The Story of Leon F. Hesser

March 17, 2018

In 2007, I was one of three veterans of WWII who were asked to meet with a class who were studying the literature of war at Hodges University in Naples, FL. One had been with the Flying Tigers in the China, Burma, India theatre, one had served in the Battle of the Bulge in Europe, and I had served as a combat medic in the Pacific.

We all three started out by saying, “When we came back, we did not want to talk about it, we did not want to think about it, we just wanted to get on with our lives.” But the questions the young people asked got me to thinking, maybe I should write down some of my experiences. In short, I wrote a memoir, ZigZag Pass: Love and War. It was a hard one to write, but in many ways it was therapeutic – I got it off my chest.

At age 18, I had met my sweetheart just three months before I went to the Army, where I served with the 34th Regiment of the 24th. She waited for me. At that time, GIs were asked not to tell anyone our location after being shipped overseas. But I gave my sweetheart a code before I left: If I sign a V-Mail letter, “Love, Leon,” take the first letter of each paragraph to spell the location where I am. My first such letter read:

Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you …
Every time I think of you, I sing that song to myself.
Yes, I still love you and I always will.
Tonight, my two buddies and I are going to a movie; I think it’s a cowboy show; Hopalong Cassidy is the star;
Each time I go to a movie, I think of the times when we went to the Lyric and held hands. Gotta go now.

From Leyte, we went to Luzon, the northernmost island of the Philippines. Our objective was to open up ZigZag Pass on the way to Manila. Our Generals had misjudged the Japanese defense. In three days in ZigZag Pass, the 34th Regiment lost half as many troops as they had lost in the 75-day Leyte campaign.

General Hall finally understood what his troops were facing. He reported to General Kruger: “I have been hard to convince, but now there is no doubt in my mind that we are up against a well-defended Jap position. … It is the best fortified position I have ever seen.”

In short, our outfit was then pulled back for recuperation while the Air Force bombed the Japanese positions for several days. While at this rest camp, we had mail call. I had several V-Mail letters from my sweetheart. I had one from my Mother who said: “Son, if you can get your hands on a Bible, you might find comfort in reading the 91st Psalm.”

Some of us were carrying miniature New Testaments in our breast packet, but no one was carrying a Bible. When Sunday rolled around, the Regimental Chaplain announced that he would be holding a service in the cocoanut grove. Filipinos had placed cocoanut logs in parallel fashion in the grove to serve as pews. There was standing room only that Sunday. We sang a couple of familiar hymns, then the Chaplain said, “For my text this morning, I will read from the 91st Psalm.”

I knew that my Mother was tuned in, but I had not realized before that she had a hot line. My eyes watered as the Chaplain read the passage:

You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. … For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways.

Even some of the old vets had tears in their eyes.