1944 — Corsica, France
Lt Heller received a Distinguished Flying Cross for Aerial Heroism under the most critical circumstances, he made a successful Bombing drop on the primary Target in Italy and then returned a full crew safely to his home-field on Corsica in a crippled B-25. WWII Mediterranean Theatre of Operations.
LEONARD CHARLES HELLER
MAY 27, 1919 - MAY 30, 2011
A Remembrance by Son, Thomas Leonard Heller
Pop was Born Leonardus Friedrich Heller, in Tegelen, Holland. The family immigrated to the USA in 1926: Pop (7 years old), his brother Theodore (9 years old), father Franz, and mother Theodora.
They settled in an apartment in Newark, NJ. They lived through the Depression years with the boys in school and Franz (now called Frank) working as lead tool and die maker for Acme Metal in Newark
After graduating high school, Pop served an apprenticeship at Western Electric in Kearney. Upon completion of his apprenticeship he went to Acme Metal and worked with his father.
Pop enjoyed recounting that while at Acme, he became enchanted by a beautiful secretary with red hair named Jeanne. After she decided to not give him too much attention, he decided that maybe she’s not really his cup of tea anyway. “Yeah”, Pop would say, “She was kind of aloof, but in a very refined way.”
After the war broke out Pop enlisted in the Army Signal Corp and was stationed in Wilmington, Delaware.
For the first time in his highly structured life Pop has some freedom, not too much responsibility, and 3 squares a day. This is really great!! Well, this will prove otherwise.
One night, after “lights-out”, Pop and a buddy take a Jeep for a joy ride – foot to the floor they speed past an oncoming car: it’s the General’s car.
Pop was given the “opportunity” to transfer to another branch of service.
That singular event permanently changed Pop. He set a new course for himself that he would follow for the rest of his life.
He decided to test for the Army Air Corp. It would have to be for the pilot’s seat, or nothing. He tests and finds that he has passed. So off he goes to Columbia, SC, to one of the Army’s many flight training schools.
During the course of his training he is taught to set even higher standards for himself, especially because it meant that he might be going it alone.
After graduation get got his pilot’s wings and became 1st Lt Heller. He is attached to the 57th Bomb Wing in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. He will volunteer for a second tour of duty and flies a total of 56 missions. Every mission is different, and none are milk runs, but the mission on March 14, 1944 was one to remember. The target was a concentration of German supply ships in Italy’s, Piombino Harbor.
There were 36 aircraft assigned to this mission. As soon as they had regrouped and started their bomb run over the target the German flack hit them. Pops ship was no exception and was hit repeatedly during the run. Three aircraft were downed in the first few minutes. After delivering their payload, Pop banked his ship to evade and return when he was hit again. These later hits knocked out one of his two engines, and control of the ailerons, and sent the ship plummeting toward the ocean in a steep dive.
Pop managed to regain control of his ship, but he had to steer the aircraft by controlling the pitch of the prop on his only good engine. He nursed his stricken ship along the Corsican coast at low altitude and when reaching the air field he found that one of his wheels had also been shot out.
So there was this 24 year old kid from Newark, NJ flying a B25 bomber with over 200 shrapnel holes in it, only half of its landing gear, one engine, and no ailerons, coming in at 125 mph to land. And he landed it. Pop and his crew are safe but his ship is a total loss and scrapped. It was his unyielding determination and his never, ever, EVER give up… backbone that saved himself and his crew and earned him the Air Corp’s Distinguished Flying Cross. This was another life changing event that steeled Pop with the virtues of Perseverance, Sacrifice, Discipline, Responsibility, Accountability, and Respect.
But there had been more than just active duty over the Mediterranean. Pop started to receive letters from that beautiful secretary back in the States. It seems his father had added match maker to his resume of skills. And that’s how the chemistry got started. Letters lead to more letters and to time spent with each other during rare leaves of duty. By the end of the war they were hooked, and they married.
By the end of 1945 Pop had returned to civilian life. By 1946 a father and son partnership named Republic Tool & Mfg. Co. was incorporated and underway in Nutley, NJ.
March, 1946 – I am born. I am the apple of my father’s eye. My grandfather takes one look at me and says to my mother “He looks like Howdy Doody.”
Despite that, Mom and dad are not to be deterred. Chrissy was born in 47’ and Jeanne in 48’. Mom takes a well earned breather for a few years and in 54’ Diane bursts upon the scene.
Also growing is the family business. Pop and Pop Pop buy property in Fairfield and build a new home for the business. The year was 1954. Within a few short years of being in the Fairfield location, our Pop Pop would die in Pop’s arms while the two ate sandwiches for lunch.
Another character builder for Pop.
Dads love of living a principled life and his hard work brought the family from Little Falls to a new home on 6+ acres in Randolph. The year was 1955. For the next 56 years that house would be the rock that Pop and Mom built our family upon. During our growing years he was our ballast, our defender, our protector, our standard bearer. He taught us his gifts of guidance, leadership, sacrifice, and forgiveness. If you had a secret that you had to share with someone, Pop was your man. Telling him something in confidence was a good as locking it in a vault.
If he didn’t know how to do something, he would teach himself. He was a voracious reader and always a quick study. When he made mistakes, and there were some beauties, they would not be repeated. He shared those mistakes with us so that we too would learn.
But the one thing he couldn’t fix or couldn’t change was yet to come.
During our earlier school years he would make time for a spring motor trip to Washington DC, or Gettysburg, or some other hot place where the six of us would cram into his Oldsmobile Rocket 98, no air conditioning – thank you, and collectively stick together with one-another’s sweat in the heat and humidity of the DC area.
He saved for our education, and sent us all off to college.
For the next 30 years life was a steady building of family and friends for Pop and Mom. They would see their children go off to work, sometimes marry, have children, sometimes endure an annulment and an attempt to rebuild. And in each and every one of those ups and downs Pop was there for us. He was always a champion for the underdog. And Pop with his steady and reassuring manner would always give comfort and you always knew that he understood the pain that you were in, because he was feeling that pain with you.
And in 1986 that pain would be acute. Our Mom was diagnosed with A Plastic Anemia. Pop was shaken to his core. He did everything anyone could to get her the care and treatment she needed to save her life. It tore him to pieces to see her suffer. He would have given his life for hers if it could save her. But, after almost 2 years, Mom lost her valiant struggle and the only woman he ever loved in his life was gone. He worshiped our mother and the loss left him hollowed. For many years he visited her grave daily.
After we lost Mom in 1988 our sister Diane moved back into the house so he wouldn’t be living alone. She caringly nursed him through recovery of several cancer surgeries and other events that strike the elderly without warning. Together she and I would make sure he was well cared for whenever he was in the hospital. And to this day, none of us remember a single word of complaint spoken by our father. Regardless the adversity, regardless the loss. Not a single word.
This last year wasn’t particularly kind to Pop. At times he suffered terribly from a digestive and intestinal disorder. He cheated death several times though, but each event weakened him further.
In the end the Lord called him home. How perfect it was for him to go to The Lord in the company of two of his daughters. How perfect it was for him to make his final mission on Memorial Day; accompanied by the loving hand of Jesus, away from this life’s boundaries and into the light and love of eternity. An eternity with his beloved Jeanne.
He deserved no less. Written and recited by his proud son Tom Heller.
Barbara Ennis Connolly PRINCESSBARBI_B25@msn.com 57th Bomb Wing Historical Researcher and 319 and 321st BG Historian (2007-___)