Biography of James "Jim" McLeod
T/Sgt, Engineer, 101st Abn, USA
When I was young, living with my Aunt and Uncle, it always puzzled me why Uncle Jim screamed in his sleep. He was a big man, and soft-spoken during the day, but every night, he shouted . . . grunted . . . thrashed around in his bed . . . and yes, screamed . . . all while he was asleep. The reality of what happened to him in WWII, was never discussed, and that puzzled me too. As a curious kid, I remember asking him about the War many times, and I got used to the typical response of, "you don't want to know". And, to this day, 37 years after he died, I still get the shakes, remembering the last time he and I talked.
I'm sure Uncle Jim knew he was near the end, on that balmy summer evening in 1961. I was home on leave from the Air Force, and he had come to see me, and visit with the family. He and I were "propped up", as he used to say, against the bed of his pick-up, sipping a Tropical Ale, his favorite. During that four hours we spent alone together, the power, and unbelievable dimension of what he experienced in the War, poured out of him like a river.
I can attest to the fact that Spielberg has been inside Uncle Jim's mind. The blood, body parts, smell and sounds were there, on the screen, just like he had described it to me. The harsh reality of how bad it was, became clear, after all these years. Of course I believed my Uncle, as he fumbled for words, and at one point, casually described driving his Big Caterpillar Tractor onshore. The unspeakable horror of that moment caused him to stammer, choke up, and as he continued, he cried profusely. The tears and words ran together, as he described trying to avoid running over the bodies in the water and on the beach. He seemed to be pleading for forgiveness, as he talked about hearing groans from some of those "bodies" he had to run over. He said, "I'm sure I put some of those poor bastards out of their misery". (It took him about two minutes to get that line out, through the choking, coughing and sobbing.) All the while, there was the overpowering presence of hundreds . . . thousands of bullets tearing through the air, all around him, within an inch of his ear, bouncing off parts of the big Caterpillar. There was no time to think about why he made it through to the shore, even though he saw all his Buddies buy it.
Uncle Jim was, as I remember it, an Engineer, attached to the 101st Airborne. He was driving one, of twelve big Cats ashore, in the second wave, at Omaha Beach. The machines, the biggest made at the time, had been "water-proofed", since they couldn't get the landing craft really close to shore. On the way in to the beach, he saw several of the twelve Cats take direct hits from German Artillery. Several others, were swamped in the surf. When Uncle Jim made it to the waters edge, there was plenty of blood, lots of parts of soldiers, plenty of whole ones dying, the air full of lead, and none of his buddies on the other Cats. For quite some time, he was driving the only piece of really heavy equipment on the beach. Through the sobbing, his voice breaking again, he said, "I don't know how in the Hell I'm still alive".
Over the next several days, he had plenty of work to do. Through all of it, he remembered the continued "pings", and "pops" of the bullets hitting his Cat, and all around him. He bulldozed several alley-ways up from the beach, for equipment and men to pour through. He pushed disabled equipment out of the way, and he had to deal with literally tons of bodies.
During this time, Uncle Jim was a Tech Sargeant. He had already been to Hell and back, in North Africa. A couple of days after D-Day, he worked on mass burial, digging huge open graves with his Cat. A hundred feet long, and as wide as the Bulldozer blade, the graves ultimately held Allies and Axis alike. The bodies, and parts of bodies were pilled high, and he simply used the blade to push them into the huge rectangular hole in the ground. He tried, but couldn't describe the smell. He moved around the pit with his Cat, pushing dirt over the piles of bodies, and as he was nearly finished with the first "grave", a Captain came up to his machine. The Captain told him to "drive over it, and pack it down". Uncle Jim said "No". "That's a direct order McLeod, drive over it, and pack it down", the Captain snapped. Uncle Jim put the throttle at idle, took the big machine out of gear, and stepped down in front of the Captain. "No way", is all he said, as he walked away. My easy going Uncle was never able to explain why he "just couldn't drive over" the grave-site.
He also tearfully, and hesitantly related how at other time in the war some young, gung-ho Officers were taken out by their own men. Seems the sensible young Officers "attached" themselves to an older NCO, and put their rank in their pocket, while they learned the ropes. Sadly, a few were overexcited about their assigned rank, and tried to exercise it in the wrong places. He told me that when no-one could make a young lieutenant understand the stupidity of storming a strong German position, he was relieved of command, permanently, by his own men.
Uncle Jim made it through the War, but it never left him. He made it into France, and was one of the unlucky ones surrounded at Bastogne. He definitely gave us more than his share of the effort, for just one man. I believe the last talk we ever had, that day in '61, helped. As hard as it was for him, I know he wanted to tell me what it was like at Normandy, on June 6th. It was way beyond anyone's ability to understand, unless you were there.
----- James "Jim" McLeod's Nephew, Mel Turner
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