BY JAMES N. LEAF
I was born in Savannah, Georgia on March 15, 1913. Although my mother always went to New York to deliver her babies, in my case she miscalculated her time and I was her only child born in Savannah. My brother Herbert was 7 years older than I, my sister Ann 3½ years older and my brother Alex 4 years younger.
Most of my memories of my early years come to mind in vague fashion. My father was a southerner from Savannah. He owned three very good saloons and was financially successful and well liked. Occasionally, my father had to go to New York City to buy business supplies, and on one of those trips, he met my mother at a party and immediately fell in love with her. He courted her and they were married in New York. They honeymooned on the Savannah River Line on their way to a beautiful home my father owned in Savannah.
My father also owned a large tract of land on which he built 20 one-family houses. Twenty Seminole Indian families lived there, planting and picking cotton in return for free rent, plus 50% of the profits. They were happy with that arrangement, and it became very lucrative for my father. I played with the Indian kids and learned their style of running and wrestling.
After a few years, my mother convinced my father to sell the saloons and open a department store for men's and women's wares. As a child of four or five, I remember the store in Jacksonville, Florida, which had 22 sales clerks. We then opened stores, one after the other, in many places. Because of moving from time to time, going to school was difficult and most of my schooling was done in rural country schools, where one teacher held three classes at the same time in one room.
I was six years old when a friendly neighbor, Farmer Coffee, offered me a puppy if my mother would give her permission. After pleading with her, she agreed to let me have one with strict orders that the puppy could not go inside the house. While I was waiting for the puppy, the farmer helped me build a doghouse behind our house with a fenced-in runway. Mrs. Coffee must have liked me too, because she was always baking things for me. I took good care of the puppy, whom I called "Tiger," and after a year he grew taller than I. Tiger was a one-person dog. We became very close friends and I taught him many things.
A year after I got Tiger, my father (whom I adored) gave me a sandy colored Shetland pony with a white tail who I immediately named, "Sandy." We had a barn in back of the house where I fixed up a stall for him and my father bought him a silver trimmed saddle. You can imagine my delight. Initially, Sandy and Tiger were jealous of each other and it took a lot of work on my part to change that, but they finally became inseparable. I rode Sandy to school and Tiger was always with us. At school I would take off Sandy's saddle and he and Tiger would roam all over; but when school was out, they were always waiting for me. These two animals became part of me and I had them until I was 12 years old, when my mother convinced my father to move to New York City to be near her family. I was beside myself, because I couldn't take my dog or pony to New York; however, I had a very good friend named Bobby McQuirt, who lived across the road from us and he promised to take good care of Sandy and Tiger.
My father and I were the advance guard designated to go to New York to find a place to live, as well as a store suitable for a dry goods business. When we arrived there, we stayed with one of my mother's brothers so he could show us around. My father and I were like lost sheep, but we took Uncle's advice (which was not the best), and rented a second floor apartment on Lexington Avenue and 100th Street. It had three bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and one bathroom. Visualize four children and mother and father with only one bathroom - such confusion and frustration! I solved the problem by getting up at 5:30 a.m. to beat the rush.
I was sent to Patrick Henry Junior High School. They didn't know what class to put me in, so I took an IQ test and they put me in 9A (equivalent to first year in Junior High School). It didn't take me very long to find out this was the toughest school in Manhattan, with all kinds of gangs. Because I had a southern accent, I was immediately nicknamed "The Rebel." For the first few months, I was chased by two of the gangs but was able to outrun them, thanks to learning how to run Indian style when I was younger.
I got tired of being chased by gangs and one day I stopped, held up my hand and said, "I'll fight the leader of this gang." A big fellow stepped up and said to the gang, "Don't interfere, this won't take long." When he turned around, I butted him in the stomach, got him on the ground, and held both shoulders back with my knee in the small of his back. I said to him, "Tell these fellows to leave me alone or I'll break your back," and he told them, "Leave the Rebel alone, he's O.K." After this incident, word got around and I had no further trouble with the gangs.
After a couple of years, my parents decided to move to the West Bronx, which made us all happy. I transferred to Evander Childs High School, where I was a fairly good student. I was on the cross-country (six-mile) track team, as well as the 400-yard and 800-yard track teams. I also pitched and played center field on the baseball team, and played end on the football team, as well. (Every time I caught a pass, I got tackled because I only weighed 130 lbs.) Afraid I would get injured, my mother made me give up football.
