On June 29, 1944, 10 young men took off in a B-17 from Rattlesden, England. They were headed to Magdeburg, Germany to bomb a synthetic oil factory. The pilot was Dugald G. Leitch of Forest Park. His co-pilot was Robert A. Johnson. The bombardier was Walter “Woodie” Woodmansee. After Woodie dropped the payload, their plane was hit by flak. Leitch ordered the crew to bail out. “Doc” as he was called, was the last to parachute from the stricken ship.
Doc’s actions saved the entire crew and he later kept them from starving, cooking meals at Stalag III, where the “Great Escape” had erupted a year before. The 10 young men survived their imprisonment, despite the starvation diet and all made it back home. Now, only Woodie is left from the crew. He lives in Rochester, New York.
Doc’s son, Tom Leitch, and his wife, Mary Ann, drove from Chicago to Rochester to see Woodie. Johnson’s daughter, Nancy, her brother Jerry and her husband, Allen Ostidiek traveled from Lawrence, Nebraska to see him.
Woodie and his wife, Helen, are in their mid-90s but their minds are still sharp. “Honest to God, they were wonderful,” Nancy recalled. “They served lunch and we stayed for four hours. Woodie looked like he did in his 20s. He still has his red hair.” Woodie is eloquent and intelligent, while Helen is an accomplished painter. The couple has had a full life, traveling the world as geologists and making their home on a 22-acre farm.
When the talk turned to war, Woodie got a bit emotional. He described the brutal march in the snow when they were evacuated from Stalag III. Many POWs didn’t survive.
“I always wished everyone had made it back home,” he said. At their new camp, they were forced to live in circus tents with straw on the floor. Food was scarce. “We watched heavy guys shrink,” Woodie recalled. Johnson was hospitalized for malnutrition. He and Doc lost their teeth to starvation. They wouldn’t have made it without the food they received from home and the Red Cross
General George Patton personally liberated the camp and ordered his men to feed the POWs. Woodie made it back to the states on a freighter. He weighed less than 100 pounds. The military was planning to ship Woodie to the Pacific, when the bells rang for VJ Day. “I was in Times Square,” Woodie recalled, “and I got kissed by so many women.” Looking back, he said the war had only been “a small part of my life but it helped form me.”
“I moved on, but my granddaughter inspired me to write about my life.” He gave his memoirs to his family as a gift. “It’s a joy to read his writing,” Mary Ann said. Doc had penned poems while he was a POW and they were read aloud at the gathering. At the end, Woodie thanked his visitors.
“It’s a real honor that you guys drove so far to see me,” he said.
Tom didn’t want to let the opportunity pass. “I just wished my dad could have been there. He would have enjoyed Woodie as a person and as a brother-in-arms.”
We don’t have to drive hundreds of miles to honor veterans this Nov. 11. We can salute them by attending the Veteran Day Ceremony at Popelka Park, Thomas and Adams. It’s at 11 a.m.
If we can’t make the ceremony, we can honor veterans by acting like Americans again. Helen recalled how united the country was the day 10 young men took off in their B-17.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.