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NEWS | June 16, 2010

Humble beginnings, heroic endings for D-Day veteran looking back

By 2nd Lt. Susan Carlson Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

This is the second of a three-part series highlighting Charleston Veterans and their contributions on D-Day which will run through the month of June.

Billy Leonard is a Charlestonian through and through. He was born and raised in Charleston and, after attending the Citadel for just six months, joined the service in 1943 at the age of 18.

"I wanted to fight! I was a small man, weighed only 126 pounds, but thought I was 10 feet tall and knew everything in the world," Mr. Leonard said.

When he saw two paratroopers at boot camp with their shiny boots and confident swagger, Mr. Leonard thought to himself, "Wow, the girls would really go for that," and joined as a new recruit for jump school.

Before he knew it, he was sent to England as a replacement in the 505th Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, the oldest parachute division in the Army, to wait and train for their next mission.

"Veterans will not have anything to do with replacements, because they don't know anything, they get you killed - you have to go on a mission before they accept you," Mr. Leonard said about the men in his new regiment.

The opportunity to prove himself came along after being in England for only a few months. He and hundreds of paratroopers from his Division would soon be scattered over the French countryside, but in the hours leading up to the amphibious attacks in Normandy, France, their orders were to wait in a British air field filled with tents.

"I didn't know what the hell we were waiting for or anything else ..." he said, but then the word finally came down. "... we were going to jump into an invasion."

At 10 p.m. local time June 5, 1944, the D-Day invasion Mr. Leonard remembers began. He boarded a C-47 Skytrain with 17 other paratroopers somewhere on the coast of England. Weighing less than all of his 150 pounds of gear and parachute, Mr. Leonard along with many others, had to be helped into the C-47.

Four hours later, they were jumping out over French territory into the darkness of the night, joining the 85th Troop Carrier Group's C-47 Skytrains carrying the 101st Army Airborne Division on a mission to clear the way to Utah beach.

"The chute popped open and everything got dead silent. When you are in parachute you do not fall, the ground comes up and hits you," Mr. Leonard said. "I couldn't see where I was, thought I was in a river and I could hear a machine gun going off in the distance."

He landed somewhat disoriented and with his parachute harness still on, we was completely helpless. Once he was able to wrestle it off, Mr. Leonard made his way to the river bank. Looking around, he was completely alone and in a hostile environment.

"I got to the bank soaking wet from the waist down, sat down and thought, what in the world am I gonna do? Here I am in a foreign country at 2 o'clock in the morning and it's pitch black dark."

After finally finding the majority of their team, members of the 505th Regiment made their way to Sainte-Mère-Église and aided in the liberation of the first town in the invasion.

"We went to attack at five or six in the morning, we went into the high ground and drove the Germans out," said Mr. Leonard. "That was the first town liberated, that's when they [amphibious attacks] were hitting the beaches, and we had already taken the town."

The 505th Regiment remained in the town for three to four days, after which other American troops arrived and relieved them. For the next month the 505th continued to fight in Normandy before returning to England on July 8. Of the 12 men in his original squad, only five were able to walk onto English soil. The casualty rate was devastating.

The time spent in England was too short, and soon they were sent back into the European theater of operations.

While fighting in Operation Market Garden in Holland, Mr. Leonard lost his friend and mentor Army Sgt. Floyd Baldry, an exemplary leader. Sergeant Baldry was killed by a German Major, and then Private Leonard shot the major in turn. Mr. Leonard still has that pistol he used to this day.

Sergeant Baldry taught him a lot of things about how to stay alive, "he took a lot of patience with me," Mr. Leonard said. He was only 24, but had the character of one far beyond his years, Mr. Leonard said. During a parade ceremony with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in attendance, Seargent Baldry was awarded a Silver Star medal.

When Gen. James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne came to pin the medal on him, he said "I cannot accept this unless my men get the same thing, cause they deserve it as well as me," Mr. Leonard recalled.

"General Gavin got mad like the devil," Mr. Leonard said, "but sure enough, General Eisenhower said 'Give 'em all Silver Stars.'"

Operation Market Garden wasn't the end of the war for Mr. Leonard, after the loss of Sergeant Baldry, he continued on with his outfit to fight in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.

For someone born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, snow was quite an anomaly, and all of the sudden he found himself hip-deep in snow.

"It was real cold," he said. "A man would get killed and he would freeze solid, that's how cold it was."

Dressed in summer uniforms and unable to build fires, the men dug holes in the frozen ground throughout the night in order to stay warm.

"We were on the line for about 35 days, hadn't washed our faces, hadn't dried our hands, didn't have any water, we used snow for water, didn't have hot meals, didn't have a bath, we didn't have anything," Mr. Leonard said.

Only nine of Mr. Leonard's original platoon of 50 men walked away from the battle in Belgium. Later that winter, Mr. Leonard was taken out of the conflict after a close encounter with a mortar.

While he was sleeping in a foxhole, an enemy shell was heard by his four comrades outside. Quickly they jumped in the hole to avoid the impact, but unfortunately the shell landed just above them. The four other men were killed and Leonard was knocked unconscious. Hours later he awoke to find his legs and feet frozen and unable to move.

"They were laying on top of me ... I was underneath them, my friends saw it land in the hole and they thought everyone was dead," Mr. Leonard said.

After much cursing and yelling, his comrades were able to find him and pull him out from under the mess. Immediately he was sent to Paris, France, for medical attention.

By the time his feet had healed, the war had ended. Mr. Leonard returned home to Charleston after working a desk job for a few months in Europe. Mr. Leonard refused rank multiple times during his Army career, both in Belgium and in France; he left a private and came home a private. A man of humble beginnings, the lowest of ranks, telling the story of heroes.

"Sergeant Baldry was a hero," he said. "I fought with a lot of heroes, but I was not one."
Despite what he may believe, his sacrifice, demeanor and humble attitude make him and his generation heroes to ours.

Today, Mr. Leonard continues to run a grocery store in downtown Charleston which he opened upon his return in 1945. He, alongside his grandson, successfully sell local vegetables in what is still known as the Vegetable Bin just off East Bay Street.

His hours spent in the shop vary from time to time, as he is now 85 years of age. If you have privilege of catching him, you may notice a silver chain around his neck, supporting a small faded coin. Take the time to ask him the story behind it, and he will gladly tell you a tale of Dutch tea, the hospitality of a queen and the misplaced parachute jump that brought them together.