Chesterton Tribune

John Poparad honored with medals for heroism in WWII

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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 General Assembly.

“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 Germans.

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.



Posted 2/11/2008