When those of my generation speak of “the war,” you should know that we are referring to World War II, when every able-bodied young man was in uniform and every family had “their serviceman”–if not a father, son, brother, or husband, then a cousin or the son of a friend, or the boy down the street.
Our soldier was Lt. Daniel Leffel, who was married to my mother’s sister, my aunt Florence. When Danny marched off to war, he and Florence were newlyweds. They were a vibrant young couple. She was beautiful and funny and lovable. I adored her, and I thought Danny was simply the perfect boyfriend—so handsome in his dress uniform, which I remember Florence told me they called their “pinks,” I suppose because of the slightly rosy tone of the drab trousers. Danny came home for one last leave, and then Florence accompanied him back to California where he shipped out, and she made the long, lonely train ride home by herself to Lansing, Kansas, where she spent the war years living with her mother, my grandmother.
Danny was the commander of Company G, 184th Infantry, Seventh Division, a veteran of four Pacific campaigns: the Aleutians, Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, Leyte, and finally Okinawa. At Okinawa, in the early morning of April 19, 1945, Danny and his men were the first to come under fire from the Japanese as they attempted an assault on Skyline Ridge of Ouki Hill. According to the official military history, Lt Leffel sent a squad forward to “feel out the enemy.” When they came under heavy fire, he radioed for an armored flame thrower. Fighting continued all day, and finally the American forces were forced to retreat to the bottom of the hill.
At 1525 G Companies of the 32nd and 184th Regiments undertook to resume the attack which had been stalemated since early morning, without a great promise of success. Along the base of Ouki Hill both companies were pinned to the ground at 1620 by an extremely heavy 81 mm mortar concentration. Amid the din of exploding mortar, slivers of flying metal filled the air. In small groups or singly the men dashed back in short spurts toward their former position. Many were killed while in flight. One man running wildly back toward safety stopped suddenly and assumed what appeared to be an attitude of prayer. In the next instant, he was blown to bits by a direct hit.
And worse was yet to come. The fiercest fighting of the bloodiest battle of the War occurred from April 20-24. Danny was wounded on April 23 and flown to a hospital in Hawaii where he died on April 26, 1945. We know he fought bravely, for he was awarded the Silver Star for heroic action on Leyte.
I still have a letter he wrote me in August of 1944 from Oahu, Hawaii after the Seventh had returned to Hawaii following the Kwajalein campaign. There is sort of a sweet formality to the letter.”Well, Little Chum, I haven’t heard from you in a little while, but I feel I owe you a letter, so here goes.” He discusses the weather among other trivialities, although on the second page he gets around to telling me with great pride that his division has just been honored with a presidential review at which not only President Roosevelt but General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz and General Richardson were present, and the other units lined the streets in honor of the Seventh Division (“our organization”). There is no hint of the dark and terrible prelude that occasioned the honor.
Those of us who lived through this war will never forget it or the young men who served. The whole nation waited and worried and wondered if their boys would come home. Many of them did not.
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Not long ago, I was waiting for Herb outside a used book store near our apartment, browsing through some books on a cart that had been rolled outside. My attention was drawn to a small volume, which upon closer inspection proved to be a New Testament. I discovered that it was a Gideon publication, and according to the flyleaf, had been presented to Michael Zeamer by the Showers of Sunshine of the First Pentecostal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on December 29, 1943. A message from the Commander-in-Chief appeared in the frontispiece. I read:
Presented to Michael Zeamer, December 19, 1943
January 25, 1941
To: The Armed Forces:
As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Through the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspirationl It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest inspirations of the human soul.
Very sincerely yours,
Franklin D. Roosevelt
About that time, Herb appeared, I put the book back on the cart, and we started home. But after two blocks, a funny thing happened. As we walked along I experienced an emotional tug on my heart strings that I simply could not ignore. I realized that I had to have that little book, for it seemed to me that this object was a powerful, powerful connection to an important period of my growing up. We returned to the bookstore and bought it, and it has proved to be an object I treasure.
So–in honor of Danny Leffel, whom I knew well, and Michael Zeamer, whom I knew not at all, and all the others who have served our country in times of war and peace, I remember you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.