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Several years ago when we launched our Popernack Books and Militaria website, we were trying to figure out how the Google search engine worked. We typed in the name Popernack to see how quickly our website was found. Our discovery that day was something unexpected and far more special than we could have imagined.
The first website with the name Popernack was: The News Blog by Steve Gilliard. This contained a Feb 19, 2005 article, "Struggle for a Piece of Dirt", by Bill Gallo, a WWII USMC veteran and NY Daily News sports cartoonist. In that piece, Mr. Gallo detailed his experience on Iwo Jima and named some of his fellow Marines; one of them was our cousin, George Popernack, who lost his life on Iwo Jima.
I was blown away by the knowledge that someone who was with my cousin in combat was still alive! I immediately wanted to learn more, so I called the NY Daily News and asked to speak to Mr. Gallo. In our phone conversation, Mr. Gallo explained that he was with George on Roi Namur, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. He said, “George was well liked, a good Marine, and you should be proud of him”. I agreed and told him that I felt it my duty to remember and honor George because he never had the chance to marry or have children of his own. I offered to send him copies of the few pictures I had of George and he accepted.
A couple days before Memorial Day, 2006, I received a letter from Mr. Gallo which contained a short note and a copy of his article "Gone But Not Forgotten". Mr. Gallo wrote in his note that this article was going to appear in the Memorial Day issue of the NY Daily News. Wow! There were our pictures of George in the newspaper. I feel honored and very fortunate to share this article published in the NY Daily News.
By Bill Gallo
Sunday, May 28th 2006, 7:14AM
Some years ago, on Memorial Day, I dedicated my column to the boys left behind in WWII. I focused on a fellow Marine in my outfit who fell at Iwo Jima.
I wrote about my friend George Popernack, a likable guy from Reedsville, Pa., who lived to be only 23. In that war, this was considered "old" because most of us in our platoon had barely reached 21. Because of this and his last name, we called him "Pop."
It is an amazing coincidence that, this very week, I should get a letter from Michael and Carol Popernack, second cousins of Pop.
Dated May 2, 2006, the letter comes to me 61 years after George Popernack's life ended. They asked how he succumbed and what "type of things Marine demolition squads performed."
The letter goes like this:
"Dear Mr. Gallo,
We have shared your articles about George Popernack with various family members. On behalf of the Popernack family, we would like to issue a heartfelt thank you for remembering George. Your articles have given our family a sense of closure.
"Not much remains of George's existence. His parents had a house fire back in the '60s and most of the pictures and letters were lost. Enclosed are the only three pictures we have.
"We were wondering if you had any stories."
Just before the shell hit our area, we were laughing and joking because George landed five days after we did. We said he came in with a USO entertaining group and we labeled him Bob Hope.
Pop, a Corporal, was part of our demolition outfit. This was a tedious and dangerous work, but it was all dangerous no matter where you were on this island. Part of the job had to do with locating and deactivating mines. The other part was jamming a pliable explosive composition and making it into a 20-pound satchel charge with a block of TNT in the middle. A detonation cap would go into the TNT, a six-second fuse showing.
The idea was to crawl behind a Japanese pill box, light the fuse, toss it in the mouth of the pill box and run like hell before it went off. You had those six seconds to scramble out of there. It was at these times that I felt I could break the four-minute mile.
But this night in the crater we shared with Pop, we felt comparatively safe. The enemy, which was formidable, hadn't fired their 20-MM shells for about an hour. So, there we were shootin' the breeze when suddenly one whistled through. The Japanese had found a pattern to our location. Hell, they could've fired anywhere on the island and somebody was bound to get hit.
The blast came and Pop took most of it. If there is any solace to his family, it was that he never knew what hit him.
Pop's body was put on a stretcher like you see in the accompanying sketch and taken to the burial grounds. His last breath was taken on that crummy, hellish-looking black island of Iwo. A salty Marine once said of it: "The land that God forgot." And the Marines who were lucky to come back said: "I didn't ever have to fear of going to hell, I've already been there."
So, on this Memorial Day, through the memory of Pop, I remember all the rest of our buddies that we left behind. Not only on those islands we took in the Pacific, but all the fronts of WWII from the Pacific to the armies who beat Hitler in Europe. From WWI to our war to the one after at Korea, and the one after that in Vietnam, and now this war in Iraq.
I, and the people who made it back with me, have lived our lives with the cloud of war over our heads. Sometimes I wished, in an unrealistic way, that war would somehow go out of style, as simple as that - just like suits with two pair of pants and a vest. And the fedora with the wide brim.
Look at that drawing of the kid on the stretcher and somebody tell us - tell us about this wounded American hero. Tell us who he is. How old is he? Is he a man who has been asked to fight for his country and believe in it so much he would vote for it? Or is he a boy of 18 who was not allowed to vote just yet?
We all believe a man or woman should die old, after they have completed their life's deeds, isn't this right? He or she should have come back from any war and married their sweetheart, had a family and raised kids they could be proud of in a free nation.
