CHICAGO (AP) _ A World War II veteran will travel to Brazil next month to be reunited with the Japanese man he saved on the shore of Okinawa nearly 42 years ago.

Eli Ponich, and his wife, Elinore, plan to leave March 8 for Sao Paulo for the reunion with Shinsho Yamashiro, who was a boy when Ponich rescued him in the final months of the war.

''He was badly hurt and couldn't have weighed more than 20 pounds,'' the 69-year-old former sergeant recalled in a telephone interview Monday from his suburban Bellwood home. ''Thank God he's still alive.

''I'm going to tell him I prayed for him for 41 years,'' said Ponich, now a plasterer. ''I asked the Lord to keep him safe so I might see him.''

In June 1945, Ponich and 12 other U.S. soldiers were ordered to inspect an Okinawa beach and escort any Japanese civilians who might be hiding in a cave.

Ponich told his men to lay down their guns, hoping that a lack of weapons would deter any hostility from Japanese soldiers who also might be trying to evade the Americans.

''We led about 50 civilians out of there,'' he said. ''The cave was littered with Japanese soldiers who were killed. ... My second sense told me that there were more civilians, and maybe enemy soldiers,'' Ponich said.

''I climbed a crevice, and here was this little guy sitting in a pool of blood. I saw a hole in his right side. I picked up the boy, and above me were two Japanese soldiers with guns.''

Ponich said he bandaged the youngster, who was Yamashiro, and when he finished he looked up at the soliders.

''The little boy had his arms around me and his cheeks next to mine. I stood there and bowed, and the soldiers did the same thing, and they let me go,'' he said.

Yamashiro was taken to a hospital, but Ponich lost contact with the youngster. He kept the story to himself until 1984, when he saw the movie ''The Bridge on the River Kwai'' for the first time and didn't like the way it depicted Japanese.

He decided to write an open letter to the Japanese people, citing the soldiers who let him live and the boy he helped out of the cave.

The letter was printed in Japanese newspapers, and last year a Japanese veteran, Akira Ishibashi, said he was among the soldiers who watched Ponich care for Yamashiro.

The two former soldiers met in Tokyo last April.

On the trip, a woman identifying herself as an aunt of Yamashiro heard about Ponich's visit and told him her nephew was a fruit peddler in Sao Paulo.

''I was awed,'' Ponich said of his meeting with the Japanese soldier. ''I shook his hand and said, 'Thank you for saving my life.' This man was a wonderful person. He told me, 'You were the first one we were going to kill.'''