Seventy-seven years after World War II, Leslie (Les) D. Ames is sitting in the living room of his South China home recalling the December 7, 1941, radio broadcast that changed his life.
“I can remember that day as clear as yesterday. I was still in high school. You knew things weren’t ever going to be the same,” he said. Pearl Harbor had just been bombed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan. “A few of my classmates left right after the announcement,” he said.
His draft notice arrived on his 18th birthday, February 18, 1943, but three deferrals allowed him to graduate from high school before reporting for service in the Army. He enlisted June 22, 1943, at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and reported to Camp Croft, South Carolina, for 17 weeks of Infantry Basic training.
Four weeks into basic training, he was accepted into the Air Corps Flying Cadet program in Lynchburg, Virginia. “The Air Force had more planes than pilots,” Les recalled. In March 1944, his flight training came to an end when he received a telegram from General “Hap” Arnold, commanding general U.S. Army Air Force, saying, “You are further relieved from Air Force training for the convenience of the government.”
There were too many pilots and infantry divisions were needed for the escalating ground war in Europe. Assigned to the 78th Infantry Division, attached to the 310th Infantry Battalion, October 1944, found him on a Liberty ship headed to England and spending a month in the English coastal resort town of Bournemouth, practicing amphibious landings in preparation for a beach landing at Le Havre, France.
Heading north through France, Belgium and into Germany toward Aachen, he told of traveling on mud roads and along hedgerows so thick a tank would stand on end when it tried to penetrate the dense growth along the road. He spoke of the constant cold, of having no shelter from the winter weather, of K-rations instead of hot meals and of the increasing incidents of trench foot that made walking painful and difficult for the soldiers.
Wounded on January 7, 1945, when a piece of metal shrapnel went through his right arm severing bones, nerves and tendons before lodging between two of his right ribs, he was evacuated from the battlefield through France to England and eventually back to Fort Devens, where he had joined the army two years before. Thirteen months after his injury, a surgical team from Walter Reed Hospital reconstructed his right arm. “It (the surgery) was very successful, although it left me with my right arm 3/4 of an inch shorter than the left which plays heck with my golf game,” he said. After medical discharge in August 1946 he attended the University of Maine under the veteran rehabilitation program graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering.
His medals for service during World War II’s Ardennes, Rhineland and Germany Campaigns include the Purple Heart, the Bronze star and the Combat Infantryman Badge. Displayed in the same shadow frame is the piece of shrapnel that ended his battlefield experience.
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