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Veteran Profiles

Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.

Joseph Leifer ★ U.S. Marines

Jody Kopsky
Honor Flight Chicago Volunteer
Veteran Interview

LeiferJIMG01

(Lincolnwood, IL) Eighty yards off the beach at Tarawa, Joe Leifer said that they “could smell the island in the heat,” and, he continued, they all “started puking.”  It was the smell of death, as they landed at the Tarawa atoll island of Betio on D+3; three days after the horrific landings on the beach that killed over 1,000 US Marines, and wounded another 2,200- all on an area less than three miles long and half a mile wide.  The island was, Joe commented, “just a spit.”      

Part of the nation of Kiribati in the Gilbert Islands about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii near the equator, and consisting of 33 atolls in all, Tarawa was part of the Navy’s Pacific strategy en route to the liberation of the Philippines.  The island chains that dotted the vast ocean distances in the Pacific had to be taken, and the airstrips secured to allow the American bombers a place to stop and refuel.  At Tarawa, in anticipation of the landings there, the Navy had assembled a large contingent of support ships consisting of 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 66 destroyers, and 36 transport ships.  They pounded the coast.

Unfortunately, a neap tide, unexpected by the invasion planners, would not allow the landing craft to get closer in to shore as the water levels remained low above the underlying coral reef.  Even the shallow draft Higgins boats could not get through.  The landing Marines were forced to wade through two hundred yards of open water and over sharp coral, carrying their equipment on their backs, and with their guns held over their heads.  The Japanese opened fire.  The landing battle lasted for 72 hours, and by the time Joe hit the beach, there were “bodies all over.”            

When Joe had tried to join the military in early 1941, before the war started, he was turned down due to the malocclusion of his mouth - his teeth weren’t perfectly aligned.  So he enlisted in the Canadian Air Force.  Just as he was to report for duty, he went back to the US Army a second time.  His next stop was the Marines, and as number 375536, they accepted him, and trained him.  Joe was now a Marine aviator, US Marine Fighters IV.  

On Tarawa, Joe’s job was to land with the infantry and then help make the airstrip usable.  The task was made more difficult and extremely dangerous by the Japanese defenders still on the island, hidden in caves and connected by tunnels.  They shot at the Marines continuously, and assaulted them with nighttime suicide “banzai” attacks, swords and bayonets drawn.  The Americans operated with their self-preservation instincts, Joe explained, and they were “very scared.”  The enemy attacks continued “day and night for three weeks.”  Conditions on the island deteriorated rapidly, and, Joe explained, “they lived like animals.”  Amoebic dysentery was rampant, and Joe ended up hospitalized.  He returned in time to make the next invasion a little further west.

Eighty yards off the beach at Tarawa, Joe Leifer said that they “could smell the island in the heat,” and, he continued, they all “started puking.”  It was the smell of death, as they landed at the Tarawa atoll island of Betio on D+3; three days after the horrific landings on the beach that killed over 1,000 US Marines, and wounded another 2,200- all on an area less than three miles long and half a mile wide.  The island was, Joe commented, “just a spit.”      

Part of the nation of Kiribati in the Gilbert Islands about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii near the equator, and consisting of 33 atolls in all, Tarawa was part of the Navy’s Pacific strategy en route to the liberation of the Philippines.  The island chains that dotted the vast ocean distances in the Pacific had to be taken, and the airstrips secured to allow the American bombers a place to stop and refuel.  At Tarawa, in anticipation of the landings there, the Navy had assembled a large contingent of support ships consisting of 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 66 destroyers, and 36 transport ships.  They pounded the coast.

Unfortunately, a neap tide, unexpected by the invasion planners, would not allow the landing craft to get closer in to shore as the water levels remained low above the underlying coral reef.  Even the shallow draft Higgins boats could not get through.  The landing Marines were forced to wade through two hundred yards of open water and over sharp coral, carrying their equipment on their backs, and with their guns held over their heads.  The Japanese opened fire.  The landing battle lasted for 72 hours, and by the time Joe hit the beach, there were “bodies all over.”            

LeiferJIMG02When Joe had tried to join the military in early 1941, before the war started, he was turned down due to the malocclusion of his mouth - his teeth weren’t perfectly aligned.  So he enlisted in the Canadian Air Force.  Just as he was to report for duty, he went back to the US Army a second time.  His next stop was the Marines, and as number 375536, they accepted him, and trained him.  Joe was now a Marine aviator, US Marine Fighters IV.  

On Tarawa, Joe’s job was to land with the infantry and then help make the airstrip usable.  The task was made more difficult and extremely dangerous by the Japanese defenders still on the island, hidden in caves and connected by tunnels.  They shot at the Marines continuously, and assaulted them with nighttime suicide “banzai” attacks, swords and bayonets drawn.  The Americans operated with their self-preservation instincts, Joe explained, and they were “very scared.”  The enemy attacks continued “day and night for three weeks.”  Conditions on the island deteriorated rapidly, and, Joe explained, “they lived like animals.”  Amoebic dysentery was rampant, and Joe ended up hospitalized.  He returned in time to make the next invasion a little further west.

Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, was further west from Tarawa, and next on the invasion list.  Sister island Roi-Namur was also included, and Joe landed with the 4th Marines there.  As he climbed down the cargo net off the side of the bobbing transport ship, he was loaded with gear.  He carried a backpack with “40-50 pounds of equipment,” including a full rifle and cartridge, bayonet knife, and helmet.  As they headed ashore, Joe heard the “bombardment and constant shelling of the artillery.”  They were all scared going in, Joe recalled, so they tried to “stick together.”  They tried to “hug the dirt like they belonged there.”  Resistance on Roi was heavier than expected, exacerbated by a direct hit on the Japanese ammunition depot on the island.  Joe found himself “face down in the sand,” with his heel bleeding profusely.  He had been hit, and for Joe, the war was over.

After rehabilitation back home, Joe married Evelyn, the girl he had known since she was fifteen.  They raised three daughters, and there are now eight grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren.  Joe started his own business in the pressure sensitive tape industry, and ended up with nine manufacturing plants worldwide.  He is looking forward to making the trip to Washington DC with Honor Flight Chicago to see the World War II Memorial, and we are pleased to welcome this Purple Heart recipient aboard.  Thanks for your service, Joe, and welcome home.

Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, was further west from Tarawa, and next on the invasion list.  Sister island Roi-Namur was also included, and Joe landed with the 4th Marines there.  As he climbed down the cargo net off the side of the bobbing transport ship, he was loaded with gear.  He carried a backpack with “40-50 pounds of equipment,” including a full rifle and cartridge, bayonet knife, and helmet.  As they headed ashore, Joe heard the “bombardment and constant shelling of the artillery.”  They were all scared going in, Joe recalled, so they tried to “stick together.”  They tried to “hug the dirt like they belonged there.”  Resistance on Roi was heavier than expected, exacerbated by a direct hit on the Japanese ammunition depot on the island.  Joe found himself “face down in the sand,” with his heel bleeding profusely.  He had been hit, and for Joe, the war was over.

After rehabilitation back home, Joe married Evelyn, the girl he had known since she was fifteen.  They raised three daughters, and there are now eight grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren.  Joe started his own business in the pressure sensitive tape industry, and ended up with nine manufacturing plants worldwide.  He is looking forward to making the trip to Washington DC with Honor Flight Chicago to see the World War II Memorial, and we are pleased to welcome this Purple Heart recipient aboard.  Thanks for your service, Joe, and welcome home.