To China and Back

Veterans’ Day holds special meanings for native Marylander Lillian Caplins, of Huntingtown, who was a cadet nurse at McGuire General Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. 

Like her husband Alphonse, Lill was born in Baltimore of 100 percent Lithuanian stock. Like Lill, Al served in World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in August 2, 1942, and on June 20, 1943, left for China with the Air Force in the India-Burma-China Theater of Operations in support of General Claire Lee Chennault’s Flying Tigers. Al received the Bronze Star for his service.

Al resumed civilian life as a bricklayer, then a builder-contractor and eventually owner of Valley Lee Hardware on Loch Raven Boulevard. “This,” says Lill, “was his dream.”

In 1972, the Caplins moved to Calvert County, where he built the house they lived in ever since. He taught trowel trades at Calvert County Vocational Technical School. They raised six children, two of whom joined the army, one the navy and a grandson the Marines. 

Lill continued her nursing career long past retirement, as she did her involvement with young people, Southern Maryland’s literary life and the Church of St. John the Divine in Huntingtown.

Al died at home on October 12, 2010. He was 87. He was laid out in his sergeant’s uniform, preserved from age 19. His ashes will be placed in Arlington National Cemetery at 10am on November 18. 

Lill, who writes memoirs in Elisavietta Ritchie’s continuing Calvert County Library workshops, interviewed Al over the years and gives us his story.

Al’s China Tour

When the war broke out in my junior year in high school in Baltimore, I quit school and went to work at Riviera Copper and Brass, a factory that made supplies for the military services. I worked making piston rings to size.

Then my girlfriend, Lillian Edna Rutkauskis, asked me to escort her to prom. Considering it an honor, I took off — and lost my job. I had a wonderful time. It was worth it.

My first thought was to enlist into the Marines. I flunked the color-blindness test and was rejected.

My next choice was the Army Air Force. I passed, and away I went. First to Fort Meade, for indoctrination, then off to Biloxi, Mississippi, for more training. The weather was damp and humid. From dampness, the cockroaches were so bad I had to chase one as he ran away with my shirt.

After mechanics courses in both Buffalo and Chicago, I went to Camp Luna in New Mexico and was offered an opportunity for Officers School. Anxious for action and tired of schools, I declined.

Soon I was China-bound in a converted B-24. I sat by a drafty door and was cold the entire trip. It was equivalent to sitting in a refrigerator.

A layover in Chabua, India, lasted a few weeks. It was wet, cold and damp. When putting on shoes, you had to be alert for tarantulas. They were many. 

Finally, in June, 1943, I got my assignment, to Kunming, China, an important theater of operations.

An electro-mechanic, I was to be a troubleshooter, part of a ground crew. Many times, I had to fly up in the plane to locate malfunctions. It was impressive flying over the Himalayas. What a view!

This air route over the Hump was the lifeline to China, as Japan occupied much of Burma. More than 1,300 people went missing in the area and were declared dead. Five hundred aircraft were lost. About 415 people and 90 aircraft were lost in India alone. So many lives were lost over this treacherous route that, after 60 years, they are still searching for remains in these mountains.

There were lots of planes coming and going. Our work shift was 10, 12 and sometimes 20 hours. Two of us had our special plane to keep serviced, besides the others that came in.

Once, when I was working on the wheel socket, an electrical storm and lighting hit as I sat on the huge wheel. The next thing I knew I was sitting out in the field, rain blasting me. Don’t know what struck me. I consider myself lucky to be alive.

We had bomb warnings. One bell meant that Japanese planes were taking off. Two bells meant they were close but not sure of the destination. Three bells meant expect a hit. This is when we hit the trenches.

While digging trenches for protection against air raids, we discovered that the Chinese buried their dead in clay pots. We unearthed many. Also, many were buried in wooden boxes. When the rains came and washed the dirt away, the dogs got into them. Fields strewn with bones was a sight not to be forgotten.

Al and Lill Caplins both served in World War II.

Another strange occurrence: As we looked up, we saw many weird things hanging from the trees. It was a way of disposing of dead babies. They wrapped their babies papoose-style after death. Then, instead of ground burial, they hung them high in the trees. It took a while for us to become accustomed to this sight. 

Because the work schedule was heavy, we were not much on military formality. Our mode of operation was simple and down to earth. One day a general dropped in to talk to a group. He did not get a single salute, either on his arrival or departure. The officer in charge returned and gave us holy hell. Being so far removed from everything, we could care less. Our attitude: So throw us all in the stockade.

Sundays a chaplain said Mass. One Christmas Eve, we passed around a bottle of Indian wine a pilot had obtained. We were sitting in a circle celebrating, passing around the bottle, when an air raid sounded. We jumped into the trench. On our return, the bottle was mysteriously empty.

On occasion, for recreation we went into town. The people were friendly, always ready to accept the almighty dollar. We bought souvenirs to send home for Christmas. The news of home was never up to date. The only radio was Tokyo Rose, with her propaganda.

Because we were away so long, many suffered from depression. Our cook took a pistol and shot himself in the mouth. That was just one indication that mail was important. 

When the war was over, those there the longest went home first. On the way home, we stopped off at India. It had been so long since I had chocolate milk that when I eagerly gulped it down, it made me sick.

That country did not impress me: so much poverty with a strong, death smell in the air. I will never forget the odor. There was a truck that took an alternate route daily to pick up the dead. They burned the bodies in a pile, weekly.

I was honorably discharged in 1945, at the end of World War II, proud to have served — and glad to be back in Maryland, where I married Lill.