Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Neat Veteran Story

This is a pretty neat story that I came across.
An old jacket sparks poignant memoriesAn East
Petersburg man, wounded in action during World War II, remembers a day that
changed his life forever.By Rory HasslerLancaster New Era
Published: Jul 21,
2004 3:38 PM EST
LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - An astonished Bill Leonard stared at
the blood-stained jacket.For the better part of an hour, the 82-year-old East
Petersburg man rubbed his hands over the worn khaki cloth, closely inspecting
the sewed-up bullet holes on the lower left pocket.“There’s that darn old thing
all right,” Leonard said, recalling the moment he realized the punctured pocket
lined up perfectly with the scar on his upper left thigh.Last week, the World
War II veteran was reunited with the jump jacket he lost after sustaining an
injury in Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation of the war.How
Leonard came to wear the jacket again after nearly 60 years is a complicated
tale with a distinct beginning and end. The middle chapters, however, are a bit
fuzzy.***A member of the 82nd Airborne Division, 504th Parachute Infantry
Regiment, Leonard jumped into Grave, Holland, on Sept. 17, 1944, three months
after his unit was held out of D-Day because it was depleted from a rough
campaign through Italy.Market Garden’s objective was to seize strategic bridges
in German-occupied Holland, which would enable allied ground forces to advance
to Germany.More than 50 miles behind enemy lines, the 82nd Airborne was charged
with taking the Nijmegen Bridge over the Waal River.On Sept. 20, a few hundred
men from Leonard’s unit received orders to cross the river by boat and storm the
German resistance.Leonard was on the first of 26 canvas boats to push off.More
than half of the men in the initial crossing were injured or killed and just 11
boats would return to pickup reinforcements for a second wave.As they neared the
middle of the 400-yard-wide river, the men came under heavy artillery and
small-arms fire.“Water was flying up and down and guys were falling left and
right,” Leonard said. “There was more blood in the boat than water.”Leonard
stood up and reached to the left and right to prevent two wounded comrades from
drowning.As he ducked down to return to a crouching position, it happened.A
piercing pain surged through his left thigh.“It felt like somebody hit me with a
sledgehammer,” he said. “If it had been a little higher it would have hit me in
the heart.”He only thought about reaching the river’s far bank.As far as he can
remember, no man in his boat escaped injury during the crossing. Short on oars,
the wounded soldiers navigated toward the far shore using rifle butts as
paddles.When they reached the bank, only two men were able to pull Leonard and
the others onto land.Unable to walk, Leonard dug a small hole with his helmet,
using it for shelter until the combat died down and help arrived.He was
transported on a stretcher to the medical station where doctors treated him,
removing his jacket.***A few months ago, Leonard answered the phone in his East
Petersburg home.He was surprised to hear the voice of his former commanding
officer, Moffet Burris, on the other end of the line.Burris said a 35-year-old
Dutchman with a passion for collecting World War II artifacts named Frank
Spiering had contact him, hoping to find Leonard.Spiering claimed that he
recently purchased the jacket Leonard wore in Market Garden. As a favor to
Spiering, Burris called Leonard to inquire.The man must be mistaken, Leonard
thought.“I have my jacket,” he told Burris.Spiering, shocked when he heard the
news, thought he had been duped. An American seller had guaranteed that it was
Leonard’s.Spiering contacted the seller, who insisted the jacket was Leonard’s
but refused to reveal how it had been acquired.For that reason, he believes the
seller bought the jacket from an acquaintance of Leonard’s. That person may have
taken it while Leonard was receiving medical care.***Spiering was baffled.He
decided to take photographs of the jacket and mail them to the former
soldier.When Leonard opened the package and saw the photos, he still believed it
wasn’t his.Leonard had often shared war stories with his neighbor, Greg Smith, a
postal worker and retired Air Force pilot.He walked across the street and showed
Smith the photos. Immediately interested, Smith received Leonard’s permission to
e-mail Spiering and invite him to visit.“I didn’t hesitate for one minute when
Greg gave me the offer,” Spiering said.If the jacket was Leonard’s, as he
suspected, Spiering planned to return it and lose his investment.The money
didn’t matter to Spiering. He is more interested in preserving the history of a
man who helped liberate his homeland.“I wanted to hear Bill’s story,” he
said.Spiering arrived in East Petersburg on Thursday and stayed through
Monday.When he handed the jacket to Leonard, the former soldier saw the bullet
holes and realized it was his.“It took my breath away when I first saw it — oh
my!”But how could it be Leonard’s jacket, if he already had one?It turns out
Leonard had forgotten that it was standard procedure for the military to issue
two uniforms to paratroopers. That’s why he already had one jacket at his
home.Spiering tried to give the jacket back, but the older man politely
declined.“He’ll have more use for it than I will and can show it to more
people,” Leonard said.***Although the 82nd Airborne would successfully capture
the Nijmegen Bridge, Operation Market Garden failed when British troops were
overrun at nearby Arnhem.A few days after being wounded, Leonard was transported
to a hospital in Belgium. Within a couple of weeks, he moved again, this time to
a hospital in England.Luckily, the bullet that wounded Leonard had traveled
through a small metal first-aid kit in his pocket. Doctors believed the bullet
would have shattered his femur if the kit had not reduced the impact.After
spending two months of his 29-month overseas tour in recovery, Leonard was
released from the hospital in early December of 1944, returning to combat within
days to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.Shortly after the war ended, he
returned to Lancaster and soon married Mildred Steinmetz, his wife of 57 years.
The couple raised four boys and now have 10 grandchildren.Retired from Permutit
Co. for 19 years, Leonard is contemplating a return visit to Holland.Spiering is
planning a three-day exposition in September to mark the 60th anniversary of
Market Garden and has offered to fly the Leonards to Holland for the event.“I
wouldn’t mind going,” Leonard said. “I’m going to have to think about it.”