Home | Mission & Goals | Meeting Schedule | Search | Contact Us | Submit A Story | Links

  World War II Honor Roll

 John R. Leister

Julia Mulqueen
Battalion Commander, MSM Army ROTC
MSM Class of 2012

"Eisenhower made a mistake," he said to me with memories glistening in his eyes. "We shouldn’t have gone in right after that storm." I was sitting across from Mr. John R. Leister in his comfortable home in Harney. He was transported to a different time, a different place, away from his tiny dog, Tigger, away from the calm of present day. Mr. Leister served for a little over two and a half years as an infantryman in Company D of the 116th Infantry Regiment. He was part of the Battle of Normandy and received a Purple Heart for wounds incurred during his time in Europe. What follows is his incredible story, full of courage, honor, and optimism despite it all.

Mr. Leister grew up down the road from his current house in Harney. He lived on a farm and attended school up until the eighth grade. Years passed and worked on the farm. One day he received a fateful letter in the mail. He was drafted. He can still remember how it read, with the words, "Your friends and neighbors have selected you for service." He laughed, saying, "I thought, to hell with these friends!"

After basic training, he boarded the Queen Mary to England with 24,000 other soldiers. Each soldier had a bed only ever other night due to a shortage of space. The nights the soldiers were without beds, they simply slept on the floors of the ship in sleeping bags. People were throwing up everywhere. By the time the boat docked in England, it was horribly dirty. Leister chuckled, saying, "I wouldn’t of cleaned that boat if they’d given it to me!" They remained in England for a year, training and preparing for combat.

June 1944 came. The night before the scheduled invasion there was a massive storm, which churned the already rocky waters and kicked up waves. This was why Leister thought Eisenhower made a mistake; it was a terrible day for an invasion.

A few of the boats surrounding that which Leister was aboard crashed into iron posts with bombs on them. The posts where hidden under the water, and upon impact they would explode. 30 men or more would be lost at a time.

It was breaking day. The large vessel Leister was on had smaller boats on it, which were released into the water with a crane. Those operating the crane let it down "too fast, and it knocked a hole in the boat. The mortars and everything had life preserves on them so we didn’t lose them." The lieutenant had to scramble up the ladders leading the platoon back onto the larger vessel as the boat sank. Because of this, Leister and his fellow soldiers were half an hour late for the first wave of the invasion. They moved to another boat, and this time, were lowered slowly into the water.

They neared Omaha and realized the boats had amphibious tanks on them. "Going in, they didn’t tell us they were on the boats and they’d pop outta there and go down." There was canvas under the tank and water would flow "under the whole tank and lift it back up. They’d turn the propeller on and go in." In fact, "that’s how a lotta boys got in; they walked aside the tank."

As Leister and his fellow soldiers waded toward the beach, they noticed great bomb holes everywhere. He looked down and saw that "the water along the edge of the Channel was red with blood. That about makes me cry yet." Over 10,000 men were killed or wounded just on that first day.

Leister continued, "We got in and got going. The Germans would use wooden pellets to cripple you. Our men told us not to stop moving. German snipers were good." They were so good in fact that they killed Leister’s best buddy as he stooped to play with a dog. Leister paused for a moment, collecting himself.

He continued, recollecting an attack that was days after the initial invasion. "So we made an attack one morning." They would move along a road toward a little town, take fire and fall back. They would reorganize and try again. On the way back, Leister saw a wire on the road leading toward the tanks. He thought, "what the hell?" and cut it with a pair of pliers. He did not realize until later that there was a German sniper in the local church tower. When Leister cut the wire, he cut the sniper’s communication, doubtless saving himself and his buddies.

He then added a side note. His commander wanted to be the "first fellow in Saint Lo, France and he was. He was on a stretcher dead, but he was first and he didn’t even know it."

Leister moved from this story to the story of his second wound. They were heading into a town and "a piece of shrapnel jumped up and bit me!" He had been wounded previous to that, but does not recall the date of his first injury. The date of his injury incurred from shrapnel was 5 August 1944. This second injury was severe enough that he was sent back to England. The surgeons removed it from his knee. At first he was going to be relieved from his service, but eventually he was sent back to the same unit.

Upon his return, the soldiers hit Brest, France. They came up and the townspeople shut the doors on them. They could not get in, so they took a "159 howitzer and shot point blanks right into that door and they bounced off like popcorn." The Germans heckled them saying, "you Americans are gonna have to do a better demonstration than that!" Time passed, and finally, they raised the white flag. There were a couple hundred people living there. Leister remembers all of France fondly. "The French were nice to us; they always received us well, especially the girls."

Here in his story Leister interrupts himself for a moment to talk about General Patton. "I was under the best commander ever born. By God, he wouldn’t tell you to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself." During a battle in which Leister was involved, General Patton was in the first tank of the convoy. He would "get out…shells coming across…he’d look around and say to hell with these krauts. He was tough." He was the ideal leader.

Leister picked up with a story about an early morning attack in Germany on 5 April 1945. It was two or three in the morning. "We were walking up a narrow road. We were hit to our left. It missed my radioman and hit my left hip and went almost clean through the right hip; that’s where they took it out." His buddies drug him to a farmhouse off of the road and left him, assuring him, "medics will come and find you." He had not bled one drop outside. He lay on the floor of the farmhouse feeling "scared and weird." He watched the sun come up, and eventually he heard someone. Leister took his weapon off safe. He did not know if they were German or American. All he could do was lay there as he was paralyzed from the waist down. He heard a jumble of words. He was unable to make them out until he heard his name, John. It was a captain and four or five Germans. One of the Germans carried him back and put him in the Red Cross’ "meat wagon." Here, Leister started to laugh as he remembered, "I had to pee so bad!"

They took him back to a great big tent where they operated on him. The floor was grass, and there were a few boards set about for people to walk on. He was there for a month to a month-and-a-half. He was completely disabled at first. He became sick with pneumonia and his weight dropped from the 140s to 92 pounds. He was sent back to England for three or four months. After that, he was sent to Cambridge, Ohio where he was discharged as a staff sergeant. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds incurred during combat.

Upon finishing his story, Mr. Leister looked over at me and said, "It was exciting a lot of times. It was hell a lot of times, but we had some breaks, especially in the towns they made beer!" Then he stood up, set his cane against his chair, and scooped his dog Tigger up. He sat back down and smiled as his scratched Tigger’s head. We chatted for another hour about everything from the chickens he hauled as a truck driver after the war to Tigger accidentally pressing his Life Alert button the other day. I even learned that he is a Charter Member of the Harney VFW, which was created in 1948.

Eventually, we stood up and walked outside. As I drove away, I waved to Mr. Leister, who was waving back with Tigger tucked comfortably in the crook of his arm and a warm smile lighting his face.

A very special thank you to Mr. John R. Leister for sharing his story and Mr. Frank M. Rauschenberg for introducing Mr. Leister and the author, as well as accompanying her on the interview.

Read other Veteran Profiles

Ruth Richard's: Emmitsburg During World War II
LtCdr Hillman's: 50 Yard Line Seats for a Show I Would Rather Have Missed

Revolutionary War Honor Roll
Civil War Honor Roll
World War I Honor Roll
World War II Honor Roll