- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

GREENSBURG, Pa. (AP) - Greensburg police dispatcher Rachelle Pape last month got a visitor with an unusual request.

“He said he was a World War II vet, a POW, and he needed help finding one of his friends,” she said.

The veteran was John Kepchia, 90, of Greensburg. The friend was Alex Vargo, one of Kepchia’s last surviving naval buddies.

Kepchia was an aviation radioman during the war, and Vargo was a parachute rigger with a sense of humor. As he handed out parachutes to departing airmen he’d offer them a guarantee:

“If they don’t open, I’ll give you a new one.”

Vargo, an Easton native, kept up a friendship with Kepchia in the decades after the war. The pair would talk on the phone every few weeks, until one day Vargo stopped answering. Kepchia spent more than two years trying to find out what had happened to his friend. Then he thought to ask the police.

Pape’s first call was to the coroner’s office in Easton, but she found no record of him there. Then she called the local police and was relieved to find that Vargo was alive. He had been moved to a nursing home in Hellertown, Northampton County, where he lost touch with Kepchia.

When Kepchia heard the news, he called his daughter, Michelle Lavelle, of Harrison City. Together, they planned a reunion.

“For (Pape) to do what she did for my dad, I can never repay her,” Lavelle said.

It wasn’t the first time Kepchia and Vargo had been separated. During the war, Vargo was left to wonder about the fate of his squad mate after 19-year-old Kepchia went on a bombing run over Rabaul, in what is now Papua New Guinea. The plane came under heavy anti-aircraft fire, and Kepchia was injured by shrapnel.

“I was firing my gun, and blood was running down my face. … I thought it was sweat,” he said.

The plane was flying too low for Vargo’s parachutes to be of any use. The pilot, Donald Atkiss, was forced to attempt a crash landing.

“We were like a bulldozer going through that jungle,” Kepchia said.

All three crew members - Atkiss, Kepchia, and gunner Richard Lanigan - survived the crash, although an injury to his sternum left Atkiss unable to walk.

Kepchia said he wasn’t frightened as the plane was going down.

“When we were on the plane, we were too busy to be scared,” he said.

That quickly changed. The men were stranded in the jungle, surrounded by Japanese troops. For four hours they ran and hid in the jungle, using a parachute harness as a makeshift stretcher to carry the wounded pilot.

Then the Japanese found them, and they were taken to a prison camp in Rabaul.

Kepchia was to spend the rest of the war - a year and a half - as a prisoner. He said he was injected with unknown substances and kept so hungry that he and his fellow prisoners would risk the wrath of the guards to try to steal a single coconut to share among them.

Atkiss and Lanigan both died in July 1945, less than two months before the end of the war, Kepchia said.

The camp held 77 prisoners at its peak. When it was liberated by the Australian army in September, only seven were still alive. One was Kepchia.

When he was freed, Kepchia sent a telegram to his family in Pennsylvania: “BACK AT LAST ALL WELL HERE SHORT TIME THEN HOME.”

Kepchia returned to Greensburg, but all was not well.

“I stayed in the Navy, but I drank a hell of a lot,” he said.

Years passed before he realized he needed to make a change.

“I said, ‘I better get my life together.”

He stopped drinking, and in 1961, he married Elizabeth Gaydar of Greensburg. The couple soon had two children.

In 1986, Kepchia attended a reunion of his squadron. The first man he met up with there was Alex Vargo, and the pair became fast friends.

“Alex and I always wound up together,” he said. They spoke regularly until Vargo’s family moved him to the nursing home.

After tracking down Vargo last month, Kepchia and Lavelle planned a trip to Hellertown. Lavelle recalled the moment Vargo saw his friend, for the first time in years, on Dec. 18.

“He turns around, looks at my dad. And he says, ‘John Kepchia, you son of a gun! My buddy, my brother!’”

The pair spent hours together, talking and reminiscing.

Pape said she has made a new friend in Lavelle after helping the family find Vargo.

“Me and (Lavelle) are actually talking every day now,” she said. “John is the biggest hero I have ever met.”

But Kepchia insists the heroes are those who didn’t come home.

“Our heroes are still over there, buried,” he said.

As he was leaving the nursing home, Kepchia glanced back at Vargo. His old friend had risen from his wheelchair, saluting.

Kepchia saluted back.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1CeL7x3

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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