Lying in the basement of a Belgium home in 1944, drifting in and out of consciousness with a four-inch gash in his left arm after being hit by enemy fire at the Battle of the Bulge, Leon Cornwell Doolittle could hear the fighting of soldiers directly above him.
The sound of gunfire and bombs blasting was hardly enough to keep Doolittle awake and if not for the help of Jenny LeJeune-Francis, who stood by his bedside for three days, he said he would certainly have died.
“I still look back and remember when they took me away, bringing me out of the basement and putting me into a Jeep to get more medical help,” Doolittle, of Southington said. “The medic turned to me and said ‘you’re lucky to be alive.’ Truth is, that’s exactly what I feel, even today.”
Despite the harrowing tale of near tragedy during World War II, a story told in the book “Battle” by John Toland, Doolittle went 62 years without being honored for his service and sacrifice to the United States. That all changed Tuesday as Congressman John Larson and members of the came together to recognize his service to the country.
Larson and American Legion member John DeMello, who first heard Doolittle’s story earlier this year, stood before Doolittle’s family and friends, awarding him nine separate medals including the prestigious Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal.
Doolittle’s story is one of many tales of valor and bravery held by members of “America’s Greatest Generation,” but so many of these American’s have gone unrecognized, Larson said.
After confirming his story and service with the U.S. Department of Defense, Larson said he felt obliged to make sure the 92-year-old resident of Marion received what should have been given to him many years ago.
“To have been injured in perhaps the greatest battle in American history and survive? That’s no small feat,” Larson said. “His exemplary service record is a perfect example of the American spirit and freedom.”
Born in 1920 and raised along Eden Avenue, things were different when Doolittle was a young man trying to build his life. He left a job with the town where he was making $15 a day in order to work for the old Colt’s Manufacturing Company in Hartford.
The new job, which had doubled his salary, was short lived as he was drafted just six months later and sent with the 30th Infantry Division to Europe. His experience was life changing, to say the least.
Doolittle’s family members, including his daughter Jane Thompson and granddaughter Terry Watson said they couldn’t be more proud of his accomplishments. They said he has always been well spoken, but humble about the experience.
“The only thing that could make this better is if his wife (Jane Doolittle) was here to see this. She would have been so proud of him,” Thompson said.
It wasn’t until 2006 that Doolittle was able meet up with LeJeune-Francis again and he said when he saw her for the first time since she took care of him after the injury, memories of what happened came flashing back.
The infantry had been reassigned, moving from a section of western Germany to Stoumont, Belgium, and he’d spent several days sitting in a foxhole before the day he was injured. Things appeared to be quiet when he got out of the foxhole for a moment.
“I was reaching out to grab my coffee when it happened. A cup of coffee, that’s what led to my injury,” he said.
Doolittle isn’t afraid to share his experiences, although it took him some time to get to that point, but he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t believe he should be considered a hero.
In a war that claimed so many lives and left so many images of death and destruction, he said he was just one of millions who were “doing what we were supposed to do and what we had to do” and that was why he never sought recognition.
“It’s a war we will never forget, one we can’t forget,” Doolittle said. “I don’t know why you’d honor me. I’m just another veteran, not any kind of hero.”
“The woman who saved me, that’s a real hero,” he said.
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