Gunfire crackles across the rubble of Nazi-occupied Warsaw. A small boy and his older brother emerge from a cellar, their home since a German dive bomber wrecked their apartment. Darting behind barricades of broken concrete and overturned wagons, they make their way to a soup kitchen run by the Polish underground.

As recalled by his older brother recently, that scene from the early life of Gen. John M. Shalikashvili captures as well as anything the remarkable past of the man President Clinton has chosen as his next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is a classic immigrant's success story: A teenage war refugee arrives with his family in Peoria, Ill., speaking little English and greeting his new neighbors by bowing stiffly at the waist. He quickly sheds his Old World ways, is drafted into the Army and rises to the highest strata of the U.S. military. Only his accent remains.

And a ghost. Pentagon officials described Shalikashvili, 57, as "shaken" by the disclosure that his father, a former Georgian cavalry officer, served the Nazi cause with a unit of Georgian expatriates under command of the notorious Waffen SS.

Shalikashvili is scheduled to appear Wednesday for confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he will likely face questions about his knowledge of his father's wartime role. Pentagon officials say that while the Polish-born general was aware that his father had served in the German army, he did not know about the SS connection and is wading through three boxes of family papers to learn more.

But few are likely to challenge his credentials. Drafted into the Army 35 years ago, the stocky, ruddy-faced artilleryman has trained local militias as an adviser in Vietnam, learned the arcana of arms control as a Pentagon strategist in the mid-1980s and directed the care and resettlement of Kurdish refugees in post-war Iraq, a hugely successful effort that elevated him to the status of a public figure. His Washington experience includes a tour as assistant to the current chairman, Gen. Colin L. Powell, a kind of ambassadorial role that acquainted him with the workings of the White House and State Department. He now commands allied forces in Europe.

Shalikashvili, who goes by the nickname "Shali," will inherit from his predecessor a job that has grown markedly in power and prestige since 1987, when Congress consolidated control of the Joint Staff in the chairman's office and designated its occupant as principal military adviser to the president. One key question is whether the unassuming Shalikashvili will use the expanded powers of the office as effectively as Powell, whose charm and political skills accounted for much of his legendary influence.

The new chairman will counsel his commander in chief on the U.S. military role in the post-Cold War world, advising him on such critical decisions as whether to involve U.S. troops in a peace-keeping mission to Bosnia. His views on that score remain something of a mystery, though senior Pentagon officials suggest he may be less resistant to the idea than Powell.

More discernible than Shalikashvili's military philosophy, perhaps, is his reputation among his peers. They describe him as low-key, straightforward, self-effacing and informal, a four-star general who addresses his friends as "turkeys" and answers his phone with a casual, "John Shali."

Characteristically, Shalikashvili was not among the more brazen aspirants to the chairman's job. During his interview for the post, he told President Clinton that he was happy in Europe and had no particular desire to return to Washington, according to a senior defense official with knowledge of the exchange. "He has no ego need," the official added.

For all the warm feelings he evokes, Shalikashvili has his tough, calculating side. He turns bright red when angry. One former senior Pentagon official, who worked frequently with Shalikashvili, recalled a comment once made about Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: "What do you see? A big smile. What's behind the smile? Teeth."

Family's Wartime Flight From Poland

John Shalikashvili was born in Warsaw on June 27, 1936, the second of three children. His mother, Maria, was the daughter of a czarist general. His father, Dimitri, was a Georgian serving in the Polish cavalry as a "contract officer," a status that earned him a salary but not citizenship.

The family's life in pre-war Poland was comfortable but not lavish, according to Othar Shalikashvili, John's older brother and a retired U.S. Army colonel in Carlisle, Pa. They lived in a Warsaw apartment complex for Polish officers, spending summers outside the city in a villa rented by Maria's parents, who owned a flour mill in the town of Lublin.

Dimitri helped resist the German invasion of September 1939, but surrendered with the remnants of his unit after a few weeks, according to his unpublished memoir. In late 1942, he joined the Georgian Legion, an expatriate unit of the German army, because, he later explained, he believed that a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union would lead to freedom for Georgia.

Later in the war, the legion came under command of the Waffen SS, Hitler's elite combat corps. Dimitri reports in his memoir that he was stationed at Normandy during the allied invasion and thought highly of his SS commanders.

Othar Shalikashvili described his father as a slender, erect, formal man who read French poetry and had a luxuriant mustache. He said his father had a warm relationship with his children, who would "insist he read us bedtime stories."

