Odell Resident Celebrates His 102nd Birthday
Aboard The USS Yorktown, His Home During WWII
by Brandon LaChance
World War II structured the world as we know it when the Allies and the Axis Powers unleashed guns, tanks, ships and other equipment over world issues from 1939-to-1945.
Through the war, many memories, nightmares and triumphs were created to tell stories and pass on from generation to generation.
Unfortunately, as time moves on, some of the original storytellers can no longer tell their WWII memoirs.
Then there is Art Leach (102), who is still here sharing his tales.
“Art is an icon; an absolute icon in what we do. I’ve sat down with Art many, many times. He has a tremendous sense of humor,” said Dean Peterson, the Chairman and CEO of the USS Yorktown CV-10 Association. “He’s such a spry spirit. We all just love him to death. Art is full of stories. His mind still works so well. He is as sharp as could be.
“Art doesn’t only represent himself, he represents the entire group of pilots who flew off of the USS Yorktown. Sitting down with these guys and listening to what they went through, I could listen to them forever. Art is in that category. He has his own unique tales about his experiences. It’s very interesting. You’ll hear things from him that you won’t hear from anyone else.”
Leach, who received the Proclamation of Art Leach Day on May 1, 2020 by the Village of Odell, was a Navy pilot who flew off of the aircraft carrier, USS Yorktown CV-10, during WWII.
The veteran retold his fabled tales during the 73rd USS Yorktown Reunion on April 4-6 in Mount Pleasant, SC. The ship, which was used in WWII, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War, is one of five aircraft carrier museums in the United States and the flagship for the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum.
Leach also ate a huge piece of birthday cake as the Yorktown Association helped the vet celebrate his 102nd birthday, which is May 1.
“It was special and I appreciate them for thinking about my birthday,” Leach said. “They had a nice cake and there were a lot of people on board who participated. They did it during the meet and greet program, which I like visiting with all of the visitors. I do the meet and greet every time I go. It’s always a joy. It’s quite an honor to be recognized.”
“The reunions are fun. When an air group goes aboard a carrier, they just eat and sleep on it. They don’t have any other duties aboard. Everyone else has a job. Consequently, you don’t know the people until the reunions when you get to meet them and talk to them.”
Peterson, who has been to each of the last 20 reunions and was a crew member during the Vietnam War, said the WWII veterans used to own the three-day festivity.
This year, of the 150 people present, there was only one.
“I was the only WWII guy at the reunion this year. That’s the first time that’s ever occurred,” Leach said. “It made me feel a little weird. We had 105 pilots in my air group. There are only two of us still alive. There is one guy down in Florida and then me.
“A lot of memories come back to me when I go to the reunions. It still has all of the airplanes that I flew. Of course, there are some I didn’t fly, as well. Admiral (James) Flatley is still around and comes out. He is the third Flatley admiral in the Navy. He flew a B25 off of the Yorktown.”
Leach graduated from Morris High School in 1938 and from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1942. Two days after his college graduation, he was in a uniform enlisting as a pilot in the Navy.
He went to school and pilot training at the University of Iowa, St. Louis, Pensacola, Florida, and Miami over 11 months before he graduated and received his wings.
After his Navy graduation, Leach found himself in Glenview practicing aircraft carrier landings on Lake Michigan, San Diego, Seattle, Whidbey Island (Puget Sound), Pasco, Washington, and the Hawaiian Islands.
During the war while aiming at Japanese fighter planes, Leach called the Yorktown home.
The Yorktown CV-10, the 10 means it is the 10th aircraft carrier built for the U.S. Navy, was the successor to the Yorktown CV-5 that was sunk by the Navy after the Japanese inflicted a lot of damage.
The CV-10 then helped the cause in three different wars.
“I was on it when the ship was deployed to Vietnam when the Vietnam War started. I made 2½ deployments during the Vietnam War,” Peterson said. “The half is because one of them was after we had just returned from the 1965 deployment. We were sitting at the pier in Long Beach and we got notice that we were going to go back to Vietnam within three or four days. We did do that. We called it the Magic Carpet Tour.
“In Vietnam, they were running out of airplanes and parts. We left Long Beach and went to San Diego and filled the ship with brand new airplanes and new parts. We dropped off the load in the Philippines and picked up shot-up airplanes and brought them back to the states. All of this happened in about three weeks. That’s why I say I made 2½ deployments.”
The stories, the memories, the life experiences no one can relive are abundant during the USS Yorktown reunions.
Leach, Peterson, and all of the ship’s veterans want you to know the history so those same stories and memories stay alive.
“I tell people that we’re in the business of memories. Our challenge is to remember memories, especially for our WWII crew members which many of them are now gone, and bring them forward. Art is a really big part of that,” said Peterson. “The Yorktown is very well known for the WWII history. That’s one of our primary tasks.
“Today, we’re into making memories. That has to do with the crew members that are left, plus what we call legacy members. Legacy members are members who’s father, uncle, grandfather, great uncle, or great grandfather served on the USS Yorktown. That legacy group is growing for us. They’re now coming to the reunions and making new memories.”
Brandon LaChance is a journalist with The Paper. He can be reached at 815-876-7941, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @LaChanceWriter.