As America prepares to honor its veterans on Memorial Day, the Spinal Column Newsweekly would like to honor a real American hero, World War II veteran John Popovich. A 60-year resident of Commerce Township, Popovich, 92, was born in Clinton, Ind. before his family moved to Detroit when he was 5-years-old. Like many Americans after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Popovich was compelled to serve his country and enlisted in the U.S. Army. From there he went on to serve in 46 combat missions in the air as a radio operator and mechanic/gunner in a B-26 Marauder airplane during the most pivotal points of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge. For his heroics, Popovich was not only honored by his own country with numerous honors and medals — such as the Air Medal and the EAME Theater Medal with three stars — but in January, Popovich was informed that he was being awarded Legion of Honor recognition by France, the country he helped liberate during World War II. One of the few World War II veterans left, Popovich recently spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly about his experiences in the air, how he and his fellow servicemen stayed the course in dire circumstances, and what his life is like today decades later.
First of all, congratulations on receiving Legion of Honor recognition from France. How did you find out that you would be receiving this award and what was your reaction? Have you received any other honors for your service?
JP: My wife’s niece said, “Uncle John, I understand I can apply for your record to France and they’re issuing awards out for you.” I just merely thought she was doing something on her own. Then she said, “Now you give me some information on what you did during your service.” I said I have a copy of my discharge papers and I gave them to her. But she told me at that point, “Before I get an answer from them, I understand it’s going to take about a year for them to go through your records,” and I said OK, and that’s the last I heard of her until almost a year later, when I got a letter from there stating that my record shows that they approved me, saying “The French Republic has named you to the Legion of Honor for your heroic action during World War II.” That really surprised the heck out of me.
I think the reason they chose me is because where I spent most of the war was right in France, and I stayed there until we fought at the very end, bombed and so forth, up until the end of the Battle of the Bulge.
I also was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and I received the Air Medal from America, two gold and one silver.
Please describe your military service up until the point you became a participant in World War II. What division and unit were you in during the war? Where was it initially deployed, and what was its role?
What were your duties as a radio operator and gunner/mechanic?
JP: I enlisted into the Army right after Pearl Harbor, in January 1942. I enlisted in the Air Corps. I used to fly little airplanes and I liked the airport. I got in there and they sent me to West Palm Beach, and from there I was sent to the radio school. I spent almost a year and a half just going to different classes to learn the radio and military things.
Then in 1944, we went to Barks Air Field and I was assigned to an airplane there with Lt. James Avery. He chose his crew and that was made up of six people, and I was one of the six. I was his radio operator throughout the entire war after that.
We picked up our airplane at Barks Air Field in 1944 and we flew the southern route to Brazil and all the way through to England. The Americans had already jumped the English Channel into France and immediately following that, about a month or so, that would be in 1944, we flew in through France and landed in Le Rosier, France at the airport there and that’s where I spent the rest of the time and pulled out 46 combat missions, under fire, until 1945.
We almost had to be turned backwards when the Germans hit at the Battle of the Bulge. We were almost told to move the airplanes back into France, to maybe Paris. It seemed like a miracle that on Dec. 23, 1944, when the weather changed and the runways were cleared of ice and snow and our B-26 Marauders were ready to take off — we did not have to move back because we bombed and bombed, and we pushed the Germans back. We followed the soldiers to the front line and we bombed ahead of them to clear the way for them to reach into Germany and into Berlin. That’s what we were doing.
I was the radio operator and gunner. During the war I would be sitting behind the pilot as his radio man, but once we crossed the bomb line, I had to leave the radio to go to the back of the B-26 where there was two 50-cal. machine guns on each side of the plane. I sat there with the two guns and I was either striking or watching for enemy fire from different planes, and that was my job until we got back over the bomb line and then I went back on the radio. And I did that until the end of the war.
When I went to school in Chicago, I thought I would have something to do, I’ll be a radio operator and mechanic and do car radios and electrical stuff. But the only thing I did on the radios from the time I left the United States is just follow what the pilot was doing and make sure he was doing everything I got on my radio from where we were headed. The bombardier at that time, Lt. Tuttle, sat alongside me on the other side doing the same thing. It was amazing as far being a radio operator-gunner. I was more of a gunner than a radio operator.
You were involved in 46 active combat missions in the Ardennes and Rhineland. What day or mission stands out the most for you from your time in those campaigns?
JP: The most important and terrible ones were the ones from France, pushing into Germany. I sat in that back end of the plane and when we got back on the ground, our ground crew pounded in the holes in that plane just where the top-turret gunner and I were sitting, in an area no longer than 15 feet, and we were all in that area with 82 holes in there. That’s a lot of holes in that little area, and only one man ever got hit in there, on our 23rd mission. He got hit in the leg and they sent him home — George Cisnaro, he was actually a top-turret gunner up there and he did a wonderful job up there. He lost his leg. Years later he passed away. He was the only one hit in that plane, called the “The Honky Tonk Tank.” I think it may still be used in England somewhere. Every mission it flew, I flew it, except for a couple of them.