Clinton, in announcing his choice, emphasized the family's flight from Warsaw in a "cattle car" and omitted mention of Dimitri's wartime service. In his memoir, however, Dimitri made clear that the family did not suffer any deliberate persecution under the Nazis, moving into an elegant six-room apartment and spending the summer of 1942 in a "lovely" rural resort.

"We were aware we were living in an occupied city," Othar Shalikashvili recalled of the early war years, when he used to take a streetcar that ran along the wall of the Warsaw ghetto. "It was hard for everyone, but it was not harder for us than for anyone else."

Everything changed in August 1944, when John was 8. Eager to establish a government before the arrival of the advancing Soviet army, the Polish underground launched an uprising against the occupying army, which responded with indiscriminate shelling and bombing. Tens of thousands of civilians died.

Othar recalled that resistance fighters built barricades in the street in front of his family's apartment building and buried civilian dead, including children, in its courtyard. Following the dive bomber attack, Maria Shalikashvili -- Dimitri was by then in uniform and out of the country -- moved her family into the cellar. "During that time, all of us, certainly including my brother, were living on a shoestring," he said. "There was no water, no electricity and essentially no food."

The Germans crushed the uprising in 63 days, the Soviets having stopped on the outskirts of Warsaw, and expelled the city's civilians. The family was evacuated on a train filled with Polish wounded to a "transit camp" in western Poland or eastern Germany, where they were reunited with Dimitri, Othar said.

Dimitri helped the family get settled in Pappenheim, a pleasant Bavarian village where Maria had aristocratic relatives. For Maria and the children, the war was over. Dimitri rejoined his unit in Italy, was captured by the British and released in 1946.

John Shalikashvili lived in Pappenheim for eight peaceful years. He swam in the Altmuehl River, played in the ruins of a medieval castle and attended school for the first time in his life. "He had lots of friends," his brother said. "I sometimes envied him."

But it was a frustrating, difficult time. The family survived largely on the generosity of Maria's relatives, who provided them a rent-free apartment in one of their two castles. Dimitri found work helping to manage their substantial landholdings, a job that gave him little satisfaction, Othar said.

So the parents decided to start a new life elsewhere. In the late '40s, they contacted a distant relative in Peoria, whose brother, George Luthy, was a commercial bank president there. Luthy persuaded the Episcopal Church to serve as the family's "corporate sponsor," allowing them to emigrate in 1952, according to David Connor, who is married to Luthy's daughter.

The family arrived in Peoria in November, moving into a rented two-story frame house near the campus of Bradley University. Connor recalled the family as gracious and formal, serving teas on an elegant lace runner they brought with them from Europe.

Maria found work as a file clerk in George Luthy's bank. Dimitri took a job in the accounting department of the local power company.

John, then 16, enrolled late in the middle of his junior year at Peoria Central High School.

"Central," as its students call it, is one of the oldest high schools in the country, a handsome brick edifice whose alumni include House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) and feminist author Betty Friedan.

In that distinctly American setting, the late-arriving Shalikashvili was "a very unforgettable person," said Joyce Oberlander, a classmate. "He had a very straight bearing about him. He had a short haircut. He looked like a graduate from a military school. He was friendly but he was very bashful."

But Shalikashvili soon caught on to American ways. He joined the German and soccer clubs, built model airplanes and also competed in ping pong, tennis, track and cross-country, according to principal Richard Greene.

He was an attentive student who "always seemed like he had the right answers," said Dirk McGinnis, his physics teacher. A faculty panel awarded him "A-plus" for initiative as a senior, according to school records.

Shalikashvili followed his brother to Bradley University, where George Luthy had helped to arrange a scholarship. He lived with his parents, but otherwise led a conventional college life, pledging Theta Chi and joining the Young Republicans, according to his yearbook. He graduated in 1958 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Drafted in August of the same year, Shalikashvili spent six months as a private, then was selected for officer candidate school at Fort Sill, Okla., where he specialized in artillery. That led to his first field command -- leading a mortar platoon in Alaska -- an experience he so enjoyed that he decided to make the military a career, according to his brother.

The next major milepost was Vietnam, where Shalikashvili arrived as a 31-year-old major in early 1968. He was assigned as senior district adviser in the Trieu Phong district, which was situated just below the North Vietnamese border and heavily infiltrated by Viet Cong.

Appropriately for a future chairman, the role was political as well as military. Besides aiding the local militia in operations against the Viet Cong -- he earned a Bronze star for leading an assault on two enemy-held islands -- Shalikashvili helped organize local elections and fretted over the details of rice production, according to his monthly intelligence reports.

