Lake Norman & Mooresville

Veteran remembers Pearl Harbor Day

When Mountain Island Charter School asked students to invite family members in the military to speak at their Celebrate our Soldiers event on Veterans Day, the three Reinhardt siblings knew exactly who to invite.

Jackson, 10, Pryor, 8, and Bella Grace, 7, knew that their great-grandfather and their grandfather had both served in the military. Their grandfather, Jerry Snow, had been a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and flown combat missions in Laos during the war in Vietnam.

But they also had heard stories about their great-grandfather, Jack Leach, 92, who was one of the survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.

A resident of Mount Airy, Leach was more than willing to come speak to the students at his great-grandchildren's school, even though it meant he would have to get up at 4 a.m. He had an incredible story to tell, and knew that it was important for the younger generation to hear the story first-hand so they would never forget.

This is the story he told.

He was eating his pancake breakfast in the mess hall at the Navy base on Oahu, Hawaii. Unbeknownst to him, his life and the course of the country were about to change.

The time was 7:55 a.m., and the date was Dec. 7, 1941 - which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would refer as "A date which will live in infamy."

The U.S. Pacific fleet had 100 of its ships in the harbor at that time, while half the fleet, including the aircraft carriers, were out at sea. Sixty thousand military personnel were stationed on the island when a wave of Japanese fighter planes launched a surprise attack, catching the entire base off guard. The United States was about to be drawn into World War II.

About 2,400 military and civilian personnel were killed in action that day, and another 1,200 were wounded, a total of about 3,600 casualties. Leach was not among the wounded, freeing him up to serve as an ambulance driver whose grim task was to gather the remains of those killed.

He is a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which was established in 1958 with 18,000 members. Now only 3,000 survivors remain. The association, which meets every two years in Hawaii, is considering disbanding.

They hope to pass the mantle to the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. One thing, however, is certain. They want the world to remember what happened that day in 1941.

Leach enlisted in the Army in 1940, a few years after graduating from high school, because, "at that time, you could work in the hosiery mill and eat lint, work in the rock quarry and eat dust, or work in the furniture factory and eat sawdust. My father and brother worked in the furniture factory, and a cousin worked in the hosiery mill. None of those choices appealed to me."

He had tried to enlist in the Navy, as he wanted to serve on a submarine. However, he was rejected because of dental problems. In November 1940, he was sent to Pearl Harbor, where he trained as a medic.

His memories of Dec. 7, 1941, are still sharp in his mind, although he doesn't like to talk about it much. One incident, however, stands out among many, and recalling it still brings back painful feelings. "I was picking up the remains of the fatalities, and I picked up a severed arm with a Gruen watch on it. I knew who that was, because a buddy of mine had received the watch from his mother as an early Christmas present."

He remained at Pearl Harbor until 1943, when he was shipped to Australia and then to Goodenough Island, New Guinea, where he was in charge of a battalion aid station.

When the war ended in 1945, Leach, who married his sweetheart while on furlough in 1944, was a first sergeant. He remained in the inactive reserves while he went to work in a grocery store. The Army, however, was not through with him.

In 1950, when the Korean War began, although he was married with two children, he was recalled to active duty. He was stationed in Germany with the Seventh Army, Support Artillery. Returning to the States in 1952, he was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery at Fort Stewart, Ga.

Finally, in 1955, he returned to civilian life in his home town of Mount Airy. He went to work as a meter reader for the water department, eventually working his way up to the position of superintendent of the water purification plant, and retiring after 33 years.

His memories of his military experience still allow an opportunity for a good-natured observation. "I never saw an ugly nurse," he recalls. "Only the men were old and ugly."

And now Jack Leach's great-grandchildren and their classmates will have a story to tell their children and their grandchildren: We spoke to a man who was at Pearl Harbor the day the world changed.