A soldier's story we shouldn't forget

August 31, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

In the backyard of John Leather's Leitersburg-area home are two trees that he's fixed up to look as if they have smiling faces. Now that I've heard his story, I understand why he would do such a thing. At least twice during World War II, trees were the only thing that stood between him and deadly artillery fire.

Leather agreed to share his story to help draw attention to the Disabled American Veterans annual Forget-Me-Not fund drive, which begins this Friday, Sept. 2.

Leather, soon to be 81, tried to enlist when he was 17, but ended up waiting for the draft. He wanted to get into the Air Corps, but instead was drafted into the glider corps.

Glider corps troops were eligible for airborne training, but not guaranteed the $50-a-month extra pay the airborne's enlisted men got. Instead, they settled for the standard $25 a month.


On August 3, 1944, he and other members of the his corps shipped out. They arrived in England on Aug. 10, where they took training and acted as reserves for the 101st Airborne, which had been sent to Bastogne, Germany.

The troops had to hope their training was adequate, because in December of that year, they were sent into the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle of World War II in which U.S. troops fought. It lasted from December 1944 to January 1945, in weather so cold that Leather said digging foxholes was often impossible.

Before his unit went to Germany, however, they patrolled the Meuse River in France.

"We patrolled one side and the free French did the other. The reason we were patrolling was that the Germans were parachuting in above where we were and floating down the river," he said.

The other reason they stood watch was that the bridge was the only one in the area capable of supporting heavy military machinery.

In what came to be a familiar experience, at 10 p.m. nightly, a German plane would fly over and strafe the bridge with machine-gun fire.

"The first time he did that, it scared the heck out of us, but when we found out what the score was, we sort of waited for him," he said.

Their rifle fire didn't bring down the plane, but they might have kept the pilot from bombing the bridge, Leather said.

"Evidently, he could never get lined up right," he said.

That duty lasted about a week, Leather said.

"From there, they trucked us up near the front alongside a railroad track. From there, we moved by foot," he said.

Asked how long it took to get to the fighting, Leather smiled.

"We got there too quick. The weather was miserable, cold and snow. We were in Belgium then," he said.

When they reached the fighting, they were "greeted" by German 88s, an artillery piece that Leather said was "one of the best in the world, at that time."

There were heavy casualties, but Leather wasn't one of them.

"Not in the Battle of the Bulge, fortunately. I was at an outpost and an artillery shell came in and blew off a pine tree behind the foxhole and may have saved my life," he said.

"It made me mad. We were so cold and miserable that I got out and cut the tree up to cover up the foxhole," he said.

The cold was so intense that his hands and feet were partially frozen, he said.

"We had more casualties from frozen feet and hands than from the Germans. It was sub-freezing temperatures the whole time," he said.

Leather remembered one time when he attempted to dig a foxhole in the frozen ground. At the first strike of his pick, "the little point just curled up," he said.

There wasn't much point in digging foxholes anyway, he said, because they were never in one place for very long.

After the Battle of the Bulge, Leather's unit was sent back to France, where plans were underway for an airborne invasion of Germany.

It was in March of 1945 and the U.S. 17th Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne Division went in together in gliders.

When most people think about gliders, they envision one-person, lightweight planes that can soar like hang gliders. Not so these World War II gliders.

Towed into the air by C-47s or C-46s, they couldn't soar, Leather said. Once released from the tow rope, the only way they could go was down.

"They were big enough that you could put a jeep in there or an artillery piece. Ours carried 13 troopers and a pilot and co-pilot, for a total of 15 men," he said.

The tow plane dropped them outside of Wesel, Germany, and they were under fire (from small arms, mostly) from the time they crossed the Rhine River, Leather said.

"We did two things that had never been done before. It was a daylight operation and it was a double tow - one plane towed two gliders," he said.

Just as a paratrooper doesn't always land at the target area, gliders sometimes strayed from their designated landing areas, Leather said. He added that once on the ground, the priority was getting out quickly.

Leather said he wasn't too oriented to the terrain, but his platoon sergeant led the men to safety.

They advanced until they ran into two German tanks, Leather said, and got the order to pull back.

"That's when I got hit," he said.

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