DECATUR, Ill. — After making two dozen bombing runs to Austria, Germany and Italy, 21-year-old Bruce Leonard felt pretty comfortable in the cockpit of a B-17 Flying Fortress.
Then, after the bombardier dropped the payload on a synthetic oil refinery at Vienna on Feb. 21, 1944, anti-aircraft fire knocked out Leonard's two port engines.
The pilot's first task was to push the remaining engines to the breaking point to get over the Southern Alps. The next was to land at an emergency air strip in Yugoslavia, something he'd never done before.
"This was just a field cleared of trees and only about 1,500 feet long. We couldn't land with wheels up, it was too rough," Leonard recalls. "The plane would have flipped over."
Accomplishing this with no injuries to the 10-man crew, he and the others began a 72-hour odyssey of eluding Nazi patrols to reach the coast and rescue.
Up to now, Leonard, 93, preferred to fly under the radar about his World War II experiences, but in the aftermath of receiving a 2016 James Millikin Award, allowed himself to be persuaded to also accept some of the spotlight for Veterans Day.
It seems fitting, even though Leonard still has the plaque in a box, because the chief impact his military service had on his life was to reinforce his determination to get a college degree so he could better support his family and better contribute to his community.
"You grew up. I probably wouldn't have been so serious-minded otherwise," he said during an interview earlier this week at his villa at Primrose Retirement Community.
Born in Ohio, Leonard moved to Decatur with his family in 1937 when his stepfather came to manage soybean oil sales for Spencer Kellogg Co. after it bought former Shellabarger Grain Products Co. He graduated from Decatur High School in 1941.
Fearing a draft, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps with the expectation of pursuing a degree at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor later that year changed all that.
By 1943, military training had taught him the limitations a lack of education could put on life, and he was sent to Foggia, Italy, for the three dozen bombing missions he flew starting Oct. 7 and finishing on April 21, 1944.
More than one-quarter of them were to Vienna, Austria, but none was more eventful than that fateful one in February.
The first job for Leonard and his crew, once on the ground near Banja Luka, Yugoslavia, was to destroy the top-secret equipment that allowed the Americans to bomb a target as small as 500 square feet from 36,000 feet.
Almost immediately they were approached by several men who managed to communicate that help was coming. Soon 15 to 20 uniformed Chetnik Freedom Fighters arrived and took everything from them and their plane except sufficient clothing to keep warm.
"We were told the aircraft would be destroyed," Leonard said. "Then we walked for several miles and were herded into what appeared to be an animal barn, where we stayed until dark."
Two large trucks came to take them about 160 miles to the Adriatic Sea, covering part of the distance the first night and making it the rest of the way the second night.
Leonard said German patrols were in the area, so they were obliged to lay low during the day.
"Our meals were a slab of black bread spread with rancid lard, raw potatoes and some strange-looking meat that was supposed to be sausage," he said. "This was furnished by local peasants and were probably their rations for the day."
A C-47 from the 15th Air Corps Headquarters in Bari, Italy, picked up Leonard and the others near Split, Yugoslavia, spending only about five minutes on the ground because of the danger. Their rescuers also gave C-rations and $100,000 in American currency to the Chetniks.
After debriefing and rest, Leonard returned to active duty at Foggia within a week.
Leonard achieved the rank of captain and received the Outstanding Achievement Medal, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross, and three Bronze Stars.
He married his high school sweetheart, the former Joanne Patterson, on July 7, 1945, and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in commerce and business administration from the University of Illinois two years later.
He had a 43-year career with Walgreens, helping the company open 1,900 stores in 48 states, and with his wife raised three daughters, Jane Kobylarz and Julia Dethrow, both of Springfield, and Susan Six of Decatur. He also has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
His close friendship with longtime Millikin President J. Roger Miller, and strong belief in education led him to make generous gifts to the university for the past 30 years.
His beloved wife died on Aug. 13, 2011.
Looking back on his military service all these years later reminds him how lucky he was to be as removed as he was from the fighting and to have served in a war with clear winners and losers.
"We've created a lot more veterans by fighting wars we weren't allowed to win," Leonard said. "If we'd spent that money on education of people, we'd be so much better off."
Feeling as he does about the wastefulness of war, the emotions that arise from remembering his contributions are understandably mixed.
"I am very glad it did it," Leonard said, "but I wouldn't want to do it again."