Arthur J. Leeming was a skinny youth when World War II broke out. being a ‘heavyweight’, not in body but in will, he signed up for the army only to be turned down because of his built. He was only 124 pounds and the recruiter told him he needed to put in another 5 pounds to qualify.
So, he fattened himself up, gobbling on bananas and milkshakes. It did pay out!
“Everyone in the neighborhood wanted to serve,” the former Busti Avenue resident mused. “By the time I put on the weight, I was sent a notice and told to reapply, and I passed the physical.”
Leeming set foot on Utah Beach, Normandy fifteen days after D-Day invasion by the Allies. His job required him to take care for wounded soldiers in a field hospital which consisted of over 100 tents in the area. As the Allied forces advanced across Europe, the hospital advanced,too.
Leeming, however, does not consider himself a war hero but rather, just someone who helped the true heroes – the soldiers who really fought in the field – recover from their wounds so that they could return and fight in the front lines, if still possible.
Despite being a field hospital with Red Cross symbols in canvasses sprawled on the grounds throughout the tents’ location to serve as alert signs for German pilots above, they, nevertheless, were not exempted from enemy attacks.
“We had German planes buzz us, and usually they flew away. But one time, a German circled over us and let out a few blasts from his machine guns. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. I guess he didn’t respect our noncombatant status under the Geneva Conventions,” he recalled.
The 6th Convalescent Hospital was located just five miles away from the front lines and its goal was to provide a wellspring of healing for the wounded and bandaged soldiers.
“We had woodworking, camera and drawing workshops. It was all meant to be exercise for hands and muscles – therapy that was part of the medical treatment,” Leeming said.
And one of the ways the hospital countered the buzzing of war going on outside the tent walls was to make music as loud and as joyful as the big band put together could.
“We were able to form a 10-piece orchestra. It was a strange setup. We used an accordion, a guitar, two trumpets, two saxophones, a drummer and a bass fiddle, which was me, a piano and the conductor,” Leeming recollected and then added, “We called ourselves the Sad Sacks, which was taken from a cartoon character in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. We had a motto: ‘If you can’t play good, play loud.’ ”
However, the “Sad Sacks” came to an abrupt and sad end – the instruments being blown to pieces.
“All of the instruments were being transported in this truck on the way from Fürth in Germany to Nuremberg, and somewhere along the line, the truck hit a land mine and our instruments were blown to smithereens. That was the end of the Sad Sacks. The horns were flattened, my fiddle was in splinters, everything was destroyed,” the WWII veteran recalled.
“Sad Sacks” end was heartbreaking as many recuperating soldiers looked forward to the music it played as they loved it. It was their reminder of home, the country they were fighting for.
After WWII, Leeming did not stop making music.
“When I first came back from the service, I formed a three-piece band and played at gin mills around the West Side,” he stated. “Then I got a job in a factory for 15 years, then I became a salesman, and life went on.
Music became an integral part in his life.
In fact, “Sad Sacks” became a local musical.
“My war story about the Sad Sacks became a musical. Mary Kate O’Connell wrote a fictitious 60-year reunion of the Sad Sacks, and I was in it with Manny Fried,” Leeming siad with a proud gleam in his voice. Manny Fried was a writer and actor who died at the age of 97 in 2011.
Currently, Leeming is actively involved in the Grandfathers Orchestra, The Buffalo Banjo Band, The Singing Seniors and Showtime. he is also the president of a musician group who dubs themselves the Happy Time Club and plays in nursing homes for free.
The WWII veteran has really come a long way all because of a desire to serve his country.