Monday, December 8, 2008

Leonard Foster, An American

“Sometimes I just stood there and thought of how lucky I was to be alive.”

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.

24 comments:

Jessica said...

Hi Travis,
Thank you for stopping by my blog earlier. I'll definitely check out that link.
The scenery in your profile pic is incredible!
Congrats on your book. :-)

Sarah said...

Hi Travis,

Great World War II story. I see that you write fiction, but do you write much nonfiction? You seem good at it.

By the way, nice to meet you!

Travis said...

Jessica,
Thanks for visiting. The scenery in the photo is from the Sacramento Mountains near Ruidoso, New Mexico on Sierra Blanca Mountain. It's very pretty there and that was close to 11,000 feet. It's part of the Southern Rocky Mountains.

Sarah-
I excel in Christian short stories. Unfortunately, there is little market for such pleasantries. Once in a while I will do a non-fiction article about a war vet or a topic that really sets me off. I've never written anything in non-fiction that is worth publishing. I will pass my autobiography to my children, but that will only be of interest to them. Thanks for stopping by! I'm certain I will run into you again.

Amy Deardon said...

Will, what a great biography! Thank you for sharing this. How do you know Leonard?

We need to remember how people before us have sacrificed so we can use our ipods and blackberries.

Travis said...

Thanks, Amy. Leonard is a friend of mine from church. I intend to interview all the vets in the church and post their stories periodically. I am eternally grateful to that generation for extending our freedoms with the blood they sacrificed. His story seemed appropriate in observance of Pearl Harbor Day.

lynnrush said...

Wow, what a great posting, Travis. Amazing story. You're right, Amy, we need to stay thankful to all those who serve and are serving.

Thanks for the post, Travis.

Mrs. Travis (aka Sarah) said...

Great article sweetie...Leonard is an excellent man and I am grateful for his service.

Great idea to interview the vets from church...I find their stories fascinating.

Avily Jerome said...

Wow, what a great story! Thanks for sharing that, Travis!

Thank you for your service, Leonard!

Rosslyn Elliott said...

I love your project of interviewing the vets. I'll be delighted to see more.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Tagged you, my friend. See my blog for details.

Dave said...

So, are we going to get a part two with Leonard's story?

I spent some time with Leonard today and told him you had put this up. His first response, "He didn't title it a 'Leonard Foster: War Hero' did he?"

Leonard, it may not be titled that, but we can still think it.

Travis said...

I think I will always view Leonard as a hero. I pointed out to him that I'd rather my kids think of him in that regard rather than a football player or a movie star. Of course, a true hero will never see themselves in that light. It's part of what makes them a hero!

I was hoping you would have a chance to point the story out to him, as I've been a bit stretched thin lately, and I won't be around this coming weekend.

Dave said...

He had misplaced your blog address, but I gave it to him yesterday while at his house. I wouldn't be surprised if he's read it by now.

Ray Foster said...

Travis,
I'm Ray Foster, Leonard's youngest son. I'm currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia, working as Country Manager for a US Manufacturing company. I just read your article on Dad. I was very moved, and shall I say, educated, as this is the first time I've heard many parts of his story. Dad has always kept those stories under wraps, I believe because he is very humble about his war service experiences, and possibly for other, more personal reasons. At any rate, thanks for caring and sharing about my Dad, as well as your interest in our veterans. I look forward to reading more interesting stories.

Travis said...

Ray-
Thanks for stopping by. I can tell you that your father is enormously proud of his family, because I sat and listened to him talk about ya'll. It was men like your father that made our lives today possible. We can never do enough to thank them. Check in with me periodically, I do try to post a story about a vet every so often.

Anonymous said...

Hi Travis, I am Lisa Lariviere, Leonard Foster's Granddaughter from Phoenix, Arizona. This is a beautiful story about a man I have known to be my hero since my birth. We all love him and are honored that you have taken the time to chronicle his life. We have been blessed to have such an amazing Grandfather, swinging us in the air like airplanes as children and guiding us like an angel as adults. You are a gifted writer and I want to thank you for sharing this wonderful story with us and your readers.

Travis said...

Lisa,
Thanks for stopping by and for taking time to leave a comment. There are so many people who grow up with having a Leonard in their lives. I think you and I can both call ourselves blessed.
Travis

Anonymous said...

Hi Travis,

My name is Brian Foster and I am currentley stationed at Fort Drum, NY and Leonard is my Grandfather. I never new any of this about my Grandfather. It is amazing to hear for the first time. I feel honored to be in the Armed Forces today because of men like him and his son Jim Foster (Vietnam). These are the men we need to remember everyday WWII and Vietnam were truely unsung heroes.

Travis said...

Brian,
You are right, of course. And those unsung heros of Vietnam need not be forgotten. I hope to focus on those vets in the future. Perhaps Jim will be willing to share his story with me next time he's in the area.

Thank you for your service to our country. Heaven help us without men like you to hold the line.

sharilyn said...

great story! thanks for sharing!

sharilyn said...

ok. wow. i just read the comments and those from Leonard's family members. wow. that is so wonderful that they get to see their grandfather through outside eyes! what a blessing! i'm so glad you wrote the story, even if only for them alone!!

Travis said...

I agree, Sharilyn. It is very important to tell these stories. There are so many more to tell--I just need more time!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to listen and write about your friend Leonard.
Like his family, my farther Robert Martin did not express much about the war and his exploits. I am just now learning about his life in the Navy. He also was stationed on The USS Rotanin, and served as an electrician.
I would truly love to know more about just what it was like during those trying times on the ship. If you could add more about this story it would be greatly appreciated
Tom Martin/Son of Bob Martin

Travis said...

Please forgive me for not responding to this comment earlier. I was traveling and the email became buried underneath a lot of other emails.

I'm sorry, but I don't have anymore information on the USS Rotanin that what Mr. Foster shared with me. I'm truly grateful for what those men did for us during the war. We would be lost without them!