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Leslie R. Stainbrook, 89

Hometown: Kansas City, Mo.

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Rank: Sergeant

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman Badge

Specialty: Paratrooper

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

No way, Les Stainbrook thought, when he received an invitation to become a paratrooper at Camp Forrest in Tennessee.

Nineteen-year-old Leslie R. Stainbrook had no interest in jumping out of airplanes into what would surely be enemy territory during World War II.

He ended up being sweet-talked into the highly hazardous job, but as it turned out, he never got the chance to jump behind enemy lines.

“My platoon leader was Jackson Roach, and he was a very nice guy. He told me that if I signed up as a paratrooper, I would receive 50 extra dollars above my base pay. In those days, my base pay was $78 a month,” Stainbrook says. “He thought I’d be interested in the extra money and that I would do a good job, so I gave in and signed up.”

Stainbrook says his first leap out of an airplane surprised him:

“On my first jump, when the parachute opened up, I said something like, ‘Oh, my God. This is really fun.’ ”

In Europe, he was set to parachute into the Battle of the Bulge in early January 1945, but the jump was canceled because of a low ceiling of clouds and bad weather. Instead, he and fellow members of the Army’s 17th Airborne Division were trucked to the frontlines to assist 101st Airborne Division paratroopers who were surrounded by German forces.

“We drove on trucks piled with ammunition boxes throughout the night, and we didn’t have any idea where we were going,” he says. “When we arrived, the boxes were unloaded, and we went into combat.

“A few days later, I was going up to the top of a small hill to see where the enemy was so that I could tell my men where to direct their fire. An 88-millimeter shell struck me in the chest and knocked me unconscious.

“When I came to, a bunch of my guys were standing around me, and I told them to spread out because if another shell came in, it would kill us all. Most of them moved away, but two or three stayed there with me.

“I stood up, and one of them picked up a shell that had split in half, and we theorized that the round, smooth part of the shell had hit me. If the jagged part had, I wouldn’t be talking about this right now.”

Stainbrook recalls that rather than seek medical attention, he continued fighting.

Later that same day, the company commander took a small group of soldiers aside and asked for a volunteer to retrace their steps to an area they had passed earlier. It looked as if it might be a suitable site to set up camp away from the bullets and artillery shells.

“The commander wanted someone to go back and make sure that it was safe for the rest of the unit,” he says. “I wasn’t that enthused about it, but when nobody volunteered, I said, ‘OK, I’ll go.’ The commander said he would get someone to go with me, and he got a young lad.

“We were put on a jeep, and it took a half-hour, and finally when we got there, the driver gave us a telephone, and he went back to the outfit. My job was to call when we looked around and say if it was safe. We found a one-man foxhole and climbed in it, and I kept calling and calling to report it was safe, but the calls never went through.

“The two of us were in the foxhole, and during the night, there was a German patrol that went by. They were 25 feet from our foxhole. As they were walking, you could hear them whispering and their feet crunching on the snow. We didn’t have any problem, but I told the lad, ‘Give me your grenades,’ which he did, and about a half-hour later, another German patrol went through.

“They were within 12 to 15 feet of our foxhole. I was ready to throw the grenades. I figured that would take out more Germans than shooting a rifle. I didn’t want to start anything. They walked right on by and didn’t see us or acted that way. The next day, I still hadn’t contacted our unit, and we were frozen. I said, ‘We can’t stay here.’ At 10 or 11 in the morning, no one had showed up.

“So we went out the way I thought we drove in and walked down the road and came to a fork, and I took a guess, and it was the right way. As the Good Lord would have it, a while later, I came across a line of GI trucks that were stopped. I knocked on the side door of the last truck and got the lad inside so he could warm up.”

Stainbrook continued farther up the convoy, hoping to find someone he knew, but exhaustion set in, and he asked the driver of another truck to let him in the cab to warm up.

“I told him I was with B Company, and we’d been out all night,” he recalls. “He said they were transporting food to B Company but had to stop because of shelling. I got a meal, and then I was taken to a first-aid station, and they took off my boots. My feet were black up to above my ankles.

“I can’t tell you how, but I was taken to a hospital in Paris and then evacuated to England. I don’t remember leaving the hospital. The only thing I recall is four prisoners of war putting me on a hospital ship. I stayed at the hospital about 2½ months and then returned to my outfit.”

Stainbrook’s feet were never the same, partly lacking sensation and always cold.

After the war in Europe was won in May 1945, he returned home to Western New York on leave and was preparing to head off to Japan for an expected massive invasion when the war in the Pacific ended after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August.

Victory allowed Stainbrook to return to his job at the A&P supermarket in University Plaza. He eventually advanced into the personnel department and continued until the chain closed in this region. He found work with a food broker and later took a job at his church, The Chapel, visiting the sick and those who were homebound, retiring in 2003.

He and his wife, the former Bernice Brunner, raised a daughter, Sandra, and a son, Mark.

With the help of a cane, the 89-year-old veteran says that he is still able to get around on his own.

“I’m glad I can do that much,” he says, expressing gratitude for having survived the war.