Arthur J. Leeming was skinny, but he was no lightweight when it came to patriotism. He wanted in on the fight to preserve democracy during World War II.
At 124 pounds, Leeming was rejected by recruiters who said he needed to put on at least 5 pounds. The 5-foot-9 West Side resident said he promptly declared war on his slender build and began gobbling bananas and guzzling milkshakes.
“Everyone in the neighborhood wanted to serve,” the former Busti Avenue resident recalls. “By the time I put on the weight, I was sent a notice and told to reapply, and I passed the physical.”
Leeming arrived at Utah Beach, Normandy, 15 days after the Allied invasion on D-Day. His job was to care for the wounded at a field hospital that consisted of more than 100 tents. With each military advance across Europe, the hospital moved forward, too.
Right off the bat, Leeming says he doesn’t consider himself a war hero, but rather someone who had the privilege of helping the true heroes recover from their wounds so that, when possible, they could return to duty on the front lines.
But even the field hospital was targeted by the enemy, despite the sprawling canvas Red Cross symbols placed on the ground to alert the German fighter pilots above.
“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,” Leeming says. “I guess he didn’t respect our noncombatant status under the Geneva Conventions.”
In these tent cities, 5 miles from the front lines, the goal was to create an oasis of healing once the wounded were sewn and bandaged. “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 says.
Amid the explosive noise of bombs and artillery rounds, the 6th Convalescent Hospital retaliated by filling the air with the joyful sounds of the big bands. “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 says.
“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.’ ”
Sadly, the Sad Sacks came to an abrupt end. “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,” Leeming recalls.
“It was heartbreaking. The patients had loved the music. It reminded them of home.”
Leeming’s duties also included driving the “command cars” in which “the brass sat around plotting their next moves.”
Back in Buffalo, Leeming continued to make 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 says. “Then I got a job in a factory for 15 years, then I became a salesman, and life went on.
“I married and have two daughters and three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.”
And the music is still a big part of his life.
“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 says of the actor and writer who died at age 97 in 2011.
Leeming is a member of the Grandfathers Orchestra, the Buffalo Banjo Band, the Singing Seniors and Showtime. He also serves as president of a group of musicians who call themselves the Happy Time Club and who perform for free at area nursing homes.
Arthur J. Leeming, 90
• Hometown: New York City
• Residence: Town of Tonawanda
• Branch: Army
• Rank: Corporal
• War zone: Europe
• Years of service: 1943-46
• Most prominent honors:
European Theater Medal, two Presidential Unit Citations, Army of Occupation Medal
• Specialty: Medical Corps