Born in Brooklyn in 1921, Leon Leshay grew up in Massachusetts. He studied science at a Rhode Island college, where he had an opportunity to learn to fly a small bi-plane. The experience sparked an interest in him, but nothing more at that point – he thought that perhaps he could continue to fly as a hobby while working in the field of science.
All that changed when, in December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy carried out its unprovoked attack on Pearl harbour, resulting in an American declaration of war with Japan. Leshay and his college friends were in a Rhode Island restaurant when they heard the news. Sharing their nation’s sense of outrage, all of them promptly decided to join the US Air Force.
Leon joined the 37th Squadron, 17 Bomb Group, 12th Air Force flying B26 Marauders. The Martin B-26 was a twin-engine bomber that was first used in the Pacific region in 1942. It’s unfortunate early nickname was The ‘Widow-maker’ because of its record of accidents during take-off and landing.
Subsequent design modifications and intensified crew training remedied the problem, and by the end of the war, the Marauder had suffered fewer losses than any other US bomber.
The B-26 served in North Africa and Europe, as well as in the Pacific, and Leon Leshay, now almost 95 years old, can still vividly recall carrying out attacks on targets in Italy.
He flew 75 missions during his three years’ wartime service, and after seeing another Marauder shot down early on in the war, he always remembered that each mission could be the last. Leon believes in fate and says that when your time is up, there is nothing you can do about it.
After the war, Leon Leshay resumed his education and qualified as a dentist – the career that his mother had always wanted him to follow. He worked for a further 45 years and said that he developed a great love for his profession.
He no longer felt the need to fly aircraft, but when he saw a restored B-26 at an air museum a few years ago, Leon felt drawn to it. Allowed to sit in the cockpit by the museum staff, he wept as his wartime returned.
Leon met his wife Nancy through his work, and they have been happily married for 40 years. They now live at the Wycliffe Golf and Country Club in Wellington, Florida, where Leon still enjoys an occasional round of golf.