Soon after his high school graduation, Leonard Kirk, a 95-year-old Eldersburg native, found himself drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. He didn’t open up about his experiences until he was in his early 60s, and hasn’t really stopped since then.
For a long time, Kirk was reluctant to talk about his service as a medic, his role in liberating Rome, his captivity in Germany and what happened after he was discharged — he didn’t think people really cared to listen. Thanks to a support group he found through the Department of Veterans Affairs, he was able to open up more.
“The support group was a part of VA in Baltimore,” Kirk said. “It was headed by a lady named Janet. In the group she’d get you to talk, the more she got us to talk, I was kind of relieved.”
“Now, they can’t shut me up,” said Kirk, who will be speaking at VFW Post 467 in Westminster at a Memorial Day service Monday.
Kirk graduated from Rising Sun High School in Cecil County. Back in the 1940s, at the age of 18, men could either enlist or wait to get drafted. Seeing as Kirk didn’t want to go, he waited to be drafted.
He was first sent to North Carolina, where he did all his training in 1943. In January 1944, he was among the soldiers shipped to North Africa and then later to Italy.
“From North Africa, I went to Anzio beach in Italy and Anzio happened to be a beach where they landed to cut off the Germans in Southern Italy and liberate Rome,” Kirk said. “The invasion of Normandy took several days to go ashore and secure the beach; in Anzio we were on the beach for four months and I was a medic on the beach. I was there for three months … a medic on the front line dressing the wounded, helping them get back behind the lines to an aid station.”
After the liberation of Rome, Kirk spent two months in Italy, one week on rest and relaxation and the rest of the time working on maneuvers. They then progressed to southern France where Kirk was captured by German SS troops and taken as a prisoner of war.
“I was a medic with the infantry and what happened was we advanced too fast and got ahead of our artillery and tanks,” Kirk said. “On September 12, because of that, I and 30 others were surrounded and became prisoners of war.”
For the first day, they were marched behind enemy lines. The second day, they walked and on the third day, they were put into boxcars. According to Kirk, the boxcar could hold 40 men or eight horses.
“We spent days on those 40-and-eight box cars, locked inside,” Kirk said. “Quite often there was probably 50 or 60 of us in that box car because we were almost shoulder to shoulder, you couldn’t even sit down. That’s how we traveled from one stalag prison camp to another.”
Kirk was held at three camps as a prisoner. In the first camp, Stalag 4A, Kirk was interrogated, had his valuables taken away and given the number 88085. The second camp was just a stopping point and the third camp, Stalag 7A, was where he spent the remainder of his time as a prisoner. It was during his time as a prisoner that Kirk said he experienced his winter in Germany. He got frostbite and couldn’t wear shoes for a month after he was liberated. Kirk said he still has problems with his feet today.
As a prisoner, Kirk slept on beds made from straw, and he mainly ate rutabaga and potato soup, boiled potatoes and bread made of sawdust and flour, which needed to be soaked to consume. He had to stand by and watch others do work detail because, according to Kirk, the Geneva Conventions didn’t allow medics to work and his medical tools were taken in the first camp.
He was finally liberated from being a prisoner on April 29, 1945. He spent a month in Germany after being liberated and shipped back to the United States the following month.
He was given 60 days leave and was paid in back pay about $360 for the time he was captured. According to Kirk, that was a lot of money back then. After his 60-day leave, he said all the former POWs were given a taste of luxury.
“Uncle Sam took us to Florida, all the POWs,” Kirk said. “They took us to Florida and put us up in hotels for two weeks. We had maid service and we could get up in the morning and order what we want for breakfast, we could order a steak for dinner, we could walk out of our room and not have to make our bed.”
After Florida, Kirk was sent to Louisiana and put in charge of Germans who were American prisoners of war, which were plentiful, according to Kirk.
“There was several barracks of German prisoners of war in Fort Meade that came into Carroll County and picked apples and pumpkins or whatever,” he said. “That was my last job in the service, guarding German prisoners of war and make sure they did a day's work.”
Kirk was discharged on Dec. 28, 1945. Kirk got married six months after being discharged but had trouble holding a job for two years.
He eventually found a job for Canteen Vending Company and worked there for 38 years until he retired 31 years ago.
At 95, Kirk is still very active, and he said there are multiple reasons for that.
“Number one, good genes. My mother lived to be two weeks shy of being 95. I’ve been blessed with good health, and VA has helped me stay that way with their doctors,” he said. “You have to be active, which I’ve done.
“I try to swim three or four times a week, I still drive myself wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go, and I can still drive until I’m 102 because Motor Vehicle [Administration] just gave me my new driver’s license and it says I can drive until I’m 102. So there.”
Kirk and his wife have been married for 73 years this June. Kirk is also a proud father of three with 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren with two more on the way.
He is still active with other veterans as well. He serves as a commissioner for the Maryland Veterans Commission on a five-year term, with three years left in his term, and tries to do what he can to give them opportunities he didn’t have.
“We try to do everything we can possibly do for the veteran; take care of his needs, whether it’s housing or health or whatever,” Kirk said. “Carroll County probably has the best VA support team of any county in Maryland because they have a lot of programs that really help the veterans and they make it known that we’re here to help the veterans.
“The veteran today has so many opportunities because there’s all this help.”
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It’s help Kirk didn’t always have after his time in the service, and he is happy to do what he can. Just as he is now, finally, happy to share his experiences.