By DAN DEARTH
The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown
HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — John Leather wears earplugs to church, but it’s not the sermon that the 88-year-old World War II veteran is trying to muffle.
He said he wears the earplugs to drown out the rumble of a drum that’s played when the congregation sings hymns.
“I’ve had to leave the service a couple of times,” Leather said with a shiver. “It reminds me of artillery coming in.”
Nearly 70 years ago, Leather was a sergeant in the 17th Airborne Division, a unit of paratroopers and glider soldiers who saw some of World War II’s most ferocious fighting during the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Varsity.
Earlier this month, the Washington County resident was honored for his military service at an awards ceremony in Georgia, which included a trip to the U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning. The ceremony, known as the Static Line All Airborne Awards Festival, recognizes war heroes from America’s airborne units.
Leather said being honored with the award was a surprise, and he was shocked when a number of people at the ceremony said he was a hero.
“I’m not a hero,” he said. “The people who didn’t come back are the heroes. That’s the way I look at it.”
During the early years of World War II, Leather tried to enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps, but he was turned away because he had flat feet. It wasn’t until 1943 that he finally got his long-awaited chance to join the war effort when he was drafted by the Army.
“At that point, they took anyone who was warm and breathing,” he said. “They were drafting heavy.”
Leather went through boot camp and was assigned to a glider outfit with the 17th. He later volunteered for paratrooper training and earned his wings on June 17, 1944 — 11 days after the D-Day invasion.
The 17th was sent to England, and after a brief stay was sent to Belgium to plug holes in the line caused by Hitler’s counteroffensive in the Ardennes, known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Leather said as the 17th moved up, it passed through camps that had been occupied by the 101st Airborne Division.
The American reinforcements were sent up so quickly that they fought German tanks with small-arms fire. It was the coldest winter in the region in decades, but many of the paratroopers had nothing heavier to wear than wool coats.
Leather still has the wool blanket and coat he used during the battle hanging in his basement. At times, he said he looks at them and wonders how he survived.
“We spent about seven weeks in the Battle of the Bulge, wearing substandard clothing,” he said. “My feet and hands were frostbitten — they were like chunks of ice … We suffered more casualties from the cold than the Germans.”
Leather said the artillery fire was intense.
“You could see the shells stepping up on you getting in range,” he said.
During a particularly heavy barrage, Leather had to take over command of his squad when the leader was killed.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)