Over time, what was the sense among your comrades — did you think that the war would never end, or were you confident that your comrades would pull through? How were you and your comrades able to hold it together and not lose faith?
JP: We always thought that we would pull through. We’d certainly prayed we would and I never was afraid. I never got nervous when we got up there. We had no chance to get nervous. We flew in a lot of hard missions and we all got along. There were six of us and now there’s only three of us left — the pilot, co-pilot and myself. But, we all got along and it was amazing. Jim Avery, the pilot, is still alive; and Keith Freeman, he was the co-pilot —I talk to him every once in a while and he’s going blind, he can’t see very good.
We always worked together. Actually, the two gunners and myself, we’d go out together in the nights sometimes, and after three or four missions, they used to allow us to fly over back to England to Newport for a three-day rest period. We’d go there and me and George would go up to the bar and restaurant there and eat or have a few drinks and we were both single, and we’d look for the girls. We did everything normal that a single man did, and the rest of them, some of them were married. John Connors, he was our tail-gunner and engineer. I don’t know what happened to him. He was a wild, little Irishman. We all got along so good, it was amazing — it was like a family. We had a big dinner before we left the Barks Air Field. Avery’s wife made dinner for us, invited us all over and we all had dinner the day before left. We were together until George got hit, then he left.
What was the reaction from your community when you returned home from the war?
JP: I just got back here and went back to work for Chrysler, for Dodge actually. There wasn’t much reaction. I was more interested in getting back to work. I was still single, and that was about the end of it.
When I came back, they put me back in the foundry, because when I left, I quit and joined the Army because I broke my arm getting it caught in the line. So I quit and joined the Air Force, but when I came back, they put me on the production line and I stayed there a couple times and then they sent me to the varsity pool on 4th Street and I worked there and the next thing I knew, they sent me back to the assembly line with Dodge in Hamtramck and I worked there.
I got laid off so many times, I don’t know why, so the last time I got laid off, I went to Ford and got a job there and I stayed at Ford for the next 33 years. Most of the time I was in the stock department until I got politically active in the union. Then I ran for committee manager, and I ran for the bargaining committee, and from that point on I stayed on the committees. I ended up going to the international union with Walter Reuther. The last boss I had there was Ken Bannon; he was vice president of the United Auto Workers (UAW). I retired in 1979 from the UAW.
What has your life been like since then and how have you continued to raise awareness of this moment in history? You just recently celebrated your 92nd birthday. What are your feelings as you have reached this milestone in your life?
JP: I think it’s a great moment for me to be here this long … and be in the condition that I’m in. I don’t have a problem except for weak legs a little bit. To me it’s a big change in everything, the way jobs are going. They aren’t the same that they used to be, there isn’t going to be anything that you would call labor anymore. They’re putting everything down to one classification — you’re a worker.
I think you have to be more educated now because there are more technical jobs. People that are going to college, it’s costing more, the cost of living has gone up like crazy, and it’s going to be rough on the grandchildren. A lot of the young people, they have to really work to get something nowadays. It’s harder than it used to be. America has to get moving on something.
There’s nobody left in my family, all of my parents, brothers and sisters, they all passed away, and I’m the only one left. I think what I went through, if I had to do it again, I would lead the same life that I lived. I don’t think I’d make much of a change.
I’d like to get involved in different things, politics particularly. Now of course, at 92, I’m too slow in doing things … I was a little more active, you don’t get around after you get to 92 as well as you did when you were 20. Even when I was 70 I was doing good.
Obviously, times have changed since you last served our country. What are your impressions of America now, which seems to be a deeply divided time in our history, compared to at that time when the nation seemed to be united in the war effort?
JP: I don’t know whether we should be changing presidents right now — I’m really serious about that, it’s hard to try to figure that out.
We didn’t have the Internet or the things you can get now. When I retired from the UAW, I got a job as a salesman in real estate. I went to classes and got a license. I started to learn the (laptop computer) and I didn’t have that many houses to take care of, so I quit, but I wish I would have continued because now I see all that you can do with those things and it’s amazing what the kids can do with those things. I was talking to one of my wife’s nieces one day and I said I thought my mother was born in Pennsylvania and that’s what I thought all my life, and she looked it up on her laptop, just to see where she was born, and she was born in Yugoslavia. All that time — my sister even gave me a letter saying she was born in Johnstown, Penn. and she wasn’t, and here on that little laptop-thing — I couldn’t get over that. (Mom) could speak English so good. Now, you pick that thing up, and they get to it at 10-, 11-years-old. I could have kicked myself in the butt for not continuing that. I could have been having a good time reading, but now it’s too hard to learn. It’s not easy to learn when you get older; it takes a lot out of you.