Through volunteering for Hospice of the East Bay, I have had the honor of meeting many WWII veterans of the Army, Navy and Air Force. They all told stories that would be worthy of movie scripts, though they are decidedly matter-of-fact and humble about their deeds.
Theirs is called the “Greatest Generation” for good reason. As civilians, they exhibited an incredibly strong work ethic and stoicism despite the enormous challenges presented by the Great Depression. As soldiers in the Second World War, they did their jobs and simply followed orders, because in many cases they had no choice, if they wanted to survive. Afterward, they built our nation to the heights of post-war prosperity and were responsible for leading the country through demanding, difficult and necessary social changes.
Recently, I accepted an assignment to visit one of these “ordinary” heroes—a man named Leonard. Not only is Leonard a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army who served meritoriously in World War II, he was held captive by the German army for nearly four months.
The first few years of the war were not terribly dramatic for Leonard. Drafted into the army in 1941, he served as an artillery instructor at Camp Roberts near San Luis Obispo. When the German army conducted a major offensive that led to the famous Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. military’s need for reinforcements caused Leonard and many others to be shipped overseas. He became a Platoon Sergeant in Company C of the 317th Regiment of the 80th Infantry Division supporting General George Patton’s 3rd Army.
On New Year’s Eve in 1944, Leonard was leading his 24-member platoon on combat patrol in Luxembourg when a German machine gun suddenly opened fire and artillery shells exploded all around. His unit had been ambushed. When he came to his senses, with blood and snow on his face and missing his helmet which had rolled into a creek, a German officer was pointing a gun at Leonard’s head. He and two other Americans were taken prisoner.
Over the course of the next 16 weeks, Leonard was forced to march tremendous distances—sometimes as much as 75-100 miles within a few days—and was held at several different prison camps. Conditions were miserable: he suffered from frozen feet, dysentery, dehydration, a bad cough, and constant hunger, as prisoners were given barely enough food to survive. More than once, while marching, the prisoners were shot at by Allied troops and aircraft who mistook them for Germans. In one camp, a Russian prisoner with whom Leonard was trying to conduct a trade was shot to death. To this day, Leonard has an aluminum tobacco case he acquired via trade while being held captive.
Despite his hunger, poor health, and life-threatening situations, Leonard survived. He had been moved to a German-controlled POW camp in Northern Germany—Marlag und Milag Nord—when an Allied counter-offensive caused the remaining prisoners to be marched yet again. On April 28, 1945, Leonard and thousands of other prisoners were finally liberated by the British Army near Lubeck, Germany, on the Baltic Coast, approximately 400 miles from where he had originally been taken prisoner. He was taken to Brussels, Belgium, and then to Camp Lucky Strike in France.
Leonard was very ill and confined to a hospital bed for many weeks after being liberated. As is often typical of POWs who suffer severe deprivation of food and water, Leonard experienced the complications of readjusting to a normal diet and was also in danger of contracting gangrene, but a very strong constitution and will to survive kept him alive.
Eventually, Leonard was well enough to be transferred back to the United States where he was honorably discharged after the war. He went on to become happily married, raise a family, and is now 94 years old. Leonard is still strong after all these years. His will to survive has helped him to “graduate” from hospice care and I am pleased to report that I can no longer visit him in that official capacity.
Through the lives of our senior citizens, we can learn so much about our history, our roots, and ourselves. Getting to know another of these extraordinarily “ordinary” individuals is another great reason to volunteer for Hospice of the East Bay and an experience I would not trade for anything.