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World War II veteran counting down days to 100th birthday

By MIKE CROWLEY | The Meadville Tribune, Pa. | Published: June 6, 2020

HAYFIELD TOWNSHIP (Tribune News Service) — World War II veteran Walter Leonhart – everybody calls him Wally, he says – hasn't been this excited about a birthday in quite some time.

"Seventeen days," he said on Friday. "I'm on a countdown."

Leonhart's daughter, Rebecca Trobee, was well aware of the countdown clock.

"He's got it down to how many days," she said. "Pretty soon he'll have the hours in there."

Leonhart is counting down the days until June 22, when he hits the century mark. His birthday comes one month after he and his wife, Virginia "Ginny" Leonhart, celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary and about a month before Ginny marks a significant milestone of her own – she turns 95 in July.

"He doesn't look like he's 100," daughter Rebecca said. "He's pretty spry for his age.

"And he's pretty proud of it," she added.

When her parents venture out for a meal – "Mom likes to eat out," Trobee said, "and after 77 years, I don't blame her" – Wally will often quiz the servers, asking them how old they think he is.

"They never guess," Trobee said.

They also likely couldn't guess where he was 76 years ago today, 13 months after he and Ginny were married during a brief furlough before Wally was shipped overseas, first to Africa and from there to Italy, where he took part in the Allied forces' Italian Campaign. Over the course of three and a half years as part of the 194th Field Artillery, Leonhart traveled from Naples to Rome and then north through Italy to France and Germany by the time World War II ended.

Leonhart wasn't sure exactly what he was doing on June 6, 1944, when 156,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, in the D-Day assault.

"We were glad, anyhow," Leonhart said of the news of the beginning of the Allies' invasion of western Europe. While the day is best remembered for what was happening in France, it was also a significant moment for fighting in Italy. Just a day earlier, nearly six months of fighting in the Battle of Anzio, in which Leonhart participated, had ended following the Allies' capture of Rome.

"That was bad," Leonhart said of the battle, before downplaying the hardships he faced. "It wasn't like the infantry. Those poor fellows really had it bad."

Even so, Leonhart spent much of his time knee deep in mud, he said, and had several "real close calls."

On one of the infrequent occasions when he was able to catch a ride back to where the quartermaster was stationed for a shower, he returned to his unit to find that German artillery shells had destroyed his tent.

"I was glad I wasn't there," he said.

On another, after sheltering in a foxhole during shelling from the Germans, he again returned to find his pup tent had been riddled by shrapnel.

Later, he said, he saw the Vatican, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and other sights, but his wartime experience "was rough."

"I saw a lot of stuff," he said. "Put it this way: I saw a lot and I wouldn't want to do it again."

The war wasn't a topic that Trobee heard much about from her father when she was a child.

"He doesn't talk too much about it," she said. "If something about the war comes on TV, he'll say, 'I was there.'"

These days, according to Trobee, Leonhart is more likely to be asked about the secret to a long and happy marriage.

"They've always said the secret to that was don't ever go to bed mad," Trobee said.

As for a long life, Leonhart said, "Just good living and everything else, I guess."

A happy marriage was a big part of it, he added – all the more reason he hopes to have Ginny back soon from the rehabilitation center where she's receiving therapy for recent back pain.

"We get along pretty good," he said.

For now, Leonhart said, he has their cat Booboo to keep him company at their Saegertown-area home and help from Trobee and her brother Nevin Leonhart and many friends and neighbors.

He stays busy and watches a few favorite TV shows. "Hogan's Heroes" is one of them, Trobee said, and he's a regular viewer of "Days of Our Lives."

He doesn't have big plans for his birthday despite the countdown.

"Not with all this virus going on," he explained. "I tell you, this is something. I don't know what it's going to do to this country."

With Trobee doing much of their shopping, he and Ginny haven't been eating out recently. Like so many others, they've been staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Leonhart has been keeping up with the news and watching reports of demonstrations and violence following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"That was uncalled for," he said. "I don't care whether he's black or white or what."

Leonhart was just as happy to talk about memories as current events. And people remember him well, Trobee said, particularly as the owner of the Spudnut Shop, a doughnut franchise for years located on North Street.

"Kids used to come in to get a doughnut and then go to school," Leonhart said. "We did a pretty good business."

As he nears 100, Leonhart said he faces some of the health issues that come with longevity: arthritic shoulders and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, despite never having smoked, among other things.

His mobility isn't what it once was, but Leonhart envisions a chance to revisit one of the memories that stands out when he looks back at his first century.

"My wife and I met on roller skates," he said, recalling their visits to a roller rink near Ginny's home in Albion in the early 1940s. "She has her skates and I have mine yet.

"I told Ginny, 'When I die I want my skates to go with me so I can use them up above,'" Leonhart continued. "She said, 'Mine too.'"

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