At age 15, I met Anita at a swimming pool in the Bronx and, after keeping company for six years, we got married. Our love lasted and we had a happy marriage for 57 years, until Anita died from Alzheimer's Disease.
When I graduated from Evander Childs, I wanted to join the U.S. Marine Corps., but I was only 17 years old, so my father had to sign for me. I was sent to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. The 13-week boot camp was strenuous, but because of my youth and good physical condition, I found it a little easier than most. On the rifle range, I qualified as an expert rifleman, and in the prone position, I scored ten perfect bulls-eyes in ten rounds. The drill instructor remarked that I was using an unauthorized position. I explained that I learned to shoot in that position because being close to the ground reduced the recoil to the shooter and lessened the tendency to flinch as the trigger was squeezed. I had to show this position to the captain in charge of the range, who tried a few rounds, then was convinced it was better than the way the book recommended. The captain said he would write it up, give me credit, and submit it to the standard operating procedure department.
After boot camp, marines were assigned to squads by their height (to make them look better when they marched). On Wednesdays, we were marched to an area on the parade grounds for exercises. One exercise was the front rank turning to face the rear rank, putting on boxing gloves and going at it. I was nearly six feet tall and weighed 130 lbs., but my opponent weighed about 220 lbs., and knocked me out every week. (Until then, I knew very little about boxing.) The Coach, Sgt. Wigmore (who had coached Gene Tunney), felt sorry for me and asked if I wanted to learn how to fight properly, and I told him I did.
Each morning, before breakfast. we ran four miles to develop strong legs. He then taught me combination boxing - how to hit right, and how to read your opponent's next move by watching his eyes. After four months, the coach told me I was ready. The following week, I put on the gloves against the same fellow as before. We sparred for a short while, then I went after him and knocked him out. Sgt. Wigmore told me I had done a good job and said he hadn't realized I had a killer instinct! He asked me if I would like to get on the boxing team and I said I would.
He went to see our Company Commander, a Captain, told him about me and reminded him that the boxing team hadn't had a lightweight (130 to 155 lbs.) in two years. The Captain asked if I was that good and the Sergeant said I was. The Captain said in order to be on the boxing team I'd have to be promoted, so he was making me a Buck Sergeant immediately. Sgt. Wigmore told me to move my belongings into the building with the boxing team and take all my shirts and jackets to the tailor for Buck Sergeant stripes. Finally, he said, "Don't let me down."
The entire boxing team consisted of about 300 marines and, as amateurs, fought only four rounds at a time. We ate in a special section of the mess hall and were fed differently from the others. We were assigned to a cruiser, and Cuba was the first port. A Cuban lightweight, "Kid Chocolate," was my first opponent. (In later years, Kid Chocolate became well known as a professional fighter.) Sgt. Wigmore told me not to worry, that the guy had a glass jaw, to play around with him and at the first opening, hit him with a left, right, and another left, right to the jaw. I did as I was told and knocked him out in the first round. After that, the boxing team accepted me as one of their own, although I wasn't yet 18 years old.
On this cruise we stopped in six ports, where the boxing team did well and none of us lost a fight. My tour in the Marines lasted four years, not all of which was boxing. However, wherever we were sent, the whole team went together and we had to train. We spent four months at Cape Haitian in the hills of Haiti, where the natives were raiding American businesses and raping American women. Our job was to put an end to that, which we did.
Another time, we spent four months in Nicaragua, chasing a bandit called "Sandito." We never caught him, but he left the country and didn't come back. On another occasion, we spent five months in Peking, China protecting American interests from marauding Mongolian bandits who raided cities and molested women. These Mongolians were about seven-foot tall, rode desert ponies and were armed with scimitars and pistols. Our orders were to patrol with a partner, not to let them get too close, and to shoot them. We were all happy when we were relieved and sent home.
I was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. but when I got home, it was the middle of the Depression and I couldn't find work - not even the pick and shovel variety. A friend of mine told me I was a good amateur fighter and should turn professional. He took me to a friend of his at the YMCA on Lexington Avenue in New York City and told her about my Marine background. She took my picture, changed my name to Jimmy Dugan, got me a PBA membership and arranged a free locker for me at Stillman's Gym on Eighth Avenue. She then got me $10/round sparring with the other boxers, which was also good exercise and experience. Then she arranged six rounds for me every Friday night at the St. Nicholas Arena for $250, and after I became better known, I was often offered six rounds at Madison Square Garden on Saturday nights for $500. I did this for two years before I decided to quit boxing.
