As a volunteer for Hospice of the East Bay providing patient support visits, I encourage friends and acquaintances to consider giving their time and energy to this wonderful organization. Helping brighten the day of patients and lighten the load of their families and caregivers is always beneficial to all concerned. It is a privilege to call on and get to know any patient; it is a special honor to meet patients who are veterans who so selflessly and faithfully served our country.
Recently, I accepted an assignment to revisit a man whom I had met before. When I first visited Leonard, his spouse was a Hospice patient, and the family was concerned about his emotional well-being and hoped that a friendly visitor would alleviate his loneliness. Although officially I was meeting him, I was able to spend time with both Leonard and his spouse. They were a sweet, loving couple who had been married for about 66 years. We were able to share a couple of very nice visits. When Leonard’s wife passed away, it was not possible to continue visiting him, because he was not a patient of HEB. Life is, of course, full of twists and turns, and so months later the opportunity arose to meet Leonard again.
Not only is Leonard a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army who served meritoriously in World War II, he was captured by the German army and held captive 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. However, 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 find themselves being 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. In April, he had been moved to Marlag und Milag Nord, a German-controlled POW camp in Northern Germany. The Allies’ counter-offensive had the Germans on the run, and the remaining prisoners were forced to march 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.
Unfortunately, his ordeal was far from over. Leonard, who stands about six feet tall and normally weighed over 160 pounds, was emaciated and reduced to less than 100 pounds. He was very ill and confined to a hospital bed for many weeks after being liberated. As is often typical of POWs who had suffered severe deprivation of food and water, Leonard experienced complications of readjusting to a normal diet, and he was in danger of contracting gangrene. All along, a very strong constitution and will to survive kept him alive.
Eventually, Leonard was well enough to be transferred back to the United States. World War II ended, and he was honorably discharged. He went on to be happily married, raise a family, and is now 94 years old. Leonard is still strong after all these years. This story has a happy ending, because Leonard’s health is good, and he “graduated” from hospice care. In this case, I am pleased to report that at this time I cannot visit him in an official Hospice capacity.
Through volunteer work for HEB, I have had the honor of meeting and speaking with veterans of the army, navy, and air force, and they all told stories that would be worthy of movie scripts if not for the fact that they were so typical and told without embellishment. In war films, the lead characters look like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood and spout heroic and funny one-liners as they fight and defeat the forces of evil. In real life, the soldiers who did the fighting and lived to tell about it are handsome in an everyday, unretouched way and 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 Great War to End All Wars, 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 also responsible for later leading the country through demanding, difficult and necessary social changes.
Through the lives of the senior citizens who now deserve all of our love, care and attention, we can learn so much about our history, our roots, and ourselves. Getting to know another of these extraordinarily “ordinary” individuals, a man of great kindness and humility such as Leonard, is another great reason to volunteer for HEB and an experience I would not trade for anything.