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WWII POW honored with medal decades later

A Prisoner of War medal, authorized by Congress in 1986. Anyone held prisoner after April 5, 1917 is eligible to earn the medal.

U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO

By JEFF HORVATH | The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. | Published: July 9, 2018

SCRANTON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Jimmy Kuchwara calls it the “war chest in the attic” experience — when a late veteran’s family finds an old trunk, box or footlocker filled with evidence of military service.

An Army veteran of the Vietnam War, Kuchwara said from experience that wars “aren’t for talking about.” That may be why many combat veterans from his generation remain mum about their experiences in the jungles of Southeast Asia. It may also be why his uncle, Army Air Corps pilot Michael Kuchwara — known to his nephews as “Uncle Maxie” — never talked about the almost 10 months he spent as a prisoner of war during World War II.

Sometimes the medals, ribbons and documents discovered in old war chests tell stories long missing from family histories, especially when a soldier stays silent about his service. For the Kuchwara family, it was the medal missing from Uncle Maxie’s war chest, the Prisoner of War Medal, that inspired a more than three-year mission to claim what he had earned.

Born in Dickson City on Jan. 31, 1922, Michael Kuchwara enlisted in May 1940 and was mustered into federal service Feb. 17, 1941, roughly 10 months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II. During the Allied air offensive over Europe, he piloted four-engine military aircraft for the Army Air Corps, flying at least 20 combat missions and 120 combat hours during the war.

While piloting a B-24 on July 12, 1944, 2nd Lt. Kuchwara was shot out of the sky over Germany, crashed and was taken captive there. A July 25, 1944, letter from Army Adjutant General James A. Ulio to Michael Kuchwara’s mother confirmed the bad news, originally delivered via telegram, that he was considered missing in action.

“Permit me to extend to you my heartfelt sympathy during this period of uncertainty,” Ulio’s letter reads.

The pilot spent at least 291 days as a POW, according to military records. He was imprisoned at Stalag Luft I, a camp for captured Allied airmen located near the north German town of Barth. The camp was liberated by Soviet Allied forces on April 30, 1945, exactly 292 days after Michael Kuchwara was considered missing. The camp prisoners were evacuated via American aircraft about two weeks later.

After surviving detainment, Michael Kuchwara continued to serve his country until June 1962, when he retired from the Air Force as a major. He would go on to work as a civilian at Fort Meade, near his Laurel, Maryland, home. Michael Kuchwara died July 1, 1987.

He was not talkative about his military service and never spoke about his time at Stalag Luft I, even with the three of his nephews who served in the armed forces during the Vietnam era — Jimmy Kuchwara, 67, and his brothers Sam Kuchwara, 64, a Marine Corps veteran, and Michael Kuchwara, 65, who is named after his uncle and served in the Army.

And while he rarely discussed his wartime record, Uncle Maxie remained close to his family and his nephews. At a family gathering in Dickson City shortly before he shipped out for Vietnam, Jimmy Kuchwara said his uncle pulled him close and offered some simple, soldierly advice.

“He just grabbed me and hugged me and said ‘You’ll be fine. You’ll be all right. Just keep your head down and don’t get heroic,’” Jimmy Kuchwara said.

Sam Kuchwara often visited his uncle’s Maryland home on weekends while stationed in Quantico, Virginia, with the Marine Corps. Together they toured Arlington National Cemetery, the White House, the Pentagon and other Washington destinations.

“He was my hero,” Sam Kuchwara said. “I never forgot the things that he showed me. I never forgot the things that he told me.”

Still, the two never discussed the POW camp or what happened there. And while Sam Kuchwara had been aware his uncle was a POW, he was reminded of that fact a little more than three years ago when he had his own “war chest in the attic” experience after buying a Dickson City home from a cousin.

“When I was the garage I found a box in there, and when I opened it up there was all this stuff on my uncle: ribbons and where he served and all this stuff,” Sam Kuchwara said. “I’m going through and reading this stuff and I’m looking ... at what this man had done. I had tears in my eyes.”

Among his uncle’s personal effects were pictures of the types of planes he had flown, old uniforms and the July 1944 telegram announcing his MIA status. Sam Kuchwara realized that missing from the box was the Prisoner of War Medal that his uncle earned during his at least 291 days in German captivity.

“I found the telegram and it brought back to me that he was a prisoner of war,” the nephew said. “When I got out (of the Marines) there were POW flags and this and that, and I thought here’s a guy who never even got the ribbon.”

What followed was a three-year effort that saw Sam Kuchwara contact the offices of federal legislators and solicit records from the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in a vain attempt to claim the medal. Bureaucratic red tape always seemed delay the process, he said, but that ended in late spring when Lackawanna County Veteran’s Affairs Director Dave Eisele got involved.

Through a contact in St. Louis, Eisele learned the part of Michael Kuchwara’s file detailing his time as a POW was missing, and that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ Philadelphia regional office was the last to have it.

Eisele sent a letter to the Philadelphia office requesting they return the file to St. Louis. Once it was returned, he sent another letter requesting the medal be issued. The whole thing took about two weeks, and the medal was issued and arrived about 10 days later in late May.

“We knew (the file) was there, we knew it was true ... Just to give them that closure is great,” Eisele said.

For Sam and Jimmy Kuchwara, the medal means closure and so much more.

“The whole thing is this, it’s something that he deserved and he never got ... and never said anything about,” Sam Kuchwara said.

His uncle’s medals, including the POW medal, will soon be put in a shadow box and displayed at a public place in Dickson City, so others will know of and honor his service. That location has yet to be determined. And while Michael Kuchwara’s medal has been brought home, Jimmy Kuchwara hopes his story will inspire others to do their own research and look for their own relatives’ “war chests.”

“I’m sitting here with that ribbon and I’m saying to myself, ‘a prisoner of war for all those days.’ We never knew anything about it,” Jimmy Kuchwara said. “This here really opened my eyes with Uncle Maxie. That made me think how many, you can call them war chests or whatever, of that loved one is in the attic that no one knew anything about.”

©2018 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)
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