Veterans Day reminds us that not all veterans have been treated equally. The WWII vets returned to a nationwide celebration. There was no celebration for returning Vietnam vets. They were taunted by protesters instead.
Forest Park has been home to many veterans, going back to the Civil War. One of our homegrown heroes was Dugald “Bud” Leitch who fought in World War II. He grew up at 1514 Elgin and graduated from our local public schools.
Leitch was working as a truck driver for Western Electric in Cicero when he volunteered for the service. There was a massive celebration at the plant because Leitch was the 2,000th plant employee to volunteer. Cadets, a brass band and a Major Showalter attended the ceremony.
Leitch trained to fly a B-17 bomber. The plane’s 10-man crew trained together for over a year. In 1944, they flew their plane, “I’ll Be Around,” from Maine to Scotland to join the 8th Air Force. Their missions involved bombing targets in Germany.
The danger was constant. Many B-17s exploded in mid-air, or crash-landed with no survivors. On June 29, 1944, they were flying their 19th mission, when they were hit by antiaircraft shells and developed engine trouble. As the engines failed, Leitch ordered his men to bail out. He was the last to jump.
All 10 landed safely but were met with unbridled hostility by German civilians. They were badly beaten before a Luftwaffe ground crew came to their rescue. After interrogation, they were brought to Stalag Luft 3, where the “Great Escape” (of movie fame) had taken place in 1943.
All 76 of those escapees had been quickly recaptured and 50 of them were massacred by the Gestapo. The Allied command sent out an urgent directive for POWs to refrain from any escape attempts. Meanwhile, the Germans broadcast the names and locations of POWs. Cards and letters from short wave operators were sent to families. The Leitches received a stack of them from all over the country.
They immediately sent food parcels to Leitch at Stalag Luft 3 but none arrived. Leitch and his men could have used the food. The Germans had them on a starvation diet. Hunger, homesickness and boredom were the enemies they fought. Many POWs did not survive.
Leitch and his crew were liberated by General George C. Patton himself, who ordered his cooking units to feed the men. Leitch eventually returned to his job at Western Electric. He died in 1997 at the age of 76.
On Veterans Day, we honor WWII heroes like Leitch. We can also honor Vietnam vets by attending a concert titled, “Songs of the Vietnam War” on Nov. 11 at 2 p.m., at the library. The History Singers, John and Kathy Atwood, are marking their 20th anniversary of performing songs in support of veterans.
Their concerts pair popular songs with historical events. John noted that during the WWII era and before, the songs were intensely patriotic. He calls them “rah-rah” songs. There were few such songs during the Vietnam era. Most were peace and protest songs. The Atwoods will perform gentle ballads like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” as well as the unofficial anthem of Vietnam soldiers, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
These songs are not “rah-rah,” but they also don’t vilify vets. John emphasizes how the Vietnam vets didn’t deserve the mistreatment they received. They were carrying on the patriotic tradition of defending our country.
He hopes the concert will bring some healing to our Vietnam vets and give us all a chance to thank them.