John Leather wears earplugs to church, but it’s not the sermon that the 88-year-old World War II veteran is trying to muffle.
He said he wears the earplugs to drown out the rumble of a drum that’s played when the congregation sings hymns.
“I’ve had to leave the service a couple of times,” Leather said with a shiver. “It reminds me of artillery coming in.”
Nearly 70 years ago, Leather was a sergeant in the 17th Airborne Division, a unit of paratroopers and glider soldiers who saw some of World War II’s most ferocious fighting during the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Varsity.
Earlier this month, the Washington County resident was honored for his military service at an awards ceremony in Georgia, which included a trip to the U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning. The ceremony, known as the Static Line All Airborne Awards Festival, recognizes war heroes from America’s airborne units.
Leather said being honored with the award was a surprise, and he was shocked when a number of people at the ceremony said he was a hero.
“I’m not a hero,” he said. “The people who didn’t come back are the heroes. That’s the way I look at it.”
During the early years of World War II, Leather tried to enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps, but he was turned away because he had flat feet. It wasn’t until 1943 that he finally got his long-awaited chance to join the war effort when he was drafted by the Army.
“At that point, they took anyone who was warm and breathing,” he said. “They were drafting heavy.”
Leather went through boot camp and was assigned to a glider outfit with the 17th. He later volunteered for paratrooper training and earned his wings on June 17, 1944 — 11 days after the D-Day invasion.
The 17th was sent to England, and after a brief stay was sent to Belgium to plug holes in the line caused by Hitler’s counteroffensive in the Ardennes, known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Leather said as the 17th moved up, it passed through camps that had been occupied by the 101st Airborne Division.
The American reinforcements were sent up so quickly that they fought German tanks with small-arms fire. It was the coldest winter in the region in decades, but many of the paratroopers had nothing heavier to wear than wool coats.
Leather still has the wool blanket and coat he used during the battle hanging in his basement. At times, he said he looks at them and wonders how he survived.
“We spent about seven weeks in the Battle of the Bulge, wearing substandard clothing,” he said. “My feet and hands were frostbitten — they were like chunks of ice ... We suffered more casualties from the cold than the Germans.”
Leather said the artillery fire was intense.
“You could see the shells stepping up on you getting in range,” he said.
During a particularly heavy barrage, Leather had to take over command of his squad when the leader was killed.
After the Battle of the Bulge ended in January 1945, the 17th withdrew to France to a camp for training.
“We weren’t allowed to leave,” Leather said. “We trained all the time.”
He said the paratroopers were training for Operation Varsity, a mission designed to assault the German city of Wesel, one of the last remaining Nazi strongholds on the Rhine River.
The plan called for American paratroopers and glider soldiers to land near Wesel, then take the city and link up with ground forces.
On March 24, 1945, Leather’s glider, pulled by a C-47 transport plane, took off. The invasion force included more than 15,000 paratroopers and several thousand aircraft.
Leather said his mind was “blank” as the glider cut loose and started to drift toward Wesel, which now is Hagerstown’s Sister City.
“We were being hit by small-arms fire,” he said.
Upon impact with the ground, the landing gear separated from the glider, Leather said. The aircraft tore through a wire fence and struck a post.
“We went across a ditch and the pilot put down the nose,” Leather said. “He brought it to a screeching halt.”
He said his squad quickly exited the glider and ran into two German tanks. They eventually were told to pull back. As he was running down a road, Leather said, an artillery shell exploded on the other side of a massive tree. He said he felt something like a pebble strike his foot. But when he looked down, there was blood coming from his right boot.
Leather said shrapnel from the shell struck his foot and got lodged in his backpack.
“I was in a dead run when that shell came in,” he said. “That tree saved my life. If it hadn’t been for that tree, they wouldn’t have found any part of me.”
Without knowing his exact location, Leather said he was able to find an aid station, where German POWs were ordered to collect weapons from wounded Americans.
“I couldn’t believe that was happening,” he said.
Leather believed doctors would patch him up and send him back to the front, but they determined his wound was serious enough to send him to a hospital in Belgium.
He said he still has shrapnel in his foot.
When the war ended in Europe in the spring of 1945, the 17th was disbanded and Leather was transferred to the 13th Airborne Division, a unit that was formed to participate in the invasion of mainland Japan.
Leather said he was getting ready to sail for the Pacific when the 13th received word that the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing the end of World War II.
He said many of the troops had a feeling they wouldn’t survive an invasion of Japan and felt great relief when the bombs were dropped.
Some estimates have shown that casualties would have reached close to 1 million people. As it turned out, about 250,000 Japanese died as a result of the bombings.
“How many more Americans would have lost their lives?” he asked. “How many more Japanese would have lost their lives? I know I wouldn’t have lived.”
Leather said he returned to Maryland and blended into society just like millions of other veterans. He got his old job back at Danzer Metal Works in Hagerstown, and eventually became a partner in a heating and air-conditioning business. He retired in 1988.
Leather said he hasn’t talked about the war until recently.
“No one talked about it,” he said. “If you’ve never been involved in combat, you would have no idea what it was like.”