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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Gray Matters:Veterans Day

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

As Veterans Day nears we are reminded that the ranks of those who fought in WW II are thinning. With that in mind I decided to visit with several of these men to bring you their stories.

The first is Roger Leavitt of the Marcus Lumber Company. Roger graduated from Marcus High School in1943. He was soon drafted, as was every able-bodied young man in his class.

He was accepted for Army Specialized Training at Ft. Benning where doctors and engineers were being trained. However, as the final effort to defeat the axis was looming, it was determined that the greater need was for infantrymen.

So those fellows were shifted to Ft. McClellan and soon found themselves aboard the Ile de France, bound for Europe. That French luxury liner was packed with 13,000 soldiers for the trip across the Atlantic to Scotland. In Sept. 1944, following further brief maneuvers, they went by train to South Hampton, then across the Channel, on a cattle boat, to Omaha Beach.

As he described the high cliff they had to scale at the landing, I detected a note of awe in Roger's voice. Thoughts of the struggle of their fellow soldiers, under enemy fire, at that very site a few weeks earlier still linger.

Upon reaching the summit of the bluff their first sobering sight was of the acres of white crosses marking the graves of the D-Day casualties. They then began their slogging march across a part of France. It rained every day and those young men--boys, really--had only the inadequate clothing on their backs and ordinary shoes.

By December the Battle of the Bulge was launched and their 328th Infantry Division was one of the first three divisions of Patton's Army to head toward Bastogne. Conditions were unspeakable.

Cold and hungry, they struggled on in mud and filth. Their only protection was a hole that each man dug to huddle in at night.

This all came to an end for young Leavitt on Jan. 3, 1945, when he was struck by enemy fire. His foot was pierced, but his ankle, which was completely shattered, was much more serious. He was first taken to the Army Hospital in Luxembourg City and from there to a Paris hospital where surgery was performed. Additional operations were done after he was moved to England.

He remained there until early April when he returned to the US on the Queen Elizabeth. This crossing was far different from his first one. Only airmen who had completed their tours, and injured soldiers like himself, were on board.

On April 12, 1945, the day President Roosevelt died, the ship rounded Long Island and they caught their first glimpses of their Homeland. Roger wryly observed that, judging from the sad faces of all the New Yorkers, he and his companions were probably the only happy people in the entire metropolis that next day. After continued treatment in various army hospitals, he received his medical discharge in Oct. 1945.

When I questioned him about the reluctance of many to speak of their terrible experiences, I got an interesting answer. He said he didn't talk about it for years, partly to avoid the memories but, also because it was so hard to find words to describe the horror.

Things changed a few years ago when they traveled to the area and visited the vast Cemetery at Luxembourg City, which is filled with American casualties. He asked for the location of the burial site of his buddy who was killed standing beside him at the time of his injury.

The guide led him to it immediately. As he stood reading the nineteen-year-old's inscription, he suddenly realized that to honor those lives cut short in our nation's defense, their stories had to be told.

Since that moment, Roger Leavitt has been doing just that, and I am sure all of you join me in thanking him for it and for his service to our country.