PDT Staff Writer
William W. "Bill" Leesburg, a 1940 graduate of Portsmouth East High School, is 86 now and alive and well and living in Washington State, and that in itself must be considered a miracle.
From October 1944 until April 1945, he flew a B-24 on 31 bombing missions over Germany to help turn Adolph Hitler's dream of ruling the world into a nightmare.
He was a member of the Army Air Force's 389th Bomb Group located at Hethel Air Field, England. They bombed oil fields, ball-bearing plants, power plants and other factories to help bring the war to an end.
Leesburg was flying right wing on one mission when a German fighter broke through the formation and scored a direct hit on the B-24 in front of him. The plane exploded and Leesburg flew right through the fireball without damage.
On another mission there were 10 of the B-24 bombers in Leesburg's formation. They crossed the Rhine River flying just 100 to 200 feet above the ground as they dropped supplies to Allied ground troops that had already crossed the river.
Leesburg's plane had a third engine shot out and a fuel tank on one wing was ruptured and burn. He was watching the engineer fight the fire when the plane went into a vertical bank. The co-pilot managed to pull it out of the dive as it barely missed collision with a brick smoke stack.
"That remarkable B-24 made it back to base," Leesburg said as he recently recalled those days of long ago. "The ground crew said it was a miracle that the plane didn't explode. My luck was still with me."
Five of the 10 planes that went on the mission did not return.
Leesburg had his engines running and was ready to roar down the runway for his 32nd mission when word came that the war was over.
"I loved the B-24," he said. "It never failed me. I flew one of those old war-weary B-24s home from England. We had 20 people in it. We flew over the Statue of Liberty -- what a wonderful welcome home that was -- and landed at Bradley Field in Connecticut."
Leesburg decided to make a career in the Air Force. He went on to spend most of it in the Strategic Air Command, completing more that 100 missions over Vietnam in the B-47s and the giant B-52s.
He retired as a colonel on Oct. 1, 1977, with more than 35 years in the service. His titles were airlift commander, B-52 squadron commander and director of B-52 operations -- not bad for the boy from little Portsmouth East.
His awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 11 Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star with one Oak Leaf Cluster and the Meritorious Service Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster.
Leesburg was born Aug. 20, 1922, in Wheelersburg. He got his pilot's license through the Portsmouth Air Club at the old Raven Rock Airport.
His younger brother, Don, tells about how his brother got into flying and about his first hazardous experience at flying:
"He saw in the paper where they were giving free flight lessons down at Raven Rock. The five who passed the examination would be picked for membership and lessons. He was one of the five selected. He wound up getting his pilot's license and joined the Portsmouth Air Club.
"The club had a new plane and Bill took his friend, Charlie Hardin, down there to take a flight in it. It had a note on the windshield telling everyone not to fly it. Something wasn't working right about it, I guess.
"Bill flew it anyway. He flew over his girlfriend's house and throttled it down to wave at her. The motor died, but he was able to land it in White's cornfield off Allegheny Hill, north of Wheelersburg, and neither one of them got hurt."
Bill Leesburg joined the United States Air Corps as an aviation cadet on Sept. 17, 1942. He received his pilot's wings as a second lieutenant on April 15, 1944.
He was one of four Leesburg brothers -- the others being Albert, Don, and Charlie -- to serve in the military during World War II, while the youngest brother, Glenn, got in in time for the Korean War.
Don Leesburg, 83, of Wheelersburg, a Navy veteran, recalled a time in the 1960s when Bill Leesburg flew over the family home in Wheelersburg in his B-52.
"I was up at Mom and Dad's house and standing next to Mom when she ran in the house and came back out waving a white tablecloth up at the plane," he said.
Bill Leesburg married Doris Wright of Wheelersburg in 1942. They celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary on July 11. They had six children. Brenda and Bill are deceased. Johnny lives with them in Puyallup, Wash. Mark and Mary live close-by, and David lives in New Zealand.
"Two grandsons in New Zealand are turning out to be pretty good golfers," Leesburg said.
"My life in the military was a memorable experience," Leesburg said. "I don't miss the wars, but sometimes I miss the military. And I really miss the flying. Thirty-five years can do that for you."