Thursday, November 6, 2008
Veterans Day salute
By SUE WATSON
Thomasville, N.C., where Gene Leonard grew up, was a small community. Its main industries were furniture manufacturing and cotton mills. It had about 10,000 residents in the 1950s.
But perhaps one of Thomasville’s little known claims to fame is that its sons volunteered for service in times of war and peace. And when there was a call-up or when servicemen and women returned from war, the town, like many others in North Carolina, entertained the troops when they came home and built memorials for the fallen.
Leonard is the son of the late Marvin M. Leonard, a U.S. Army veteran who served in World War I “in Germany in some of the biggest battles over there,” he said. Five of Marvin Leonard’s sons volunteered for military service and some of them fought wars to defend the freedom of all U.S. citizens and the freedom of U.S. allies.
The oldest and longest serving son of Marvin Leonard, Hubert, joined the U.S. Marine Corps, then the U.S. Army National Guard, was appointed Adjutant General for the state of North Carolina and served as mayor of Thomasville. He designed the town’s veterans’ memorial flag display dedicated to many of those who gladly served their country in war (see photo on this page).
Gene Leonard, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was in Japan when the Korean War broke and served in what he said is often referred to as “The Forgotten War.”
His brother Joe, volunteered for the U.S. Army and served between the Korean War and the Viet Nam War. Glen Leonard joined the U.S. Navy and served in World War II as did Hubert. And Jerry, now deceased, served in the U.S. Army.
Today, Hubert’s grandson is on his second tour in Iraq and his son-in-law was an Army career officer. All four of Leonard’s sisters’ husbands served in the military.
Gene Leonard remembers how the citizens of Thomasville entertained the troops from Ft. Bragg during World War II.
“It was the nature of the town,” he said. “We were all very proud of people who served.”
Outside Thomasville, on U.S. Interstate 85, stands a Vietnam memorial wall containing all the names of North Carolinian veterans who served in Vietnam.
“Every one of us volunteered,” Leonard said, adding that military service provided young high school graduates with a direction in life and with an opportunity to learn self discipline, a valuable life skill.
“I was stationed in Yokota Air Force Base in Japan when the Korean War broke out,” he said, picking up on his personal adventure in the military. “We were in Tokyo having a squadron party on a Sunday, June 6, 1950, when the Korean War broke out.”
Korea was already a divided country, he said, basically unfinished business from World War II.
“We didn’t know a whole lot about Korea,” he said. “They said ‘everybody report to your flight line.’ We were on standby and put on alert that night. The next day we had a meeting and were told to expect 30 B-29s from Strategic Air Command. They started coming in Monday and flew their first bombs Tuesday.”
The payload was 100- to 500-pound bombs and the first mission was to blow up a rail yard in Korea, he said.
Later on as the war wound down, it stalemated and a demilitarization zone was set up at the 38th parallel where it stands today as the no-man’s land between North and South Korea.
Leonard was a part of a weather squadron during the war and he left Japan in 1952 before the war ended with nearly four years service under his belt.
The Korean War cost about 36,516 deaths in the theater, 33,651 of whom died as the result of hostile action. All branches of the U.S. military as well as troops from other countries were involved and the United Nations also was involved in the war, he said.
As the forgotten war, people rarely talk about it as much as they do about World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War, he said.
His father didn’t like to talk about his World War I experiences but did discuss his war experiences with his buddies, Leonard said.
“He told me when the troops got back from the war to New York Harbor, he attended a big parade for the troops in New York City.”
Leonard didn’t begin learning more about the conflict until he was 8 and 9 years old as World War II was breaking out in 1938-1939. And the war was over before he joined the Air Force.
“It was an interesting way I got into the military,” he said. “I had just graduated high school and began to talk with my friends. One friend began talking about joining the Marine Corps and I had a brother in the Marines. The third friend wanted to join the Navy and none of us wanted to be in the Navy. We couldn’t agree, so all three of us joined the Air Force December 17, 1948.”
When Leonard was discharged in 1952, the G.I. bill offered 36 months of school and paid $110 a month for any serviceman who wanted to continue education.
“I had plenty of money to go to school on,” he said. “A semester’s tuition at Henderson State Teachers College in Arkansas was $60. I started college in September 1952 and graduated early in May 1955 going straight through in two and a half years. I attended graduate school at Indiana University with a master’s in health and physical education.”
Leonard’s first teaching job was a one-year stint at Marianna, Ark., where he met his future wife Martha Ruth.
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