By David Fleet
Groveland Twp.- It was just days 35 before D-day, June 6, 1944 when Herb Leon turned 20 years old.
On that day Prt. Leon almost didn’t make it to Omaha Beach.
“I was in water up to my chin when I stepped off the ramp,” recalled Herb, 97 a township resident for more than 20 years. “Our boat driver could not get any closer (to shore) since there were so many boats sunk in our way. I kept my gun up over my head so it would not get wet.”
Herb was with one of the U.S. Divisions to land on Omaha Beach, the code name for one of the five sectors of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in the Normandy landings World War II..
“The first time I saw action was the Beaches of Normady,” recalled Herb. “It’s hard to remember everything after 77 years. What you don’t forget is when they drop that big door toward the beach. That was the beginning of war for me. On the boat to France from England I was praying a lot—(and) all the time going through France.”
Herb Leon was born in Detroit in May 1924 the youngest three boys and a daughter of Laura and Joesph. The family lived in Highland Park where he also attended high school.
The WWII draft began in October 1940, with the first men entering military service on Nov.18. Herb’s older brothers Theodore and Salvador were drafted in the Army followed by Herb as the war efforts in United States ramped up. By the early summer of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked the U.S. Congress to extend the term of duty for the draftees beyond 12 months to a total of 30 months, plus any additional time that he could deem necessary for national security.
“They were drafting everybody in the early 1940s and going right to the front line too,” said Leon. “They had all three of us Leon boys in the Army at the same time—they really should not have done that.”
Ted, the oldest Leon boy was drafted and was serving in Italy during the war.
“He took shrapnel in the leg,” he said. “He later died from those wounds after he returned home. My other brother Sal was executed while fighting somewhere in France before I got there and was buried in Germany. Before I went in the service a Catholic priest found me and gave me directions where he was buried in Germany. Following the war Sal’s remains were returned home.”
When Herb was drafted his brothers were already serving.
Herb reported to the Chicago area for Army training then on to New York via train to be shipped out to Europe.
“England was in pretty bad shape when I arrived,” he said. “They kept us away from the civilians most of the time. We stayed in hotels and were not given guns to fire, rather we used broomsticks to practice. The Germans were bombing London pretty heavy. There were many, many air raids—we had a bomb land near my room in a hotel where I was staying. It just missed me and I was very lucky I did not get hit.”
The trek across the English Channel toward France was calm, he recalled.
“They just dropped that big door and in you go,” he said. “It was hard to understand what to do next—but getting from the ship to the shore was a big concern. Our orders were to go up the beach as far as possible.”
There were hundreds of men on our ship that went ashore, he said.
“The Germans had the machine guns set up in the high areas shooting down on us, when we got off the ship,” he said. “I don’t remember any of the others with me, when you’re on ground fighting you’re not sure if you’re going to see that person again. We went on the beach and just kept moving slow and easy. I laid down on the beach when the shooting started. They called it the Red Ocean—and there were places it was really red from the blood. We lost a lot of men.”
The airplanes and artillery would go out ahead of us ground troops and bomb the hell out of the Germans, he said.
“They would clear the area before we arrived,” he said. “When you went to slept at night, if you could get to sleep, you were not sure what you’d wake up to the morning. You always had to worry about night-fighters. We had some smart people leading, they knew what a war was.”
Herb recalls encountering French civilians during the fighting.
“The (French) still lived in their houses, but you where never sure who the enemy really were,” he said. “As the troops moved farther inland the fighting was more intense. Our airplanes dropped ammunitions and supplies to us on the ground as we drove on.”
“You just keep moving,” he said. “I was never hit, I was lucky. As you move through France sometimes locals shot at us too—we were going through their town. Other times it seemed there were no civilians in the towns.”
The 101st Airborne was out ahead of us and we were just behind in their support, he recalled.
“We moved faster and knew we had the Germans on the run,” he said.
The US Third Army carried out four river assaults in late March 1945. The 5th Infantry Division undertook the first on March 22, 1945, crossing the Rhine at Oppenheim, south of Mainz
“I went right into Germany,” he said. “They told us the war was over while I was in Germany. Surprisingly some of the German civilian were happy to see us, not all, but some were. It was over for them and now they had the county back.”
Leon returned home to Detroit and was later employed by General Motors. He moved to Groveland Township about 20 years ago.
“I made an agreement with the good Lord if they brought me home that would be the last I would ever go overseas,” he said. “I’ve never been back.”