He was a resident of Summerset. From our first encounter, I was attracted to Leslie and his wife, Gloria. During lengthy conversations, Leslie shared with me many stories about the rich life he had led and especially about his service to our country as a medical corpsman in World War II during some of the toughest fighting in the Pacific.
Leslie enlisted in January 1943. If he had waited three more months he would have graduated with his class at San Bernardino High, but war fever was raging and he couldn’t wait to join in the effort of keeping the enemy away from our shores. He was not one of the soldiers, but gave first aid, comfort, and sometimes a farewell to his comrades who had fallen in battle. He enlisted in the Navy but was transferred and assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. The unit had been through some of the worst fighting in the Pacific including battles at Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and Peleliu.
Leslie shared with me that the men in his unit gave him the nickname “Everlasting,” because when they were engaged in battle, Leslie demonstrated an iron-man ability to stay on his feet and remain active for days on end without getting any sleep. After spending three days without a break during one of those battles, he said that his fellow marines dug a small hole where he could finally fall asleep in exhaustion. He learned later that while he was sleeping, one of his comrades said that he hoped that for the next few hours, at least, no one within five miles would ever yell for a medic because Leslie would immediately spring out of his hole and leap into action. Leslie himself received a Purple Heart for a wound he received in action. It was not too serious and he was back at the front before his parents had learned of his injury. He was much more seriously wounded in another incident when he took a bullet in his mid-section while carrying a fallen soldier to safety. There seemed a touch of irony in that, after evacuating so many of his fellow comrades to various rendezvous points, Leslie was himself sedated and evacuated from the battlefield and transported to a medical ship. Leslie said that he remembers waking up on that ship and seeing a beautiful redheaded nurse standing beside his cot. The nurse smiled at him and asked him if he knew where he was. “I must be in heaven,” Leslie said, “because I’m looking at an angel.”
Leslie escaped a potentially more serious wound when a bullet struck the blade of a shovel he was carrying on his back. The force of the concussion knocked him into a nearby hole. As if to emphasize the narrowness of his escape, almost immediately after being struck, a Marine that had been following close behind him was shot and killed.
Leslie’s most memorable stories were about the infamous and deadly Battle of Okinawa. At one point, Leslie’s battalion was given the mission of taking Shuri Castle, which had been occupied by Japanese emperors from 1429 to 1879 and had been the residence of generations of Japanese emperors.
The palace had fallen into disrepair and was completely destroyed during the battle. Most of the castle’s destruction was caused by three days and nights of continual bombardment from heavy guns on the USS Mississippi prior to the assault in an attempt to destroy or chase away the defenders. The shelling was effective against the castle structures and by the time Leslie and his fellow leathernecks began to ascend the hill on which the castle stood, most of the walls and buildings were lying in ruin. Nevertheless, the Marines discovered a group of defenders that had taken refuge in a series of tunnels and hidey-holes burrowed deep beneath the castle’s foundations. Leslie and his comrades faced enemy fire from the Japanese soldiers who began to emerge from their hiding places and to resist their attackers.
Leslie said that, besides the discomfort from bullets whizzing around them, he and his fellow Marines were making the attack through fields sodden by recent rainfalls and particularly through an area used by members of the Japanese occupation both as a garbage dump and as a repository for the unburied remains of soldiers who had been killed in the fighting. As a result, Leslie recalled with disgust the way in which the members of his battalion found their combat boots sinking into a noxious stew made up of garbage and the decaying remains of American and Japanese soldiers.
Leslie not only had to cross the area in order to get near the battle, but then had to cross it repeatedly while conveying the bodies of fallen comrades to the makeshift rendezvous where they could be evacuated. The rendezvous became a target for enemy mortars and machine guns. Corpsman Harrold tried to keep a low profile while loading his wounded men onto amphibious tractors that carried them to Naval medical ships stationed offshore.
For three sleepless days and nights, Leslie continued evacuating wounded Marines. The task was especially dangerous at night when he had to make his way over that difficult and disgusting terrain through complete darkness that was only broken by the explosion of an occasional star shell. As a corpsman, he endured withering enemy fire without a weapon of his own readily in hand while treating and carrying out the wounded.
At one point during the battle, Leslie said that he was actually carrying a rifle when he encountered a Japanese combatant. He said they both stopped frozen with fear and stood staring at each other. Rather than trying to see who could get his gun up first to kill the other, in a show of mutual wisdom and without uttering a word, they both turned and walked away.
In another incident, a firefight was halted when someone heard the cries of children. “Stop shooting!” he called. “There are kids here.” The firing ceased but quickly resumed when they discovered the “kids” were in fact a herd of goats.
Leslie’s battalion finally succeeded in taking control of the castle mount. Their success was both a strategic and psychological blow against the Japanese defenders. Leslie’s commander, Major General Pedro del Valle, was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership in the fight and the subsequent occupation and reorganization of the island. Leslie’s captain, Julian D. Dusenbury, was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.
Along with all of Leslie’s other admirable qualities, he was a well-adjusted and loving man — one who touched the lives of many people. After all, how many people might still be alive because of a selfless and courageous act Leslie performed seven decades ago? I was impressed that Leslie had been able to pass through hell and still find peace and wholeness of spirit. My friend noted that courage isn’t the minimizing of pain and loss but is the display of valor when someone goes through hell but then keeps going. That was Leslie.
The numbers of veterans who served in World War II is rapidly diminishing, as 300 of them die every day. More than 16 million men and women served in the war. In 2013 the number had dropped to 1.7 million. According to the Department of Veterans affair, by 2016 only 620,000 were still alive.
As these veterans pass on, a way of life is vanishing along with them. I was so glad that I was able to be with Leslie and to hear from his mouth first-person accounts of what that terrible war meant. I encourage readers to do the same. Don’t be satisfied to learn about the war only from the History Channel. There are so few years left in which we can learn about the struggles of those who fought for this country from people who actually did so. Don’t miss the chance.
It was my honor to walk with Leslie during the final month of his life and to be by his side while he drew his final breath. Leslie Scott Harrold may be gone, but I’m going to do what I can to ensure that the memory of who he was and what he did will endure.