ENID, Okla. — Ernest Leierer’s 22nd birthday started out like any other day at his Army Air Corps Base in England. By the end of that day, Leierer was in France, in Eisenhower’s “Great Crusade” to liberate Europe.
Leierer, now 97, of Enid, Okla., found himself in the war the same way as many other young men. He enlisted after Pearl Harbor, following the footsteps of his older brother, who would fight with the 3rd Marine Division in the invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Two younger brothers followed, to serve in the Army and Navy.
Leierer was assigned by the Army Air Corps to serve with the 16th Depot Repair Squadron of the 29th Air Depot Group, repairing combat gliders and troop transport planes, primarily the C-47 Skytrain.
After training for almost two years stateside, Leierer and his comrades set sail Oct. 6, 1943, aboard the USAT J. W. McAndrew out of Boston Harbor, bound for England, and the war.
He said the passage was long, as the troop transport sailed in a zig-zag pattern to avoid Nazi U-boats, and the weather was rough.
“I was seasick every night and every day of all those nine days,” Leierer said.
The men landed at the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, then went on to an airbase in England, where they remained until D-Day. Leierer said he and his fellow airmen knew the invasion was coming at some point, but the timing was a closely held secret.
They had a hint, he said, when all their passes to leave base were cancelled for 10 days leading up to the invasion.
“We knew something was going to happen, because they’d always restrict us to base whenever there was going to be a big jump,” Leierer said.
He found out what that big jump was going to be on the morning of his 22nd birthday — June 6, 1944, D-Day.
On that day, Leierer was serving as a clerk for his unit, and was just walking into the office for a typical day of work when his routine was disrupted.
“These two guys came up to me, and they said, ‘Pack your duffle bag, we’re leaving,'” Leierer said.
He gathered his gear and was bundled into a Jeep and driven to the airstrip, where he joined the other men from his unit in boarding troop planes and gliders. As each man boarded the plane, he was handed a now-famous mimeographed letter from Eisenhower, telling them their destination.
“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months,” Eisenhower wrote in the letter to his troops. “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
“That was handed to me as we got on the airplane,” Leierer said. “Until then, we didn’t even know D-Day was taking place.”
Leierer said he and the other men already had resigned themselves to taking part in the invasion, and it was almost a relief when it finally came.
“By 8:30 a.m. we were onboard the airplane, headed for the coast for the invasion,” Leierer said. “We didn’t know what it was until then, but the good Lord was with us. It was our duty to do what we were supposed to do. We weren’t afraid or anything.”
The unit arrived in France after the initial landings, to establish a repair depot for cargo planes and gliders damaged in the assault and ongoing operations. They were spared taking part in direct combat, but arrived in time to see the carnage, on both sides, of D-Day.
Leierer said he relives that day each birthday, recalling especially those who gave their lives in the invasion.
“I can remember every step of that day, D-Day, because it was my birthday,” he said.
His unit remained headquartered at Beauvais, France, for 17 months, repairing airplanes used as the Allies pushed through German defenses, through the Battle of the Bulge, on their way to German capitulation on May 8, 1945.
Through all that time, Leierer said he was spared any injury, or the need to kill. His brothers, likewise, escaped the war unharmed, a blessing Leierer attributes to God.
“All four of us boys were in the military at the same time, and not one of us had a wound,” he said. “The good Lord was with us through all that, and kept us from having any problems.”
Leierer’s unit was preparing to head to the Philippines for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.
He got out of the service Dec. 5, 1945, and went on to a 27-year career in ministry before retiring in his hometown.
Looking back on the events of his 22nd birthday, and all the fighting, killing and dying, that has taken place since, Leierer has a dim view of war.
“All war does is destroy property and kill people,” Leierer said. “No good comes of war. It makes some people rich, but that’s about it.”