William T. Leonard was born in Moline, Illinois, on August 13, 1925. His older sister was a nurse in the Navy already. He graduated from Moline High School and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps on June 16, 1943, at the age of 17.1 It wasn’t uncommon for people under 18 to enlist as long as they received parental consent, which William had. Although, unlike today, letters also needed to be submitted to indicate if you were of good character or mature enough to join the U.S. military.
Edward Kusch, the priest of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, described his character as “beyond reproach and comes from one of the community’s finest families.” Mr. Mosenfelder, the owner of a clothing store for men in Rock Island, called him a “loyal and conscientious citizen of the United States.” Mosenfelder was also a pilot who knew who William would be facing in the Army Air Corps, so an excellent compliment for sure!
In the Army Air Corps, William was initially in a communications specialty as an electrician. Communications members in the military broadcast radio signals so units can talk to each other. This was long before the advancements of cell phones and computers that the military uses today. He also become a left-door gunner on a B-29 Superfortress.2 The B-29 was a plane used for bombing missions in World War II that weighed 69,610 pounds, had a length of 99 feet,
and had a maximum speed of 365 miles per hour.3 During this time as a gunner, he gained a reputation for being a marksman. He received “official credit for shooting down one Japanese pursuit plane.”
One time, as they were returning from a bombing mission against the Japanese military, the B-29 he and his crew were on took severe damage. After 17 hours of flying from Japan to Guam and attempting to land, the landing gear wouldn’t work. The pilot successfully did an emergency landing back on Guam, which was a tricky thing to do. He and his crew received commendation for this. His crew flew 11 bombing missions on Tokyo, Nagoya, Yokohama, Nagasaki, and others. It’s important to note that while William participated in bombing runs in Nagasaki, he was not a part of the crew that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki resulting in Imperial Japan’s surrender. He and his crew were on leave, or vacation, in California.13
William was discharged from the U.S. Army Air Corps on January 30, 1946, having achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant. He participated in the Ryukyus, China Offensive, Air Offensive-Japan, and Western Pacific campaigns. He also earned the Air Medal, Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon, World War II Victory Medal, American Theater Ribbon, and Good Conduct Medal. He also earned $237 upon discharge from the U.S. Army Air Corps.
William enrolled at the University of Iowa in Iowa City graduating in 1949 with a degree in journalism and advertising. He met Audrey Wiedner in 1949 and got married on August 20 of that year. They would have six children together. Ten years later, he and Sam Preston opened Leonard and Preston Advertising Agency in the Village Shopping Center, which is still around today in Davenport, Iowa. William also never gave up his love for flying. He flew his family personally, either out of the Moline airport or out of Mount Joy, Iowa, to Chicago to visit Milo Hamilton, who was the broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs and White Sox. He flew his plane to see clients throughout the area as well such as KSTT Radio in Davenport, Northwest Bank & Trust Company, and Geifman Food Stores, which became Geifman First Equity.4
The business was growing – so much so that the two opened a second location in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1961. Tragedy was around the corner for William. He was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and peritonitis. Ulcerative Colitis is a disease that causes inflammation and ulcers, or sores, in the digestive tract.5 Peritonitis is inflammation of the membrane that covers the organs of your abdomen.6
While these diseases can be taken care of with medication today, that wasn’t the case in the early 60s. These diseases are hereditary, or passed down from one family generation to another. William would pass away from these on July 29, 1961, being only 35 years old. Thankfully, William kept everything from his time in the service in a trunk so that his family would have something to remember him by or actually get to know him. Most of the six children were young when William passed away. “This trunk is what we have of my dad,” Jeff, his son, said.
William, along with his wife Audrey, is buried in the Rock Island National Cemetery, Rock Island Arsenal, Section L Site 81.
1 Terry Duvall, Jeff Leonard, & Shane Kern, interview with author, April 27, 2022.
2 Terry Duvall, Jeff Leonard, private collection
5 “Ulcerative colitis,” Mayo Clinic, Accessed May 31, 2022 Ulcerative colitis – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic