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Battle turned D.C. soldier Frank Leimbach into a prolific letter writer

By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; C01

Frank Leimbach was a man of letters. One of them, to his mother, began like this:

Hello Momer, By the time you receive this you'll probably know I'm in a hospital somewhere in England due to wounds received on the invasion.

As it happened, Anna Leimbach knew nothing about her son's injuries. The official Western Union telegram wouldn't arrive at her Northeast Washington home for at least two more weeks.

Received two separate wounds, 22-year-old Pvt. Leimbach wrote, the first one being a machine gun bullet wound in the right leg just below the knee as I was getting off the invasion barge. . . . Didn't know I was hit at first . . . . All I wanted to do then was get up on the beach.

That was Omaha Beach. On June 23, 1944, the two-page letter on American Red Cross stationery that Pvt. Leimbach sent to his "Momer" appeared on the front page of an early edition of The Washington Post. As far as was known at the time, The Post reported, it was "the first personal letter received in Washington from one of the District's D-Day heroes."

Frank Leimbach, 88, died June 29 at Montgomery General Hospital of pneumonia. His life was all about delivering messages.

He was a paperboy when The Post bore news of the Great Depression.

After graduating from Eastern High School, he followed his affinity for the written word to Acme Printing, where he rose from pressman to owner.

A lineman and switchboard operator in the Army, Pvt. Leimbach was carrying more than 40 pounds of telephone wire, in addition to his regular pack, when he landed in Normandy.

And battle turned the young soldier into a prolific writer. War has a way of doing that. Letters are soldiers' link "back to civilization or the world or a happier time," said D-Day historian and Vietnam War veteran Ronald Drez.

Pvt. Leimbach showered his family in Washington with letters -- pages and pages of them, now worn and thin, about arriving in North Africa, fighting the cold and exhaustion and enjoying the relative sweet life of KP duty in England. In one letter, he dropped the news that he planned to marry his sweetheart, Harriette Brice, when he came home.

Golly Mom, he wrote, I'm just about the happiest guy on earth. . . . Looks like you got yourself another daughter.

Pvt. Leimbach's mother compiled his letters in two notebooks bursting with wartime photographs and newspaper articles. She kept not only the official Western Union telegram about his wounds in action but also every boilerplate message on War Department letterhead assuring her that her son was making "normal improvement."

The impossibly light moments of war are preserved in the scrapbooks, too. In a photo captioned "Snow Horseplay," Pvt. Leimbach and his buddies are making a human pyramid about the time of the Battle of the Bulge. On a page labeled "Preparing for our V-J Day celebration," there's a photo of him in a kerchief and apron with some type of fowl in hand. Caption: " 'Old Lady' Leimbach."

To look at such a notebook is to consider the weight of the war as it was lived out by one mother and her son. One book weighs six pounds; the other, six and a half.

"Ladies keep scrapbooks, and mothers in particular keep big scrapbooks," said Drez, who has interviewed as many as 3,000 veterans of the D-Day invasion. Today, he said, the collections are gold mines for historians. Unlike battle plans and after-action reports, soldiers' words put the reader in "the shoes of the men who were actually there."

Occasionally a barrage of 88 and mortar fire would hit the beach, Pvt. Leimbach wrote in another letter published by The Post in edited form during the weeks after the invasion. I don't mean a couple every 10 or 15 minutes, but from three to six every two or three minutes. No matter how much battle experience a man has, he still feels jumpy when under this kind of fire -- and I was jumpy and scared as hell.

He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart for his actions in the invasion.

There is no reason to believe that he expected anyone but his family to read his letters. Some, such as the first published in The Post, begin with "Hello Momer." Others open with "Hi Ya, Pop." But as Pvt. Leimbach recuperated in a hospital in England, newspaper readers across the Washington area woke up to his reports.

"What happened to one fellow on one city block was of great interest to everyone else," Drez said. Practically everyone had a loved one fighting overseas, and a letter from any of the boys brought all the boys home. Which is where Pvt. Leimbach wanted to be.

You close your eyes and do some dreaming, he wrote in the second letter published in the newspaper. Pangs of ecstasy wracking your heart . . . the warming, heart-touching, over-joyous visualizations of homecoming and its very near future.

It wasn't so near, actually. The hospital patched up Pvt. Leimbach in time for the Battle of the Bulge, which he survived to serve through the end of the war.

The family scrapbooks also hold mementos of Pvt. Leimbach's life after the war -- a photo, for example, of him cuddling with Harriette at the base of the Capitol. He did marry her, just as he had promised in the letter.

She died in 2001 after 54 years of marriage. A son, Jim Leimbach, died in 1987.

Survivors include another son, Mike Leimbach of Cheverly; three daughters, Beth Swanson of Silver Spring, Linda Leimbach of Arlington, Tex., and Rie Crowley of Tampa; one brother, Henry Leimbach of Washington; seven grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

In a eulogy for his father, Mike Leimbach read from one of the letters written in the hospital in England:

Solitude -- quiet, unbroken, sometimes fearful, other times comforting; the kind that only comes from the mixture of the living hell of war and the heavenly, almost forgotten, bliss of peace; the startling comparison of the two, and the sudden realization of how near everything you loved and hated, worshipped and despised, was to vanishing forever. A reverie -- so brutal, yet at times so tender.

The words of Frank Leimbach, man of letters.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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