Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Woods
World War II U.S. Air Force sergeant receives Victory Medal
June 24, 2014
GROSSE POINTE FARMS/WOODS — It took almost a lifetime — 69 years, to be exact — but former U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant William F. “Bill” Leslie, of Grosse Pointe Woods, finally has received the World War II Victory Medal that he should have gotten after his service ended in 1945.
Leslie — who turns 93 on July 2 — beamed with pride as he was presented with the medal during a special ceremony in his honor June 17 at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial in Grosse Pointe Farms. Brian Leslie, of Grosse Pointe City, his oldest living son, worked to make the presentation possible.
Barbara McCallahan, director of community affairs and regional manager for Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office, told Bill Leslie that it was “a great privilege and great honor” to present him with a medal “that you wholeheartedly deserve.” Stabenow was in Washington, D.C., and unable to attend in person, but she sent her regards. McCallahan said Leslie exemplifies “the tremendous courage and bravery that this medal represents.”
“I appreciate it very, very much,” Leslie said softly upon receipt of the medal.
Bill Leslie was only 21 years old when he enlisted. Brian Leslie said his father was listening to the Warsaw Concerto in the summer of 1942 when he decided to join the U.S. Air Force.
“I enlisted because I thought guys over there were getting shot, and I was at home shooting pool,” Bill Leslie said.
Assigned to the Eighth Air Force and originally trained as a pilot, Bill Leslie eventually was trained as an engineer and gunner, and was based out of Tibenham Airfield in Norwich, England, where he and his fellow B-24 crew flew 35 bombing missions over France and Germany between August 1944 and January 1945. The sergeant was in the deadliest mission in the war when he was on one of 35 bombers that took part in the infamous run to Kassel, Germany, in September 1944. Brian Leslie said 28 of the planes were shot down and another three crashed in France. Only four B-24s made it back to Tibenham, and of more than 300 crewmembers sent to Kassel, his father was one of only 32 survivors.
McCallahan said the “Mighty Eighth,” as they became known, were “the greatest air armada in history,” but they also suffered half of the U.S. Army casualties in WWII.
Bill Leslie himself nearly lost his life.
“One time, we were flying off to bomb in France and I was in the top turret. All of a sudden, we got flak from the ground, and they blew a hole in the turret this big,” he said, forming the size of a softball with his hands. “If I had been on the other side (of the turret), I wouldn’t be here.”
Bill Leslie said he wasn’t hit, although shattered glass did end up inside of his shirt, but the radio operator got struck by shrapnel during that mission. He said he radioed to the pilot, “‘I’ve been hit — those dirty rats hit us.’ I’d swear on the ground, but not in the air.”
After that incident, Bill Leslie said his fellow crewmembers often teased him by asking, “Have you seen any dirty rats today?”
After the war, Bill Leslie married Marion, with whom he had six children who were raised on the east side of Detroit. He said he worked for the phone company after his military service and retired from the phone company in 1981, by which time he was working in public relations. After 64 years of marriage, Marion Leslie died in 2010.
Brian Leslie said his father has never discussed his war experiences at length with his family.
“It was things you had to pull out of him,” he said. “He really didn’t talk about it. His friends didn’t talk about it. … They came back (home) and started their lives.”
Four of Bill Leslie’s surviving five children were on hand for the medal presentation, as were some of his 14 grandchildren. He’s also a great-grandfather.
Several local veterans were present for the ceremony, including Mike Ban, an infantry sergeant who served in the Ninth Infantry in Vietnam from 1967-68. Receiving a medal is a point of individual pride but also represents the work of a soldier’s comrades, he said.
“The honor of receiving any medal is secondary,” Ban said. “Really, the medals mean a lot to us, but they’re not everything. When you get a medal, it reflects the service you did, but it also reminds you of the people you’ve lost.”
After he was honorably discharged in June 1945, Bill Leslie did receive a number of awards for his military service, including the Air Medal with four Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters, the Good Conduct Ribbon, the European/African/Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with four Bronze Battle Stars, and the Overseas Service Bar. But like so many of his fellow veterans, Brian Leslie said his father was forgotten when it came to the WWII Victory Medal. When Brian Leslie learned only six months ago that his father should have gotten this honor, he began contacting local officials to make it happen.
“I’m proud of him because he saw a duty in helping people who were being taken over by a dictator in Germany,” said Brian Leslie, who shares a birthday with his father. “He joined a lot of Americans in saving those countries and succeeding in doing so.”
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