Thank-you cards from China pose mystery for WWII vets

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Ed Denzler was baffled by the postcard from China he received in Pearland. Even when an engineer at NASA translated it, the World War II veteran was stumped.
Photo: Karen Warren / © 2011 Houston Chronicle

The postcard arrived in Ed Denzler's mailbox in Pearland last month, a mystery from his past nestled among the routine bills and coupons. Addressed in neat block letters to Denzler, the handwritten note reads, in English: "It takes a strong man to save himself, a great man to save another. Thank you for 1944. From China." On the front is a black-and-white photograph of U.S. and Chinese service members listening to an American with a fiddle accompany two Chinese soldiers on traditional stringed instruments called erhus The card was mailed from China, postmarked Aug. 27, and had Chinese writing on the back that Denzler couldn't decipher.

The 88-year-old World War II veteran fought in Burma in 1944 with Merrill's Marauders, a famous volunteer unit, and served with the Chinese Combat Command in 1945. But he had no idea what would have prompted such a note more than 60 years later. "I couldn't imagine where it came from," said Denzler. Baffled, he emailed Robert Passanisi, the historian and chairman of Merrill's Marauders Association . The 87-year-old Passanisi told him that at least four other Marauders and their descendants had received similar postcards. The messages and images varied, but the sign-off was always the same: "Thank you for 1944."

Denzler was determined to figure out who sent the cards. At first he thought maybe his card was from Frank Chen , a Chinese interpreter he befriended during the war. The two men corresponded for a while, but Chen's letters stopped coming during China's Cultural Revolution. Denzler hasn't heard from him since. Then he wondered if the postcard might be from an American researcher, Pat Lucas , who interviewed Denzler for a Chinese history project a few years back. But when Denzler tried to email him, the message bounced back. Denzler even took the card to a Chinese-speaking engineer at NASA for translation.

Few clues to sender
Denzler had spent 34 years as an engineer at Grumman, working on the Apollo lunar module and other NASA projects. His fellow engineer told him the Chinese characters on the card read, "National Memories," but could offer no other clues. So Denzler called the Houston Chronicle . Some Internet sleuthing by a reporter revealed a plausible answer to Denzler's postcard puzzle: A Shenzhen Daily article published online reported that students at Shenzhen Foreign Languages School in China's Guangdong Province had decided to write postcards to thank U.S. veterans for helping China resist the Japanese invasion. The students came up with the idea this summer after visiting an exhibit of World War II photographs, according to the article. The pictures on the postcards are from the exhibit. They have been compiled in a book titled National Memories

John Easterbrook, a grandson of former U.S. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell , apparently provided names and addresses of veterans who served in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II.
The article quotes a teacher, Mei Yi , who says the postcards prove that in China, young people don't forget history. "By expressing their gratitude, the students learned that peace does not naturally occur," Mei said. "We have to strive for it." Denzler's face lit up when he heard the story.
"Ha ha! Isn't that great?" he said. He wants the students in China to know how much he appreciated their note. "It kind of helped me, in my recovery from a stroke, to remember things I thought I'd forgotten."

Postal confirmation
Another veteran, Jay Campbell , 86, of New York, also received a postcard. The message was the same as Denzler's, but the picture showed a Chinese boy with his thumbs up. Campbell was so befuddled that he took the card to the post office to verify it really came from China. "I couldn't understand it," he said. Campbell served with the Marauders in Burma, earning three Purple Hearts.
"A lot of these guys don't talk a lot about it," said his daughter, Debbie Campbell Rice . "All he's ever said to me is, 'If I told you what I saw or did or about my nightmares, you'd lock me up in a straightjacket,' so it must have been pretty bad." When told that the card likely came from a Chinese student, Campbell was delighted. "I'll be darned," he said. "That is something, isn't it? Boy, oh, boy!"

'All coming full circle'
In Colorado, Irene Clurman received a card with a photo showing an American GI reading to a Chinese boy. The message reads, "Thank you for 1944, and best wishes. From: China."
Her father, Charles Clurman , also had served in Burma with the Marauders. He died in 2001 at age 82. Clurman said the card carries special meaning because her father was born in China.
"His father was murdered by Japanese in occupied Manchuria, and so when the United States declared war, my father signed up, and then he volunteered to go to the Pacific to avenge his father," she said. "I wish he were alive to see this card from China because it's all coming full circle."