Leonard Foster is a native of New Mexico, who claims the area around Hagerman as his old stomping grounds. Born on October 16, 1925, he was only 16 when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. “We had no idea it happened,” he stated. “We had no electricity, and we certainly didn’t have a radio, so we went to the fields on Monday morning the same as we always did. Our neighbor told us what happened.”
Leonard grew up the first born of a family of seven children. His parents were farm workers, who scratched out a living by following the harvest from one location to another. Their work took them across Texas and New Mexico, often keeping them on the road for months at a time. “Most of the time, I didn’t start school until December when the crops were in.” Such was life during the later years of the Depression. School was a luxury that few agricultural families could afford. Leonard didn’t finish high school, but was forced to become a man earlier than most.
“When I heard about Pearl Harbor, I swore to myself that when I turned 17, I was going to enlist in the Navy and go to war.” Leonard had to wait for 10 months before he turned 17, so he continued to help his family work the fields. When the summer of 42 rolled around, he left home and hitchhiked to Los Angeles, where he worked as a truck driver delivering produce on a route that included Reno, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. “I had no driver’s license,” he pointed out. But it didn’t matter. The company needed the help and he needed the work. So, at 16, he was already demonstrating the character of the man he would become.
“I turned 17 on October 16th. I was sworn in to the Navy on the 23rd of that month. I had to have my parents sign for me, as I wasn’t old enough to sign on my own.” In his decision to join the Navy, one can observe how Leonard’s keen ability to analyze a situation was already in motion. “Quality of life was better in the Navy. I would get better food than K rations, and I would sleep on clean sheets. But most of all, I wanted a skill that I could use once the war was over.”
After 10 days of boot camp, he was sent to diesel school, where he was trained as a motor machinist. His job was to make certain the engines in the boats were working properly. That was his only duty, and he took it seriously. “I had the ability to lie down next to those roaring engines on the way to the beach for an invasion and sleep. But if that engine ever missed or skipped, I was wide awake and ready to work.”
Leonard’s first duty assignment was the USS Zeilin APA3 (Attack Personnel Auxiliary). The Zeilin was originally built as a luxury liner and was called the Silver State. When the war started, she was transformed into a transport ship, and after sustaining damage at Guadalcanal, she was repaired and used as an Attack Transport vessel. The landing crafts it carried, the LCVPs, transported ground troops and vehicles to the beaches so they could engage the enemy on shore. They also employed the larger Landing Craft Mechanized boats that transported larger assault vehicles such as tanks from the ship to the shore. Leonard’s job was critical to the success of the naval campaign in the war. He was an on-board mechanic whose only job was to ensure the landing craft carrying troops to the beach was working properly.
On May 13, 1943, he had his first taste of combat duty. The Japanese had a stronghold in the Aleutians on a small island called Attu. Twice his landing craft carried troops to the beach so our Army could remove the Japanese soldiers. Usually, those were one way trips for the troops, but on that day, they carried a critically wounded soldier from the first wave back to the ship. “I can still remember two things very clearly from that day. The first is the sound of the 16 inch shells flying overhead. They sounded like trains going over a trestle. The second was the agony that wounded soldier expressed when he was slammed into the bulkhead when a wave rocked the ship. I’ll never forget either of those sounds as long as I live.”
Leonard also landed troops on Kiska Island, but the Japanese had already abandoned their foothold there before they arrived. Shortly there after, he was transferred to the USS Rotanin, a cargo ship, whose duty was similar to that of the Zeilin, except she transported cargo and troops. The rest of his tour was spent serving on the Rotanin, following the Pacific campaign to rid the world of the Imperial Japanese Army. “We were attacked by kamikazes every day when we were anchored at Okinawa. Kamikazes were Japanese teenagers who were trained to fly the planes, but not trained to land. They flew planes called Zeros and carried a bomb, intending on crashing into our ships. One day, a Zero was dead aimed at the Rotanin, in exactly the place I was standing on the deck. I had no where to run, so I stood and watched that plane bear down on us. When it was a short distance away, a round hit the bomb he was carrying and his plane exploded in mid-air.” Had that one round not hit the bomb, Leonard wouldn’t be here to tell his story. “I didn’t know it, but God was looking out for me.”
Most of the combat duties Leonard employed aboard the Rotanin was creating smoke screens around the ships. “In the harbor at Okinawa, we placed a smoke pot on the boat and drove around delivering smoke.”
Several stories of shore leave and off duty hours were exchanged during the interview. “I was a sailor, and we have a reputation to maintain. I was no saint in those days.” Truth be told, most of their leave time was uneventful. Usually, they would play softball on the beach and drink beer. Occasionally, they would have liberty at a place where there was some action, but most of the time they had to entertain themselves. “I would pal around with my best buddies, Ed Fly and Jack Brisbin,” he laughed. “We never got into trouble together.” Yeah, right!
If you ever get a chance, a movie was made that commemorates the Rotanin called “Mr. Roberts,” which gives a unique insight into the lives of the sailors on the ship during the war.
After the war, Leonard returned home to New Mexico, where he established himself into the sheet metal trade and made a decent living doing so. In the early 50’s, he attended a church service at Hillcrest Baptist in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he surrendered his life to Jesus. A few years later, he was called to become a pastor. Leonard devoted his energies to being a man of God with the same enthusiasm he gave the war effort.
“Also, I just graduated high school (2006).” After all these years, Hagerman High School invited Leonard back to school, where he received his diploma and addressed the Senior Class of 2006. “It was an honor to share my life with those seniors. They’re good kids and they appreciated what I had to say.”
Leonard, thank you for your service to our country, and thank you for your service to God’s Kingdom. Without men and women like you, we would live under the yolk of slavery.
One final note, Leonard and I had a long discussion about the title of this article. Originally I titled it, Leonard Foster, War Hero. He would have none of it. He insisted that he was not a hero, but an American who responded to his country’s dire need for men to protect our freedoms. I still say he’s a hero!
The first photo is the actual invasion of Attu and the landing craft of the Zeilin. The second is a snapshot of life aboard the Rotanin.