The Orange Leader
When December comes each fall, thoughts turn to Christmas. There is the wonder of the birth of Christ and what He meant to mankind. There is also the glitz and glamour of the commercial side of Christmas, the hustle and bustle of shopping that starts with “Black Friday” and lasts until the last minutes of Christmas Eve.
As for me, I think about those things, but I also remember the December day when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States was plunged into World War II. I remember that the winter of 1944 was the coldest recorded winter in European history. I think about how cold that December was for the soldiers of the U S Army caught up in what became known as “The Battle of the Bulge.” Thousands of soldiers were in the Bulge. The American 101st Airborne Division was surrounded at Bastogne, trying to hold on until they could be rescued. There were 20 infantry divisions in that cold, brutal battle. Several divisions were in the Hurtgen Forest. One of those divisions was the 28th Infantry Division. One of the soldiers in the division was my friend Leonard. Leonard Richardson was a medic. Leonard’s job was not to fight; Leonard’s job was to save lives.
In 1940, near his home in Kinder, Louisiana, Leonard and some of his friends were in the woods and saw some soldiers. He found out later that they were part of the large Louisiana Maneuvers. This was a large exercise that was centered at Camp (now Fort) Polk, near Leesville and was designed to see how ready the Army was for the war that was sure to come.
“Some of those soldiers had this bright red keystone-shaped patch on their right shoulders. I had no idea that one day I would be wearing that same patch,” said Leonard.
Leonard got his first draft notice shortly after he turned 18 years old. He went to his draft board and asked to be allowed to finish high school. His board agreed, but he got two more notices, both deferred, before he graduated. After he graduated, he entered the army and was sent to Camp Barkley in Abilene, Texas for basic training. It was there that he was assigned to duty as a medic.
“Leonard, what kind of medical training did they give you,” I asked him. He sort of smiled and said, “About all they did was show us how to put on a bandage. We did not get any real training. They told us to sprinkle some sulfa powder on the wound and tie on a bandage, that’s all.”
From Texas he went to Camp Reynolds, Pennsylvania. There he was assigned to the 28th Infantry Division. The 28th was a division that had started as a Pennsylvania National Guard division in World War I. Their shoulder patch was the red keystone patch he had seen near his home in Kinder. Their nickname was the “Keystone Division”.
After several months of training in the United States and England, the 28th boarded ships for transport to France. They landed on Omaha Beach about a month after the June 6, 1944 D Day Invasion.
There were still German troops in the area.
“The Germans were dug into the hedgerows. These were hedges that were grown real thick to form fences. They were nasty places to fight in. We could hardly get through. The Germans were on one side and we were on the other. It was bad,” said Leonard. “Someone would get shot and all I could do was to sprinkle sulfa powder on them, put on a bandage and hope for the best.”
Once they broke out, the 28th started marching and fighting across France.
“Leonard, did you guys get to see Paris?” I asked him.
“Mike, we formed up 12 abreast and started marching; it took us several hours to march through Paris. When we got to the other side of town, we just kept going. We did not stop; all we did was walk across Paris. If you have seen the picture of the thousands of soldiers marching in front of the Arc de Triomphe, that was us. I’m in that picture somewhere,” said Leonard. “All I saw was the helmet ahead of me.”
Occasionally they would be able to ride in 40 and 8s. These were old French railroad cars that would either hold 40 men or eight horses. “When we rode on 40 and 8s, we always hoped that we weren’t riding after horses had been hauled,” said Leonard.
By December the 28th was in the Hurtgen Forest. The weather was below freezing.
“We were cold all the time. We never had enough clothes. The best thing we had was a heavy wool overcoat. They were heavy and hard to move in, but they sort of kept us warm. The ground was so frozen that we could not dig in. We did not have much cover. We never had warm food and if we were able to make coffee, it would be cold by the time we poured it into our canteen cups and tried to drink it,” said Leonard.
“Medics were always the target of German snipers. They always tried to shoot medics. If they wounded us or killed us then there was no one to care for the wounded. One day four of us were carrying a guy on a stretcher and a German sniper shot the medic next to me and the one behind me. Of course we dropped the man on the stretcher, hurt him worse, and two of us had three wounded to care for. That’s how things were,” said Leonard.
All of the divisions in the Battle of the Bulge fought hard, but one German general said that the 28th Division fought so hard that they should be called “The Bucket of Blood Division.”
When the war ended Leonard and his division were in a small town in Germany. They went back through Belgium and France to Normandy. “We went back to the same beach we had landed on. When we were walking to the beach, we were coming over a large hill. I saw what at first I thought was a huge herd of sheep. When I got closer, I saw that what I thought were sheep were actually white crosses in the American cemetery. It was the saddest thing I had ever seen,” said Leonard.
After 285 days of combat, the division was transported to Camp Flanagan, in Florida.
“They told me that if I stayed in the Army, I could have any rank I wanted up to Captain. I told them all I wanted was my “Ruptured Duck,” said Leonard.
The “Ruptured Duck” was the pin a man wore to show that he had been discharged.
Leonard went back to his home in Kinder and after about two years, moved to Port Arthur, Texas and went to work at the Gulf Refinery. He worked for Gulf Oil for 37 years before retiring in 1983.
When I met Leonard I found out that we had both worked at Gulf. I had been a Carpenter when he was a Pipefitter, but we had never met until I went to his home to interview his grandson who was in the Army and home on leave. At the time of that interview, Leonard and his wife were living with their daughter in Bridge City due to their health problems.
Leonard was like a lot of WWII vets; he had not talked much about his experiences, even to his family. The day I interviewed him he opened up a bit and told things he had not talked about to his family before. His wife, Bonnie and his daughter Alma were there and sat quietly as Leonard talked. I would ask a question and he would answer, maybe we would sidetrack and talk a bit about some of the characters we had worked with at Gulf. I knew a bit about the war that he had been in. One time I mentioned that my grandfather had been in France in WWI and had been hauled around in 40 and 8s. He said, “Heck they were still using those things. I rode in them.” That’s how the 40 and 8 stories had started.
Leonard and I bonded that day, we became friends. A few months later Bonnie called me and asked me to come to their home. She had been trying for nearly 30 years and had finally gotten replacement medals for him. Over the years moving around his medals had been lost. As I looked at them I saw a small black box bordered in gold. I knew what kind of medals came in those boxes, but I did not know which medal this was.
I opened the box and it was a Bronze Star. I looked up and said, “You old rascal, you didn’t tell me you earned this one; what’s it for?”
He smiled and quietly said,” I dunno, I guess I just saved a bunch of lives”
That modesty is the hallmark of most World War II veterans. They went where they had to go when they had to go and did what they had to do when they got there. If they were lucky enough to come home, they just restarted their lives where they left off. For the most part they got jobs, married and raised a family.
Leonard’s kidneys had begun to fail and he and his beloved Bonnie decided not to go through dialysis. Leonard would just go as long as he could and leave things in God’s hands. The last time I saw Leonard was a few days before he died. He was not conscious. I leaned down close to his ear and shared for the last time a joke that we had between us.
I whispered. “Leonard, you want a Spam sandwich?”
I like to think I saw a small smile. Leonard died January 31, 2009.
Bonnie asked me to speak at his funeral about his time in the war. It was the greatest honor of my life. I got to tell the story of an American hero.
Every December I take a little time to remember and give thanks to those soldiers who fought so hard that terrible winter.
Thanks Leonard, rest well my friend.