I went to work at Commercial Bank on Wall Street and Anita and I got married. After working for the bank for 11 years, Pearl Harbor was bombed and a week later, I was drafted into the Army. I took all the tests and was assigned to the 29th Infantry Division, the 20th Blue and Grey, as a combat engineer and was sent to boot camp at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. When they found out I was an ex-marine Buck Sergeant, I was made a Buck Sergeant in the Army. After boot camp we were sent to Camp Dix, New Jersey, then we shipped out on the Queen Mary - her first trip from the United States to Scotland - then on to England.
We were stationed in many places, including Wales, where we trained for the Normandy Invasion. We were in England for 20 months and some of us trained with the British commandos for about five months. By that time I was a platoon leader, but only instructors had rank in the British Commandos. While learning Jujitsu, one instructor went for my eyes, but I ducked and hit him with a left-right combination and knocked him out. Another instructor ran over and asked why I did it. I said I was a trained boxer and when he went for my eyes, I was only defending myself.
We were sent back to our outfits to get our equipment ready for the Normandy Invasion. We were briefed on the beaches and told it would be a difficult landing, but they didn't tell us combat engineers would land first! All combat engineers embarked on an LST on June 5, 1944, but because of bad weather, we weren't able to land on Omaha Beach until June 6. Our division, the 29th, and Big Red, the 1st Division, (with detachments from Army Rangers) landed at 6:00 a.m. D-Day. We faced machine guns and mortars that zeroed in on the beach, falling out of the sky without any warning. At the very top of the hill, German 88s (cannons) were trained on the beach. We lost a lot of men.
The objective of the combat engineers was to get to the sea wall and blow a hole big enough for our tanks to get through. These tanks were trapped on the beach with no place to go, but they shot their cannons at the 88s on the hill, which helped us some. We had no air coverage because of the bad weather. Our Navy boats in the channel were shooting at whatever they could beyond the seawall, and this helped a little. We finally got to the seawall, formed three teams and used prima cord to blow three holes in the seawall big enough for our tanks to get through. I got my first Purple Heart just beyond the seawall when a Nazi soldier stood up in a shell hole and shot me in the hand (I still have the scars). I was carrying a Tommy Gun and shot him in half, then took the Luger he fired at me and brought it home. I eventually wound up with seven Lugers, not the cheaper P38, and my Colonel gave me federal permits for all of them.
We then proceeded through the Normandy hedgerows to Vierville Sur-Mer to rest, clean our weapons and equipment, reorganize and receive whatever replacements they sent us. When we reached there, the Normans greeted us with Calvados, a drink made of native apples and three times stronger than our applejack. Normandy in June is pretty cold, but Calvados is like liquid fire, and really warmed us up. In return, we gave them C-rations and D-rations - very hard dark chocolate bars that you cannot bite, or break with your hands, but have to cut with a knife.
The 29th Infantry Division's next assignment was to take the city of St. Lô, which was occupied by two German divisions of SS troops. Each company and platoon were given their attack assignments and my platoon was to go in at the southwest corner of the city. We synchronized our watches, fixed our bayonets and had our combat knives ready, and I carried my usual Tommy Gun. I told the platoon, "No noise, no talking - just follow me and don't stop for anything until we break through."
We got to the center of the city and set up our machine guns, automatic rifles and riflemen, then the rest of the battalion joined us and set up a defense. There was no counterattack, and we almost wiped out the Nazi SS troops. Those that survived dropped their weapons and surrendered. It was in this battle that we lost our battalion major, and I lost 11 men from my platoon, plus a few also had minor cuts and bruises. I couldn't believe that I got through it without being injured.
We were then ordered to a place in Holland for three days for R and R (Rest and Rehabilitation). We replaced lost or broken equipment, had showers and were given clean underwear. Our battalion (combat engineers) was split up into ten small units, and ten men were assigned to me to hold a position near the front lines. This became the story of the "Well House," (written up in a Dutch newspaper) about Sgt. James Leaf, and how we held this position against big odds and were finally rescued just before we ran out of ammunition. I was awarded a second Purple Heart there.
