Remembering, and honoring, Maple Park brothers' service to country
Richard Roush remembers being shooed out of the living room of his grandparents' house when he was a kid.
The grown-ups wanted to talk about his Uncle Dick, and the conversation wouldn't be suitable for little ears.
But the farmhouse near Maple Park had gravity heat, with grates in the floor. So he and his cousins lay on the floor and listened in.
The tale he heard of Richard Leroy Leff's military service and death -- and the tales of Leff's two stepbrothers, who survived World War II -- inspired his own service.
And Roush, now 81, gets choked up about it still today.
So in 2017 he thought maybe Maple Park would like to know about the trio. He also wanted to know if there was a memorial and a gravesite for Leff. The town's librarian told him to talk to American Legion Post Cmdr. Charlie Thalman Jr.
At the same time, Thalman was contemplating what to say at the post's annual Memorial Day ceremony. He didn't want to give a generic "always remember veterans" speech.
And so the two veterans -- Roush (Air Force) and Thalman (Navy) -- helped each other out.
"Veterans have a sense of brotherhood whether you know each other or not," Roush said.
"It was easy to find his (Leff's) military background," Thalman said. "After that I kept drilling down. I found ship logs, POW logs. It was a pretty amazing story."
Leff, born in December 1920, was the son of John and Ida Leff, and brother of Donald Leff. After his father died, his mother married Martin Roush, who had sons Russell and Maurice Roush. Leff moved to Geneva as a teen and graduated from Geneva High School.
According to the DeKalb Daily Chronicle, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in October 1940. The last time his family saw him was on a hourslong visit in either October or December 1941 (newspaper accounts vary). He was then stationed with the 17th Pursuit Squad, 24th Group, in the Philippines.
In April 1942, when U.S. troops there surrendered to the Japanese, he and 76,000 other starving and ill American and Filipino prisoners were forced to march up to 66 miles in high heat, with little food or water, to a train that would take them to POW camps. Many died or were executed en route.
Leff survived the Bataan Death March, as it came to be called, and life in a prison camp. But on Sept. 7, 1944, he was put on a freighter to serve as slave labor for a Japanese metals mine.
The ship was not marked as carrying POWs. A U.S. submarine torpedoed it and it sank. Only 70 of the more than 700 prisoners managed to escape, evade Japanese captors shooting at them, and make it to shore. Leff did not.
The War Department notified his mother that November that Leff had likely perished.
After the war, there was a memorial service for Leff, and one of his fellow POWs attended. He told the Leffs and Roushes about their time in the camp -- the story young Dick Roush heard through the grate.
Leff was not the only soldier in the family. Brother Donald Leff was a staff sergeant in the Army, stationed in France. Russell Roush was a Marine who drove a landing craft at Iwo Jima, then later was trained in house-to-house combat for the invasion of Japan. (He was also called up during the Korean War, to teach amphibious landings.) Morris was in the Army, liberating the Philippines.
Their service inspired Roush, a 1955 graduate of Woodstock High School, to join the Air Force. He served with the Strategic Air Command for five years.
Leff doesn't have a grave; his body was not recovered. His name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery.
But Thalman found there is a cenotaph for Leff at the West Batavia Cemetery. His parents are buried on one side of the stone; on the other side there's an inscription, "in sacred and cherished memory of" Leff.
Thalman researches veterans' stories for memorial flag cases he makes for his woodworking business, but Roush's call "was not a typical request." Thalman said.
"This actually hit home. It just seemed to me to be a worthy story to tell."
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