Leitch on left, Woodie in middle, Robert Johnson on right. | Courtesy of Tom Leitch

Dugald “Bud” Leitch is an unsung hero from Forest Park whose remarkable life story has just been uncovered. Like millions of Americans, he was a modest blue collar worker, who volunteered to fight in World War II. 

But as the pilot of a B-17, Leitch experienced the most harrowing adventures. After he was shot down on June 29, 1944, he and his crew endured hardships at Stalag Luft III, the POW camp later immortalized in the 1963 film The Great Escape

All of this happened to a man who spent most of his life quietly living at 1514 Elgin.

The house was built in 1923 by Leitch’s father, also named Dugald, who was quite a character. A native of Scotland, he journeyed to Canada during WWI to join the famed 48th Highlander regiment. He returned from the battlefield after being gassed and proudly showed his family a uniform button he had taken from a Prussian soldier. 

During World War II, Dugald Sr. worked in an aircraft factory on the West Side of Chicago. He also served as a guard at the Amertorp munitions plant in Forest Park (now the Forest Park mall). When his namesake told him he was enlisting, his only comment was: “You should have done it sooner.” 

His mother, Jane, who also spoke with a Scottish burr, said the Leitches had been patriots for generations — first fighting for the honor of Scotland, now defending the United States. 

Bud Leitch grew up in Forest Park with a brother and three sisters. He followed the usual path through Betsy Ross, middle school and Proviso East. After graduation, he got a job driving a truck at the Western Electric Hawthorne Plant in Cicero. When the U.S. entered WWII, Leitch happened to be the 2,000th Hawthorne employee to volunteer for the service. This triggered massive hoopla. 

On Oct. 20, 1942, the Western Electric workers turned out for a lunchtime induction ceremony, as Leitch was sworn into the Army Air Corps. Seventy-nine cadets from Chanute AFB and a 51-piece band joined Army brass at the Cicero facility. The plant publication described Leitch as, “A big good-natured Scotch-American,” who was trading in his 15-mph truck for a 400-mph plane. Leitch proudly shared the stage with his wife, Alice. 

Major Showalter congratulated Western Electric for their part in the war effort. “Not only have you given us 2,000 men, you are building the radios and telephones to guide our fighting men. When Bud goes up in a plane, he will depend on the equipment you make here to guide him safely to his target and safely home again.” 

Well, not always.

At 6 feet 2, 180 pounds, Leitch was too tall to be a fighter pilot, so he trained to fly a four-engine B-17, dubbed the “Flying Fortress” for its ability to hold off attackers. He first met the other members of his 10-man crew, training in Salt Lake City. They continued to train in Texas before heading to Europe. Leitch flew the plane they dubbed “I’ll Be Around” from Maine to Scotland to join the 8th Air Force.

The crew flew their first combat mission in June 1944, with two sorties over the Normandy beachhead on D-Day. They flew bombing runs over Berlin. In his journal, “Remembrance and Afterthoughts,” Bombardier Walter C. “Woodie” Woodmansee wrote that it was an 8-10 hour flight to the German capital and danger was constant.

“On several missions, I witnessed disasters that I can never forget,” Woodie recalled. He saw B-17’s take direct hits, or go into steep dives, no parachutes emerging. Woodie’s own navigator was hit by flak and his radioman lost a leg. Sometimes their targets were military, other times civilian. They also made “milk runs” to drop supplies to resistance fighters. They flew 19 missions in all and returned from 18.

On June 29, 1944, they were assigned to bomb a synthetic oil factory in Leipzig. They were the last member of their group to take off and immediately developed engine trouble. The turret ball gunner reported that Engine 3 was leaking oil badly. “We were leading the low squadron and I didn’t want to turn back,” Leitch later wrote, “So, I let it go.” Leitch reported that the “Flak wasn’t too bad but it was fairly accurate.” He saw flak punch a “fair sized hole” in the main gas tank of the plane ahead of him. Its left wing was blazing as it dropped from sight. “I found out later that he exploded,” he wrote.

Flak was also finding Leitch’s plane but, “We got to the target okay.” Woodie dropped their payload and they headed for home. Suddenly, one of their engines started smoking. “Please don’t explode,” Woodie prayed. He saw Leitch and his co-pilot, Robert Johnson talking frantically. The young pilot nursed the wounded plane along, increasing power to the engines that still worked. He headed for the Swiss border.

