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Stuart Leavenworth: A day to reflect on all the stories veterans never tell

Stuart Leavenworth
Stuart Leavenworth

If you’ve spent time with veterans of war, you’ve probably noticed something they often have in common:

Many of them have incredible stories to tell, but they are reluctant to share them.

I was extremely close to one of these reluctant storytellers. He was my father.

Russell Edwin Leavenworth, native of Oak Park, Ill., enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 22 and World War II was raging. Fortunately for him (and me, and all our our family), he wasn’t sent to Europe in the early waves of troops, such as those who landed in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

My father served in the 20th Armored Infantry Division, and until late in 1944, the division’s mission was to train soldiers for other armored divisions and get them ready to ship overseas. Based on my father’s letters to his mother at the time, this assignment didn’t really excite him, and the ponderous bureaucracy of the Army left him frustrated. All that changed early in 1945, when his division shipped out from Boston, landing in Le Havre, France, on Feb. 18.

Before crossing the Atlantic, my father, a 1st lieutenant, sent his mom a letter requesting packages of chocolate and other goodies, but he said little else.

“Of course, there is no news in this letter,” he wrote. “Perhaps I will be able to make the next one more interesting.”

The fact is, he didn’t. If you read through my father’s letters home, he barely mentioned the month of training he endured upon arrival in France, or the long marches through Belgium into Germany. History shows that battalions of the 20th Armored Infantry Division were involved in heavy combat with the Germans in April that year, engaging in an attack in Hitdorf that won the division a unit citation.

In his letters and in later conversations with me, my father never discussed the fighting he engaged in, the friends he lost or his encounters with the enemy. Yet his Army records show he was awarded a Bronze Star and other medals as an armored infantry unit commander. “Selected and assigned fire positions,” reads a description of his duties. “Directed training of personnel in the use of infantry arms and mounted weapons, and in-close combat fighting.”

In his letters and conversations with family, my father made the occupation of Bavaria sound like an adventure. He liberated villages and found stashes of wine in castles. He freed Russian prisoners of war, and made sure the town authorities fed them healthy meals, instead of leftover crusts of bread.

Food was an obsession for my dad, a trait I inherited. “I would like very much to have some more of that buckwheat flour,” he wrote his mom in May of 1945. “The pancakes were delicious.”

There is one letter that hints at some of the edgy situations in which he found himself. In June 1945, my father’s unit was occupying a winter resort town, Reit im Winkle. He typed his letter on a Nazi typewriter. The typewriter actually had a key that, when punched, would type the symbol for the Nazi SS.

“For the past two weeks, I have been busy digging out this Gestapo ring and turned in some 15 persons who would otherwise still be enjoying the security of the Bavarian Redoubt,” he wrote. “They are a cute crowd. One of the boys was carrying a calling card with ‘Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer SS’ printed on it and the old boy’s signature. That card was a pass that would admit the bearer to anything and could be used to strike terror in the hearts of anyone to whom it was flashed.”

After the German surrender, my father returned to the United States, landing in New York, on Aug. 6, 1945. Before leaving, he learned that his brother Frank – who served with the infantry in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army – had been shot in the leg during a battle for a hill in Germany. While crossing the Atlantic, my father and others in his division assumed they would soon be shipped off to the Pacific, for what undoubtedly would be a bloody and risky U.S. invasion of Japan. But on the day he landed in New York, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and three days later, it dropped another one on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered soon after. World War II was over.

Although he didn’t talk about it much, the military changed my father’s life in countless ways. While stationed at Camp Cook after the war, he fell in love with California. On leave from the camp late in 1945, he traveled to Carmel and renewed an acquaintance with a young woman named Ann Millis, whom he had met at Hanover College in Indiana prior to the war.

“Ann turned out to be an amazingly lovely girl,” he wrote in a letter to his mom. He fell in love with Ann, married her, and that is how our family started.

Because of the G.I. Bill, my father was able to go back to college, earn a Ph.D. and become an English professor at Fresno State. Up until he passed away in 1997, he remained fascinated by Europe, and traveled there often with my mom when he wasn’t teaching. His job was to help students express themselves in words. But he never put to paper his own wartime experiences, other than all those upbeat letters to his mother.

It shouldn’t be mystifying why many veterans don’t want to talk about their service. Many were traumatized by what they witnessed, friends they lost or orders they were forced to follow.

As Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman is credited with saying, “War is hell.” Who wants to relive hell?

Today, we honor all those veterans, living and dead, who made so many sacrifices for our country. Part of that sacrifice is the stories they keep bottled up inside themselves.