World War II Oral History Interview
Date: March 1, 2002
Veteran: Corporal William G. Girrbach
US Army Air Corps/CBI Tenth Air Force
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Irving Bauman
William Girrbach was born in Irvington, New Jersey in May, 1919. Prior to World War II he was employed as a toolmaker by the Wright Aeronautical Company of Paterson, New Jersey. Girrbach was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1942, and after formal induction into the service at Fort Dix, New Jersey, was transferred to Miami Beach, Florida for basic training. He was quartered initially in the London Arms hotel in Miami Beach but moved to the Clinton Hotel following a hurricane alert. Girrbach recalled long training marches from his hotel quarters to Flamingo Park while in training in Florida. His metalworking experience, coupled with the fact that he had owned and maintained motorcycles while a civilian resulted in his selection for further training as a mechanic following basic training.
Girrbach was next assigned to Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado, where he received advanced training over the winter of 1942-1943. He recalled that while at Lowry he saw the Bob Hope USO show and that standing guard duty in an extremely cold Colorado winter was very unpleasant. On completion of his training, and after a short furlough at home, Girrbach traveled to Seymour Johnson Field, North Carolina and then boarded a troopship bound for Casablanca, Morocco. After landing in Morocco, he traveled by train to Oran, Algeria, where he met his brother-in-law, who was assigned to an armored unit. At Oran Girrbach boarded a British ocean liner that had been converted to a troop transport ship and sailed to Egypt and then through the Suez Canal, observing the pyramids along the way. The ship eventually made port at Bombay [now Mumbai], India.
While awaiting further orders in Bombay Girrbach purchased sandalwood and oak and carved a souvenir chain necklace. He was soon on a train north, which passed Calcutta and delivered him to an airstrip just outside of Ledo, in the Indian state of Assam. Ledo was the headquarters of the Tenth Air Force, to which he was assigned as a mechanic’s helper in a B-25 bomber squadron. When the bomber squadron moved into China, however, Girrbach remained at Ledo. He recalled that Ledo was the beginning of the famed Ledo Road, which extended from Ledo into Burma, where it linked up with the old Burma Road to Kunming, China, a route to bring military supplies to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist army. Prior to the completion of the road supplies had to be flown to Kunming from India.
After his squadron left for China, Girrbach was transferred to an air base near Calcutta, where he helped build a runway and maintained fifty kilowatt power generators. To tend and maintain the generators properly, he had to sleep in a tent alongside them. His next assignment was at Paradoba airfield, also north of Calcutta, where he maintained motors used to pump water from wells. While at Paradoba he fabricated another sandalwood chain necklace and a box kite in his spare time. In 1945 Girrbach was transferred once more, to Kunming, where he was assigned to work in a photo lab with the official Tenth Air force photography unit.
Shortly after the war ended, and while Girrbach was still in China, the pre-World War II civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists broke out again, and a sidebar local conflict between the Nationalists and a “General Lung” and his “Provincial Army” broke out. Girrbach was assigned guard duty in Kunming in the midst of the fighting which, according to a news release of the day that he showed the interviewer “caught headquarters personnel of the Tenth Air Force completely by surprise.” Girrbach recalled that he witnessed quite a bit of fighting between the Nationalists and General Lung’s local revolutionaries before eventually leaving for Shanghai. While awaiting transportation back to the United States, he visited and photographed a number of locations in and around Shanghai. On December 5, 1945, Girrbach arrived in California by ship, and then boarded a plane to New York, where he received his honorable discharge on December 17, 1945.
William G. Girrbach was awarded the China-Burma-India Service Medal with 3 battle stars. In 1951, he opened a machine shop in Irvington, NJ, where he made plastic molds until he retired in 1982.
At the conclusion of his interview, Girrbach proceeded to show maps and photos of the Ledo Road, Kunming and Shanghai, China, a press release covering the revolution in Kunming, and other material associated with his service. A man who has always derived pleasure from making things with his hands, Girrbach also displayed a model of a B-25 bomber he made using aluminum from beer cans, as well as a model guided missile that he used to store coins in.