The next major battle was on the Ruhr River in Germany in February 1945. This was the breakthrough of the German Tiger tanks. Our objective was to cross the river and take the fortified fortress of Julich. We put up three pontoon bridges to enable men and equipment to cross the river. One of my men fell off the pontoon bridge and I had to dive in and help him across. It was February and very cold. We finally entered the fortress, built a fire and got out of our wet clothes and shoes. The next day there was a counterattack during which I earned my third Purple Heart. We also helped reinforce the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River.
Our next assignment was to ferry the Russians across the Elbe River, outside of Berlin. It had been agreed that the Russians would go in first and take the credit. The Russians really stripped Berlin; they even took trolley car tracks and pavement blocks. They were a raggedy bunch of soldiers which included women, as well as men. This was actually the end of the fighting for us.
The remainder of the 29th Division was sent to Camp Lucky Strike in France. Once there, we were ordered to march our men for practically the entire day. I would march my platoon out of sight of the camp, where we rested until lunch time, returned for lunch, then rested again until time for supper. After supper, some of the fellows went into town, but most of the older guys caught up on letters home.
To be eligible to go fly home, 120 points were required, or 85 points to get on a ship. (Points were allotted for combat time, time in service, and certain medals.) I had about 145 points, so I asked about a plane, but none were available. We all signed up to go home on the next available ship and three days later, we left on a small Grace Line cruise ship, the "Santa Rosa." This ship was equipped to handle 200 passengers during peace time, but during the war years it was stripped and all the furnishings were removed, and 1500 soldiers boarded for home. Each platoon (about 65 soldiers) was assigned a small compartment with a single toilet and sink. We went down to the hold where we found the pads normally used on the deck chairs and took enough to cover the entire floor in our compartment. Now everyone had room to either sit or lie down!
The next morning a Captain (I knew he wasn't combat) came to our compartment, asked for the Sergeant in charge and I stood up. He said to the men, "Don't you come to attention when an officer enters the room?" I reminded him that the war was over and these were seasoned combat engineers who just wanted to get home and get out of the Army. The captain replied that he was putting them on KP duty for the rest of the trip and I advised him not to try that, that the men still had loaded weapons and might not hesitate to use them. He left and we never saw him again.
The trip home took seven days and by the third day, most of the fellows in our compartment were seasick and couldn't look at food. I distributed a box of oranges and showed them how to carve a hole in the top, then squeeze the orange and suck the juice. By the fifth day, they all felt better and were able to eat. The ship finally pulled into a New Jersey harbor on September 15, 1945.
Trucks were waiting for us at the dock to take us to Camp Dix where we were examined by doctors. I signed my release papers, they gave me a Ruptured Duck (indicating an Honorable Discharge) and my demobilization papers and awarded me an 8% disability. My wedding anniversary was on September 22, and I wanted to get home before that. I asked who was heading for New York City and would like to share the cost of a cab, and three of them raised their hands. I found a cab driver who agreed to take the four of us to our homes in New York City for $40, and we climbed in.
Although it was 2:00 a.m. when I arrived home, Anita must have heard the cab door slam, because she was waiting at the door for me. I'll never forget how happy I was to see her after more than four years. When I left for the army, Anita went to work at Commercial Bank, which was the Company policy. We decided we would both take a two-week vacation before I went back to work, and when I returned to my job at Commercial, they took Anita off the payroll.
After being back at Commercial for more than a year, I spoke with the Vice President and asked him why I had not been promoted. He told me when an officer either left or died, I was next in line. I reminded him that I had worked for them over 11 years, taken all the banking courses offered and they had always complimented my work. Then I gave him two weeks notice.
I went to work for the Cosmopolitan Mutual Insurance Company in the Workmen's Compensation Department. I had only just begun when Melvin Worth, the Claims Manager, gave me an important death claim from the Plymouth Laundry to investigate, with an open expense account. I read the file and went to Police Headquarters to meet with the Detective Sergeant in charge of the case. I took him to lunch and handed him $100. He thanked me, showed me his file and told me we would get along fine. He suggested I start by seeing the deceased's widow, who lived in Harlem.
