511 and
was post commander 1996-97. Wednesday, Rudy Spaulding, senior vice-commander
for programs of the Amvets Department of Illinois, presented Poparad with an
honorary Amvets life membership.
Forty-one family members, friends and VA staff attending the ceremony gave
Poparad a standing ovation at its conclusion. “It’s really a wonderful
thing,” he said. Present were John’s children: Bernie Poparad of Burns
Harbor, Chuck Poparad of Peoria, Ill., and Sue Poparad of Houston, Tx. “My
Dad’s a very special father and friend,” she told the audience.
Tim Kohlbecker, Illiana Ex-POW coordinator, said Poparad went about his life
after his April 30, 1945 discharge from the Army and like many other
returning veterans, he rarely talked about his war experiences. According to
Chuck Poparad, his father did say that while a prisoner he voluteered to work
on farm crews and kept escaping, only to be returned to solitary confinement
and later volunteer again.
While in the prison camp Poparad occassionally was allowed to send home
Hitler-stamped post cards and letters, which were on display Wednesday, but
Poparad didn’t always get his incoming mail from family. His guards were
known to distribute it to the prisoners, then take the correspondence back
and burn it unopened.
Poparad’s sister, Rose Lowry of Chesterton, recounted during the medal
ceremony how John’s brother George, also in the Army, was given a brief leave
to see John before he left with his unit. But George’s train from Tennessee
was late and there were anxious moments at the railroad station in Gary.
Lowry said only minutes after John’s train pulled away, George’s train
arrived. “That’s always stayed with me. It was a very emotional thing for me
and my parents.”
On behalf of the family, Bernie Poparad thanked all those planning and
participating in the program and the VA staff including Kohlbecker and
Illiana Amvets veterans service officer Bob Dartt.
“Everybody has just helped this family immensely. I can’t tell you how much
we appreciate it,” said Poparad.