MAZON – This is a big year for Leroy “Tuffy” Gilmoure.
The Mazon resident will celebrate his 90th birthday, his 70th wedding anniversary with his wife, Velda, and the 70th anniversary of the date he took the oath of enlistment into the U.S. Army.
He has a bit of trouble getting around these days and is legally blind but still remembers with alacrity and clarity his years in World War II. He’s got a few opinions on today’s military affairs, as well.
Tuffy grew up in Mazon. At 16, he was already working, first at the Coal City Paper Mill, then at the Joliet Arsenal, where he loaded shells. It was then that he received his draft notice. With his job at the arsenal, he could have gotten a deferral, but he would have none of that. He went to basic training and took his oath of enlistment in 1943.
“I could have snuck out of it,” he said, “but I wanted to go serve my country.”
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After training, Tuffy was taken right to the Normandy Invasion on D-Day. Those of his generation remember the importance of that day, while many in younger generations learned the horrors of it through history books and movies such as “Saving Private Ryan.”
The largest amphibious invasion in world history, D-Day, June 6, 1944, saw more than 150,000 Allied troops enter a 50-mile stretch of France’s coastline by air and sea. The cost was high, with more than 9,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded, according to the website for the National D-Day Memorial.
Tuffy was part of the 8th Division, 13th Infantry, Company H. When his boat arrived at Normandy, they were in 6 feet of water. Gilmoure said he almost drowned. He was carrying a hundred pounds of ammunition on him and an M-1 rifle.
“I grabbed on to a big, tall Texan,” he said. “And he took me to shore. A lot of the guys never made it to shore. They drowned.”
Tuffy came through it in one piece, then was taken to a farmhouse with a convoy of other soldiers. He’ll never forget what he saw there.
“There were two semis loaded with dead soldiers,” he said. “They were piled on top of each other. ... I just could not believe there were that many of them dead. When I crawled up Normandy Beach, I thought I’d never make it up there. When I saw all those dead bodies, I thought I’d never make it back. I thought, if I make it back to see my wife, it will be a miracle.”
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Tuffy served in a mortar platoon with seven others. He still remembers all of their names.
“They were good people,” he said. “We were like brothers.”
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One night, as he and two others were standing just outside a fox hole, they heard a shell coming in. Tuffy jumped back in the hole, and the two others dove in on top of him. Their impact broke the cartilage in his knees. He was taken to a hospital in Germany where he was put in painful traction. His knees have never been the same.
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Tuffy was ecstatic when he returned home to his wife after the war ended. They laid all his letters to her out on the floor and read every one of them together, many of which had segments cut out by censors.
“Then we burned them,” Velda said. “We thought of them as our personal love letters.”
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Tuffy made a good career as a carpenter. Today he enjoys visiting with family and friends, going to bingo games and to the American Legion, going out to eat, attending the Park Street Congregational Church and watching TV. He has opinions on the state of military affairs since World War II.
“I say that we don’t belong over there,” he said of recent conflicts. “We have all we can to protect our own shores. ... It’s all political.”
He said he believes Americans today do have a lot of respect for those who served in the military, and his message to them is to not forget that service.
“Have faith in that flag,” he said. “I fly it every day. This is the best place in the whole wide world to live in.”