A Sykesville Soldier's Story
George Leakins fought, and eventually fell, in some of the most intense fighting of World War II. Fifty-five years later, he received his medals.
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Attached to the 39th Infantry Regiment in the 9th Infantry Division of the US Army during World War II, George Leakins landed in France four days after D-Day in June, 1944, and participated in the liberation of France and the invasion of Germany.
Blinded, wounded, and comatose, he was left for dead during the fierce fighting in the Hurtgen forest in Germany, with shrapnel in his head, a victim of German artillery.
Discovered days later, blind, but alive, he spent 18 months in hospitals and was permanently disabled.
He received nine medals in his hospital bed in 2015, shortly before his death.
George Gaither Leakins, 1922 to 2016
George Gaither Leakins, Jr. was born in Howard County, Maryland, on October 13 of 1922. He moved to the Sykesville area at 15, when his father took a job at Springfield Hospital as a farm laborer.
As a teenager, George worked at Renehan’s Apple Butter Market just outside town, and then as a clerk in the Harris store on Main Street.
When America declared war in December of 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, George tried to join the navy, because he liked the uniforms, but his blood sugar was too high.
They told him to lay off candy and cake and come back in six weeks. Before he got back, the government sent him an induction letter.
George would not be going into the navy.
You are ordered to report to the local board named above at Court House-Ellicott City, Md. at 6:30 A.m., on the 6th day of February, 1943.
The English Girl
Rita Campbell's epaulettes, now reside at the Gate House Museum.
George waded ashore at Utah Beach with the 39th Infantry on June 10. He was lucky. He didn’t come in under gunfire.
But the division didn’t linger. They began fighting through occupied France, and George was lightly wounded near St. Lo on July 18.
They sent him to England to recover. They sent his mother a letter.
In England, George met Rita Campbell, a member of the British Royal Corp of Signals.
When it was time for him to return to war, Rita asked for something to remember him by. He offered her a kiss.
She gave George his first kiss and two epaulets from her uniform. He carried them with him the rest of his life, but never saw Rita again.
George was a foot soldier. He carried an M1 rifle, extra ammo, an entrenching tool, and mess kit. He ate C-rations out of tin cans, sometimes heated and often not, and fought in ferocious ground battles, as the 39th struggled through Northern France and Belgium.
In September, 1944, they entered Germany. On September 14, they captured Roetgen, the first German city to fall to allied forces.
Soon they headed into Germany’s Hurtgen Forest for weeks of bloody misery.
George missed most of the fighting in the forest. On September 16, they found him among the dead, a lone survivor, with shards of steel in his head.
Once more, his mother heard from the army, but this time the situation was much more dire.
Known as the "Fighting Falcons," the 39th Infantry became the first American combat unit to fight on foreign soil during the war, when they stormed the beach at Algiers.
They also fought in Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy, Northern France, The Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe. They fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
They were among the first into the Hurtgen forest. It was dense, dark, misty, foggy, and well-fortified.
Fighting was intense and deadly.The Germans cut down trees to slow the American advance. Their artillery shattered the trees and sent deadly splinters flying in every direction.
There was very little air cover. The roads were mostly unusable, what roads there were. It took nearly three months to fight their way through. The casualty rate was 25%, with over 35,000 lost.
39th Infantry shoulder patch worn by George Leakins.
Mrs. Sadie Leakins
RFD Sykesville, Md
Regret to Inform you your son was seriously wounded in action in Germany, sixteen September...
George passed his twenty-second birthday in a coma, and didn’t come out of it for six weeks. When he regained consciousness, he was blind.
He spent 18 months in hospitals. Eventually his vision returned, but he would never again be the person who entered that German forest.
Finally he came home. He’d gone into the army at 19, weighing 188 pounds. Now he weighed 122.
He hadn’t seen his family in three years. No one recognized him.
He continued to suffer terrible pain and other symptoms. In 1947, they finally operated. They removed some shrapnel, but not all, because it was too close to his brain. They plugged a large hole in his forehead with a crude metal plate.
For over 55 years, Leakins lived with this plate in his head. It conducted cold and heat and caused terrible pain.
There were also shards of shrapnel embedded in his skull.
The plate, nearly 2 inches wide, was held in place by a pair of screws.
George would never work again. He couldn’t bend over or lift anything. The plate conducted heat and cold and caused terrible headaches.
He spent many of his days at the Harris store on Main Street in Sykesville. He was friends with Jack Harris, who ran the cash register. Jack suffered from debilitating lifelong arthritis. When he stood up, he was bent over at the waist.
Jack sat at the register all day. George kept him company.
In 1954, Jack took George to a turkey dinner at a church in Ellicott City. Shirley Bossom was there. They hit it off, were eventually married, and spent 45 years together.
When he was 77, his vision blurred. The pain in his head had been increasing for several years and now it was unbearable. He thought it was the plate and the shrapnel.
It was cancer of the sinus cavity. It had spread to his brain stem.
In fall of 2000, several doctors operated on him for 18 hours at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center.
They removed a tumor the size of an orange from beneath his left eye. They removed the eye and replaced his metal plate with a version that didn’t conduct the heat or the cold.
George had never received his medals. So Shirley got them. On October 6 of 2000, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett visited the hospital, where George lay recovering.
George could not speak. There was a tube in his nose and a new plate in his head. He had just lost an eye.
Bartlett thanked him and presented George with nine medals. The story made the front page of the November 2, 2000 issue of USA Today and was covered on TV in Baltimore.
The medals included a bronze star for valor, a purple heart, a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, a World War II Victory medal, a combat infantrymen badge, and an honorable service lapel button for World War II.
George went home with his medals. He underwent radiation therapy. It didn’t work.
He died in August of 2001.