When I rang the bell, a big man answered the door and asked what I wanted. I introduced myself and told him I might be able to help the widow. He invited me in and the so-called widow was in bed, drinking gin, almost too drunk to talk. Another man in the room said he was a friend of hers and volunteered the information that she hadn't been married to the deceased, that there weren't any children and, at the present time, she was his girlfriend. I wrote it all down, got their names and addresses, thanked them and left.
The next day I met the Detective again and we compared information, He called me the following day and said they had arrested the two murderers. When Mr. Worth read my report, he complimented my work and made me a full-fledged investigator. He also held me up as an example to the rest of the department.
The Company only assigned three cases a day to its investigators and I was usually finished with my work by 11:00 a.m. I would have lunch, then go back to the office and read the files to find out the disposition of the cases. I learned a lot and after I was in the field for a year, Mr. Worth promoted me to Claims Examiner.
After being a Claims Examiner for about a year, I got a good raise in salary, another promotion to Assistant Claims Manager and my own secretary. A little over a year later, Mr. Worth was promoted to full Vice President and I was promoted to Claims Manager. Three years later, Mr. Worth told me I was good officer material, but Company policy dictated a college degree and said the Company would subsidize all expenses if I went back to school. I agreed and registered for the next session at the College of Insurance.
Five years later, I received my diploma and my wife suggested I go for my Masters. I was touched, because I knew it had been difficult for her, as well. Again the Company agreed to subsidize my Masters, and I was promoted to Assistant Vice President, my salary doubled, and I moved to the Executive Floor. The routine of working every day and going to school at night continued for two more years and I was the highest scoring student. When I received my Master's, I was one of only four that passed (with a score of 98.4) the State Regents exam. The following week, the Board voted unanimously for my promotion to full Vice President of the Company and that my salary was doubled again.
I assumed the duties of Chairman of the Finance Committee and created a pension plan that would fully vest all employees after 16 continuous years of employment with the Company. I also examined our financial investments and planned a safe, diversified portfolio of investments for $30 million. At the end of the first year, we showed a $3 million profit from the investments. That year we initiated a Christmas bonus plan and my share was a $10,000 bond.
I was working harder than ever and my best friend (the Medical Director at the Company) told me that after almost 30 years there, I was under too much stress and suggested I retire before I had a breakdown. Anita and I took stock of our financial situation and considered the fact that we already owned scot-free, a lovely condominium at the Bermuda Club in South Florida and decided it was time.
Mr. Worth had died, so I gave my notice to the new President of the Company. I had no concern about the pension plan because I had written it, but found out belatedly that it had been re-written by another Vice President of the Company, changing the vesting rights for full eligibility from 16 to 30 years. I had estimated that my pension benefits would be $1,000 per month for the rest of my life, but when they figured my pension benefits, I was short of 30 years by 3 months, making me ineligible for fully vested rights and my pension only came to $195 per month. I appealed to the new President, but he told me, "You gave notice before you were fully vested, and that's how it stands." I was furious and consulted with a good labor attorney, but he told me I wouldn't win in court. I had no choice but to accept this, and I left Cosmopolitan.
So Anita and I retired to our large two-bedroom, two-bath corner condominium. It was a brand new condominium with a lovely recreation hall for all types of activities, four swimming pools, two tennis courts and two miles of lagoons. Everyone had a water view and there was plenty of big mouth bass and other kinds of edible fish. We were very happy there until Anita developed Alzheimer's disease from which she suffered for 10½ years until she died on May 6, 1992. It was devastating to us, both emotionally as well as financially. (We received no help from Medicare or any other assistance, and for the final 7½ years, I had a sleep-in nurse's aid five days/week at $450.) I still miss Anita, but have learned to carry on.
I joined a support group for Alzheimer's and met a lovely lady, Fannie Auerbach, (whose husband also died from Alzheimer's disease) and we have been constant companions for over six years. Fanny lives in Building 7 of the Bermuda Club - only a few minutes from Building 23, where I live.
In April 2000, I became President of the Condominium Association of the Bermuda Club (27 buildings and 972 apartments). I was more or less drafted for the job as the previous President, a retired schoolteacher, was a dictator and heartily disliked by most.
I finally met my grandnephews' families in 1998 and was delighted. They seem to love me and accept me as family, and I surely love them. So shalom, auf weidersehn, au revoir, adios and so long for now. I hope to be able to continue for a few more years.
JAMES N. LEAF