A scrap of silk tells an airman’s story

In honor of Memorial Day, today’s blog post comes from  Sara Holmes, supervisory preservation specialist, and Michael Pierce, preservation technician, both at the National Archives at St. Louis.

The piece of silk lay in the folder as if it were just another page in the military personnel record—with holes punched through to be held by the fasteners, just another page to be cleaned of mold and soot from the burned files from the disastrous 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center.

But this piece of cloth with its colorful silkscreen of a Chinese flag was clearly something different from everything else treated by the Paper Lab. Accompanying documents in the file explained how very special it was. The long journey taken by this small silken scrap, called a “blood chit,” to the National Archives began when it fell from the sky.

Preservation staff found this "blood chit" in the Official Military Personnel File of John Vurgaropulos.
Preservation staff found this “blood chit” in the Official Military Personnel File of James Vurgaropulos.

On June 29, 1944, 16 American planes were flying a mission against the Japanese along the Laodoho River in the Hunan Province in China. After several followed a road away from the river, one of the planes crashed into a building and then skidded across the rice fields, breaking apart and burning.

Over a year later, the Changsha Search Team reported finding the grave of an unidentified pilot. The team recovered the engine numbers and serial plates of the carburetor and radio compass and noted that “A Chinese Flage [sic] Identification which was worn on this fliers [sic] jacket, number 12331, has been found.”

One of the greatest fears a soldier has is being lost or injured in a place where he or she does not speak the language and needs assistance to get back to their unit. The blood chit was created with this scenario in mind—it is a notice written in the local language and carried by military personnel, identifying its bearer as friendly and asking for help.

Possibly the first recorded usage of such a document was in 1793, when Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard came to America to demonstrate his hot-air balloon. Blanchard could not speak a word of English, so George Washington gave him a letter stating that all United States citizens were obliged to help him return to Philadelphia. In 1842, British troops used the same type of document while fighting in Afghanistan.

Before America’s entry into World War II, American pilots were training in China under the command of Claire Chennault to help defend that country against the empire of Japan. During this time, the most recognizable form of the blood chit—a larger paper version is still used today by military personnel—came into being.

Foreign pilots were issued a rescue patch called a hu chao after they become advisers to the Chinese Air Force in 1937. The hu chao depicted the Chinese National Flag, the chop (stamp) of the Chinese Air Force Headquarters, and text in Mandarin or Cantonese that read: “This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue, protect, and provide him medical care.”

Lt. James Vurgaropulos carried just such a chit. James was born on February 22, 1919, in Lowell, MA, to Greek immigrant parents. He was a pilot in the 75th Fighter Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force when his plane went down on June 29, 1944, apparently killing him instantly. He was 25 years old.

Wong Ch’ing Lien was one of the first people at the scene of the crash. He gave a witness statement to the Changsha Search Team and showed the team where James had been buried at the village of Eya-Ch’ung. Lien also helped the team recover the blood chit.

Letter found in the Official Military Personnel File of John Vurgaropulos.
Letter found in the Official Military Personnel File of James Vurgaropulos.

This chit measures 8″ x 9.5″ and bears some damage from the fire and its aftermath. Rust stains are in the upper left, and the purple stamp with two Chinese characters has offset to create a mirror image formed while it was folded . The silk is discolored and has a tear to the right of the flag. The chop (block stamp) on the left is heavily faded, possibly being a highly water soluble ink. It is possible that the record was vacuum dried following the fire at the  National Personnel Records Center in 1973. Other documents in this record do not have burn damage, but are brittle with rust stains from staples and other fasteners. The small thumbnail photo of Vurgaropulos clearly shows damage from high humidity as a result of the fire.

It is not clear from the documentation whether the chit was found in the grave, or had been kept by those in the village who had buried him and given to the search team. Given that Changsha is a rice-growing region, it may be more likely that the chit was saved by those who saw to Vurgaropulos’s burial and who later assisted the search team in locating his grave over a year later.

By March of 1946, the remains had been moved to Shanghai, and paperwork had begun to amend James’s status to “Killed in Action.” Unfortunately for the Vurgaropulos family, James was not their only loss during the war. His younger brother, John, a bombardier on a B-26, was killed when his plane was hit by flak in 1945.

In this photo, John smiles at the camera as he poses with his former crewmates in front of his aircraft, the “Panchita del Rio.” John was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and James’s remains were moved from China to the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1979, the brothers were honored together when the state of Massachusetts designated a bridge on Pawtucket Street in Lowell to be the Vurgaropulos Memorial Bridge.

Now that its significance has been recognized, National Archives preservation staff will create special archival housing for the blood chit that James carried, and it will be kept in a secure location at the National Archives at St. Louis.

We all hope to leave some tangible evidence of our existence behind when we’re gone. It could be our children, something we’ve written or drawn, maybe even a memory that sticks in the mind of a friend or a loved one. Both James and John Vurgaropulos have touched National Archives staff who have learned their stories, and we are honored to help preserve their memories so that neither man will be forgotten.

Photograph of John
Photograph of James Vurgaropulos.

On this Memorial Day, we honor not only the memory of the Vurgaropulos brothers and others lost to grieving family and friends, but also the gracious assistance of Wong Ch’ing Lien and untold others like him who came to the aid of those far away from home as best they were able.

We thank all who served, however they were called to serve, and are grateful that they were willing to step forward to assist our nation and its people.

2 thoughts on “A scrap of silk tells an airman’s story

  1. Wow, this is a really great piece. Finding personal treasures in seemingly dull government or military files is part of the enjoyment. What a find, and that it’s lasted through so much.

  2. Thank you for that great piece of history. I was assigned to the 75th Fighter Squadron, 23rd Wing when it was reactivated at Pope AFB in the early 1990’s with A-10 aircraft. I’m well aware of the 75th’s lineage, but it was incredible to put a face on the history. Rest in Peace Lt. Vurgaropulos.

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