As Engine 2 began to fail, Leitch gave the order for the crew to bail out. His crew members bailed out at 28,000 feet. Leitch was the last to leave his ship. He put the automatic pilot on glide, slipped into his chute and bailed out the front escape hatch at 16,000 feet. When his parachute opened, he said later, “It sure was a beautiful sight.” He could see the rest of the crew below him, gliding to earth.

Then he looked up and saw “I’ll Be Around” heading directly toward him. “I felt a little panic but the ship passed over me at about 1,000 feet.” Meanwhile, Woodie, hanging in his chute, watched the B-17 circle, dive and explode in a forest. Soon, Leitch and his men would be descending into that same forest. “My chute got caught on top of a tree,” Leitch recalled warmly, “This kept me from getting a very good jar when I landed.” 

Woodie also landed in a tree, suspended about two feet off the ground. Seeing the crash, a band of men with rifles were scouring the woods with rifles. They found Woodie and locked him in a cellar with three other crew members. When he saw his mates, “They were bruised and bloody from a beating.” The authorities were notified and Woodie and his comrades were soon off to Frankfurt for interrogation.

Meanwhile, Leitch walked four miles until he encountered crew member, Russel Unverzagt. They were two miles from where their plane went down. “We had a compass but no map. We were right in the center of Germany, 240 miles from any place we could get help.” As they edged their way around a large city, two citizens on bikes spotted them. They dove into a ditch but surrendered when the bicyclists displayed small revolvers. They herded the captured airmen into town.

The townspeople greeted them with unbridled hostility. A Hitler Youth punched Unverzagt in the jaw and a civilian tried to kick him in the stomach. A Luftwaffe ground crew became their unlikely rescuers. They walked them to a truck, where they greeted crewmembers Everett Huso, James Williams, Berton Swift and Colin Gerrels. “They had been badly beaten by civilians and looked pretty sad,” Leitch wrote, “but I was sure glad to see them.” Johnson was there, too. 

The truck also carried cargo. “They had a lot of parts of our B-17.” The Germans had salvaged guns and six of their wing tanks intact. But Leitch was pleased that, “The ship had burned down 2 acres of nice tinder.” Their captors took them to an airbase, where they ate for the first time in 24 hours. “They brought me two slices of black bread, jam and coffee. I’ve yet to see anything that tasted that good at the time.” 

After being interrogated in Frankfurt, the crew was brought to Stalag Luft 3, in Sagan, eastern Germany. The camp held 10,000 POWs, divided into five compounds. Leitch and the others were assigned to the center compound, where the “Great Escape” had occurred a year before. 

On March 24, 1943, 76 prisoners escaped through an elaborate tunnel dubbed “Harry.” According to a firsthand account of the escape by Paul Brickhill in the book Clipped Wings, the movie version of the escape was extremely accurate: The three tunnels, the trolley, the air pump, the dirt disposal devices, even the rope to signal when it was safe to emerge from the tunnel. (But no mention of a motorcycle chase). Most of the 76 were captured within a day or two. The Gestapo shot 50 of them. 

Because of this massacre, the Allied High Command sent a directive to all prisoners of war. “Urgent warning is given against making future escapes!” It explained that Germans were shooting POWs and other suspected persons on sight. “In plain English: Stay in camp where you will be safe! Breaking out is now a damned dangerous act.” Leitch and his men made no attempt to escape. They had enough on their hands. 

Starvation, homesickness and boredom were the enemies they fought. “The diet was Spartan to say the least,” Woodie wrote. The Germans had barely enough to feed themselves, let alone POWs. Fortunately the Red Cross came to their rescue. “They gave us food, clothes, books, sports equipment and musical instruments,” wrote Woodie. Mostly, he recalled, the prisoners read, went to church services and played sports. 

Leitch and the others were issued POW IDs. His features a photograph of a handsome young man, wearing a somber expression. His occupation is listed as “Chauffeur” and his address as 1514 Elgin Avenue, Forest Park, IL. 

To notify families, the Germans broadcast the names of POWs in English on Sunday nights. After hearing the names, American short wave radio operators would send cards and letters to the addresses of the families. Leitch’s mother received a stack of them from all over the country. She sent parcels and letters to Leitch at Stalag Luft 3. He finally received his first letter in December but none of the parcels came through. 

