By Rob Cox Daily News
Greensburg Daily News
---- — GREENSBURG — In August 1942, 21-year-old Joe Lecher got a chance to remain at home in Decatur County, working for a local dairy farmer, instead of heeding a call from Uncle Sam to join the fray in the theaters of World War II.
The owner of the dairy farm applied for Joe to receive a six-month deferment from military service; one of Joe’s brothers had received several six-month deferments before ultimately leaving for World War II. Upon reflection, though, Joe decided he had an obligation to answer the call from his country.
“After giving it some thought,” he said. “I decided it was my duty [to go]; it was time for me to serve my country.”
Lecher, now 92-years-old and living at Aspen Place Health Campus, looks back on those days with no regrets. He and his wife of 61 years – Elsie – sat for an interview with the Daily News Friday morning, on the cusp of Veterans Day Weekend.
After being drafted, Joe entered into the service of the US Air Force, a path that would ultimately take him into the thick of the war in the Pacific. After the young airman finished his training as a flight engineer, he ended up stationed on Tinian Island, working with an 11-man B-29 Superfortress bombing crew, conducting regular bombing missions on Japan.
Interestingly, his closest brush with death during numerous missions came in April 1945, when the B-29 in which he was working as part of an attack on the Hodagaya Chemical Plant in Koriyama, had an engine shot out.
“We lost four crew members on that run,” Joe recalled. “The engine caught fire and we had to dive/plunge from a 12,000-foot altitude to an altitude of approximately 5,000 feet.”
The attack plane started back for Tinian, but according to Joe’s calculations (part of his job as a flight engineer), there would be barely enough fuel to make it back to base.
“With one engine lost,” Joe explained, “the remaining engines had to work harder, [consuming greater quantities of fuel].”
The situation was so perilous that, at Joe’s urging, the pilot asked for and was granted special permission to land without “circulating the field,” which was standard landing procedure. It was a life-or-death landing Joe will never forget.
“As we were taxiing in [from the landing],” he said, “engine number 1 ran out of fuel; thank God we were on the ground.”
On Aug. 6, 1945, when the United States dropped the first of two nuclear bombs it would ultimately release on Japan, Joe and his crew were on leave in the United States.
On the night the Japanese Emperor announced the country’s intention to surrender, following the United States’ release of the second nuclear weapon several days earlier, Joe and his crew had been sent out on yet another bombing run; it was a mission they would never finish.
“We were gone about three hours,” Joe said, “but we were called back because the second atomic bomb had been dropped and the war was over.”
On Sept. 2, 1945, when the Empire of Japan signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender aboard the US Battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Joe and his crew did a flyover.
The day after his discharge from the Air Force in December 1945, Joe went to work as an assistant for Decatur County Veterinarian Dr. Dyar Wood. Shortly thereafter, he met Elsie when she came to work for the same veterinarian as an office assistant. The two married Feb. 23, 1952.
“I’m glad I didn’t know Joe back when he was in World War II,” Elsie said. “I’m a worrier and I would’ve worried myself to death.”
Joe had grown up on a farm in Franklin County and in September 1952, he left Dr. Wood to return to farming. Elsie, who’d also grown up on a farm, was happy to make the move. Joe would continue farming for almost five decades before finally retiring for good in 2001.
He recalled his years of service with great pride, pointing out that six of his eight brothers also served in the US military, three of those also in World War II. Some of them are gone now – Joe’s biological brothers, men who were brothers in service to country as well. Many of his military brothers are gone now, too, as are so many others who served in that terrible conflict.
At 92 years old, Joe looks forward to another day in their honor, a day of remembrance and memorial when all of America pauses to pay respect to men like Joe Lecher; men who are part of what’s been called “the greatest generation,” men who were called and went; for love of God and country and family, Joe and millions like him answered the call, leaving everything behind to serve and protect democracy. So many did not return.
“Veterans Day is so important,” Elsie said. “It’s so important for people to remember men like Joe who sacrificed so much so we could be free.”
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011