They should have the opportunity to get as far ahead in the world as their skills can take them. It doesn't matter whether they become a construction worker or a baker, chef, lawyer, doctor, ballplayer, civil service worker or newspaperman.
They should have dreams, even lofty ones, as well as be able to tackle the rigors of life.
You can put all of this in one grand package, tie it with a ribbon and call it a successful, triumphant life.
So, on Memorial Day, think about the men and women of common valor, the ones we left behind in all the wars.
Say a prayer for them too, for if it weren't for them, we might not have the gift of freedom we have today.
Finally, I stand straight to salute all you great men and women who still lug rifles while trying to win that difficult peace in Iraq.
And you, Corporal George Popernack, I wish you're in a nice, comfortable spot in the balcony and if there's beer up there, have one on me.
The outstanding researcher, Mr. Tim Frank, was able to obtain a copy of George’s USMC Casualty Card. From this information, we learned some information about George’s service and that he was alive at the time of the historic flag raising. Thank you to Mr. Frank, of Military Research Associates, LLC, for his assistance. If you need help researching military records there is a link to Mr. Frank’s website in our library section.
Special thanks to Mr. Bill Gallo. Mr. Gallo really touched our family and it is hard to put into words what this means to us. Semper Fi!
Our WWII veteran’s are passing this earth at an alarming rate of about 1,000 per day. If you haven’t taken the time to thank a vet or learn their story, don’t wait; tomorrow may be too late.
About two years ago it was announced that the MVPA (Military Vehicle Preservation Association) was planning a Transcontinental Convoy that would retrace the route that the U.S. Army traveled in 1919 by way of the Lincoln Highway from zero mile marker in Washington D.C. to San Francisco, CA. The group made the journey with 81 new vehicles. The Army convoy set out to achieve five goals: evaluate the difficulties in mobilizing and sending troops from the east coast to the west coast of the United States, test the various vehicles performances over different terrain, demonstrate the need for good roads, recruit new members into the motor transport corps, and demonstrate to the American people the importance of motor vehicles in winning wars.
Ninety years later the 2009 MVPA Transcontinental Convoy would attempt to retrace this historic journey with much improved roads, but older vehicles. The 2009 convoy set out to achieve its own set of goals: honor those brave men who took this historic journey 90 years before us, test the performance of our older military vehicles, to recruit new members to join the MVPA, show the importance of preserving history, and to say thank you to our Veterans.
As enthused military historians, Mike and I thought we should participate in the convoy. Our sideline mission for the past two years has been to restore our M1010 ambulance and take part in the convoy. Our restoration consisted of: new brakes, tires, radiator, heater, exhaust, hoses, belts, batteries and of course fresh paint. The hardest part we encountered was finding flat red paint for the Geneva Convention crosses; we ended up concocting our own home brew of Regal Red Rustoleum and 8 ounces of baby powder! The crosses were the final piece of the restoration and were completed only a week before the convoy.
Our journey began at mile marker zero in front of the White House. The convoy vehicles lined Constitution Avenue and a ceremony was held near the zero mile marker. General Anderson and Capt. Johns and the President of the Lincoln Highway, Bob Dieterich were there to express their appreciation and best wishes for our safe journey. General Anderson taught us the power of the word HOOAH!, which I think is the only thing that helped propel the three-quarter ton Dodges over the Pennsylvania mountains.
Under police escort the convoy paraded up Connecticut Avenue through Washington, D.C. making us feel like VIPs; it was the part I looked forward to the most; but that part became less significant to me as we traveled. The convoy took I-495, to I-270 to US-15, and finally made it to US-30, The Lincoln Highway, outside of Gettysburg. People came out of their houses, stopped mowing their lawns, stopped their cars to use their camera phones as the convoy unexpectedly traveled through small town America. Special moments were seeing the proud veteran in Thurmont, MD waving his Airborne flag, and the folks of Everett, PA who seemed to have gathered the whole town to the square to wave the American flag; their display of American pride brought tears to my eyes as well as many other drivers. All along the way the towns rolled out the red carpet with veterans groups serving us breakfasts, lunches, dinners and refreshments. There was even a gun salute at the Old Bedford Village with Civil War muskets and M1903 drill rifles. The support of small town America is something that touched all our hearts and an experience that I will never forget.
For us the journey ended in Greensburg, PA. Our goal was to see our friends through our beautiful state and send them off to Ohio. Our convoy friends came from all over the country: Washington, Texas, California, Oregon, Alabama, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Puerto Rico and France. My hope is that ten years from now there will be a 100th anniversary of the Transcontinental Convoy and we’ll be able to go all the way. I recommend the experience to any of you who own a military vehicle. It was an unforgettable journey.
If the convoy is headed your way I hope that you will take time to go see it and show your support.
The Transcontinental Convoy’s progress can be traced through the MVPA website www.mvpa.org.
Special thanks to Terry Shelswell, the MVPA and the Lincoln Highway Association for organizing and planning our route, the State Police and Fire Departments for their traffic control, the veterans groups and towns people for their hospitality. May God Bless you and may God Bless America!