Shalikashvili's reports -- copies of which were declassified at the request of The Washington Post -- hint at occasional frustration with his South Vietnamese allies. But if Shalikashvili felt embittered by his involvement in what ultimately was a lost cause, his resume gives no clue.

His career over the next decade tracks the telltale rise of a "fast-burner": operations officer with U.S. forces in Korea; artillery battalion commander at Fort Lewis, Wash.; division artillery commander in Europe. Along the way, Shalikashvili married his wife, Joan, a former business administration teacher. They have a son, Brant, a student at Washington State University.

In 1981, Shalikashvili came to the Pentagon, where he served as chief of the Army's politico-military section, a job that aquainted him with the diplomatic side of military policy. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1983. After another stint in Europe, Shalikashvili returned in 1986 to a senior Army staff job in Washington, where he helped develop the Army position on the reduction of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

Retired Gen. Robert W. Riscassi, his boss at the time, recalled him as a voice of moderation. "There were camps that said we can't give up one iota of anything, and those who said maybe there are some things we can give up," Riscassi said. "He just brought logic to the table. . . . He's relaxed, non-intrusive. His forte is knowledge."

One officer recalled that when Shalikashvili left the Pentagon, in 1987, to take command of the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, "He told everyone, 'This is it,' he was happy to have finished his last job at the Pentagon, and ending his career as division commander was better than he could have ever hoped for."

But the old artilleryman had misjudged his own trajectory.

Leader of Operation Provide Comfort

Division command led to another posting in Germany, this time as deputy commander of U.S. Army Forces in Europe. Then, in the spring of 1991, he got the challenge of his career: He was given command of Operation Provide Comfort, the U.S.-led multinational effort to save 500,000 Iraqi Kurds who had fled into the rugged mountains of northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey at the end of the Persian Gulf War. They had no food, no shelter. The death rate was 1,000 per day.

By all accounts, Shalikashvili was an inspired choice. From his headquarters at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, he directed a humanitarian relief operation of unprecedented size and complexity (among other measures, it constituted the largest trucking company in Turkey). On the diplomatic side, he handled delicate negotiations with the Turkish government, which feared a permanent refugee presence inside its borders. He also made clear, in face-to-face meetings with the Iraqi military authorities, that the coalition was serious about using force, if necessary, to protect the Kurds.

In the end, the operation both stopped the dying and allowed most of the refugees to return to northern Iraq. "It was an incredibly successful thing to have returned half a million Kurds to their country, many to their homes, in a period of basically eight weeks," said Morton I. Abramowitz, then the U.S. ambassador to Turkey. "This required constant improvisation."

Former Defense undersecretary for policy Paul Wolfowitz, who visited Shalikashvili in northern Iraq, said the one-time war refugee "could sort of see himself in these Kurdish kids."

Shalikashvili's personal relationship with history also informed his next assignment, as Powell's assistant, at a time when the national security agenda was dominated by the Soviet collapse. I. Lewis Libby Jr., then Wolfowitz's principal deputy, recalled that on trips to the region, "We had long talks . . . in which he would talk very proudly about his family history, of a sense of being rooted in tradition, in understanding the perils of people who live outside the glow of democracy and what it means to be dedicating your life to bringing freedom to those areas. Those were very real, personal memories for him."

Shalikashvili arrived in his NATO post in June 1992. From his headquarters in Mons, Belgium, he has watched the upheavals that accompanied the collapse of communism with a sense of deja vu, inveighing against the "dark side" of nationalism and, associates say, privately agonizing over the carnage in Bosnia.

Shalikashvili, to be sure, has not been urging a military solution to the Bosnian war. He told a Senate panel last spring that airstrikes on Serbian artillery positions probably would not achieve very much and that stopping the war would require a "massive" infusion of ground troops -- an option he described as politically unrealistic.

On the other hand, the U.S. general who once said he "will always remain a European" has privately expressed intense frustration with NATO's passivity in the face of the continent's worst bloodshed since World War II. "I think Shali was more disturbed than maybe Powell was at NATO's ineffectiveness," Wolfowitz said.

A senior civilian contrasted Shalikashvili's views on the use of force with those of Powell, whose Vietnam experience left him deeply suspicious of limited applications of U.S. military power. Shalikashvili, the official said, appears to be more flexible, a member of what the official described as the "Vietnam-plus" school of military power.

"They digested all those lessons about the need to be clear about purposes, the need to use decisive force, to work with allies," the official said. "But what was different was they went another step. They said, at the same time, that force can be a usable and versatile instrument of statecraft. They didn't make the lesson of Vietnam a constraining dogmatism."