Leitch could have used the food. Breakfast was two slices of bread with syrup and water. Lunch could be pea soup, or stewed barley. Dinner was two slices of bread and butter. The men lived 12 to a block. They pooled their packages from home and Red Cross parcels to make meals. Leitch became the cook of the barracks. It was a satisfying job that ate up the empty hours. By this time, he was having food fantasies about a chocolate bar, a Hillman’s whipped cream puff and steak and eggs. 

“Thank God for the Red Cross,” he wrote in his journal. “If it wasn’t for them we’d probably starve.” The extra food enabled Leitch to prepare a Thanksgiving feast on Nov. 30, 1944. Following a Turkey Bowl football game, “Supper was served about 1600 hours and the table was all set with tablecloth and napkins that Ollie got from home; it really looked prima. Ollie said grace for supper. There was a full can of Spam, whipped spinach, peas and carrots, and Macaroni and rice. For dessert we had chocolate pie.”

Aside from avoiding starvation, the men had to keep their minds occupied. The POWs produced a one-page newspaper, called “The Circuit.” The band played concerts and the men put on plays. Leitch started a sketch book, where he kept his theater tickets to The Man Who Came to Dinner and the Front Page. Nicknamed “Tiny Tim” by his camp mates, Leitch was an adept artist. He drew cartoons, wrote poems and even sheet music for original songs like “A Kreigie is Dreaming.” Kreigie was their slang for POW.

As much as he tried to keep his spirits up, the entries in his journal became briefer and gloomier. He reports spending entire days in his three-tier bunk. “Cold damp day. A good day to spend in the sack.” There were some highlights though, such as the barracks softball league. “Won our first game of the season 3-2 in the last half of the 7th. Woodie hit one over the barracks with two men on. Hollywood finish.” At Christmas, they dined on roast turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes. They heard war news over smuggled radios. “Allies are making big gains in France,” he wrote. “The Russians have started another drive. It can’t be too long now.”

It was the Russians who first approached the camp, prompting the Germans to move the POWs. On Jan. 27, 1945, they evacuated Stalag Luft 3. “We were forced to march in the snow for two weeks to Stalag 7,” Woodie wrote. “Some died before we got there. We were starving with no shelter. The Red Cross came to the rescue with food. We spent three months in a tent.”

On April 29, 1945, the German guards fled. General George C. Patton arrived in person, “with pearl-handled sidearms on each hip,” Woodie wrote. “He ordered the cooking and baking units to feed us. I’ll never forget the fresh-baked bread given to us.” Getting home proved to be tricky for the POWs. Woodie traveled by car and truck to the coast. He boarded an Italian liner and landed in NJ.

Leitch returned to Forest Park and his job at Western Electric. It was if he had never left because the company credited him for his war years. He and Alice had one child, Tom, who follow his dad’s path through Forest Park schools and Proviso East. Leitch never talked about the war with his family. He only told Tom about bailing out, being attacked by Hitler Youth and how the Luftwaffe rescued them. Tom recalled his dad refused to watch the hit TV comedy, Hogan’s Heroes, which spoofed life in “Stalag 13.” 

Leitch retired from Western Electric, after 37 years. He died in 1997, at the age of 76. Alice preceded him. After his dad’s death, Tom found a treasure trove of memorabilia about his father’s war years. This included photos, journals and the issue of Western Electric’s newspaper, “The Microphone,” with a photo of Dugald Leitch dominating the front page.

After the war, Woodie returned to upstate New York and attended Syracuse University on the GI Bill. He had displayed writing talent in the journal he kept at Stalag Luft 3 and wanted to study journalism. However, his future wife Helen “converted him from journalism to geology.” The couple went to work for the Geologic Survey, which sent them to the western United States and to Australia for two years. They raised four kids. 

After they retired, the couple restored an old farmhouse overlooking one of the Finger Lakes. Today, Woodie and Helen live in a retirement home in Rochester, New York. They have kept their sharp minds into their 90s. In a recent phone conversation, Woodie sounded as chipper as ever and invited a reporter to visit them. He recalled playing softball in the camp but didn’t remember the game-winning home run he hit over the barracks. Hollywood finish. 

Editor’s Note: This story came about thanks to an inquiry by Robert Johnson’s son-in-law, Allen Odstdiek. He asked this reporter to find the 10 members of his father-in-law’s B-17 crew. We found every one. Nine were gone, but one remains very much alive. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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