Leo Lanier, Chattooga County’s last living prisoner of war, was honored with a community parade on NATIONAL POW/MIA DAY Friday, September 18th in Summerville.
Sgt. Lanier served in the US Army Air Corps from 1942-1945 when his plane was shot down near Berlin, and he was transported to a prisoner of war camp.
Sgt. Lanier, his family, Brigadier General Richard D. Wilson, Chaplain Major Jon A. Pirtle of the Georgia National Guard, General Randall Simmons, along with local VFW and American Legion Commanders viewed the parade from a reserved section on the steps and in front of the Chattooga County Courthouse.
Sgt. Lanier served two tours of duty during WWII. He was a Ball Turrent and Waist Gunner on board B-17 “Flying Fortress” Bombers. During his first tour of duty with the Eighth Air Force 303rd BombGroup, popularly known as “Hell’s Angels”, he flew 21 missions to Germany, 4 missions to France, and 1 mission to Karbonn, Norway from his base in Molesworth, England.
After Sgt. Lanier’s 26 missions, he returned home on furlough and was assigned as a training instructor in July 1944 at Drew Field in Tampa, FL. Before he completed his tour, he and his two buddies decided to reenlist. He boarded the Queen Elizabeth on February 28, 1945 for his second trip across the Atlantic to a war zone. He was assigned to the 486th Bomb Group operating out of a Royal Air Force Base in Sudbury, England.
On the 7th mission of his second tour, his plane was heavily damaged by enemy gunfire over Brandenburg, Germany near Berlin. The pilot ordered the crew of 10 to bail out. Leo and his two buddies were the last to leave the plane, and their parachutes landed them within a half mile of each other.
As Sgt. Lanier floated down, three P-51 German Fighters circled around them. German ground troops quickly surrounded them and started a march of several days journey to a prison camp. Sgt. Lanier said “We were glad the military found us because German civilians would have shot us on sight”.
Along the way to the prison camp, a group of Nazi SS stormtroopers arrived to track down the Americans and kill them. Their German guards quickly helped them hide in a railroad box car. Sgt. Lanier said “Darkness saved our lives. We could hear the SS officers outside looking for us. “
Finally the group arrived at Stalag 3-A Camp in Luckenwalde, Germany. The prison mostly held Russian soldiers with many dead or starving. Months later when front line fighting shifted, on April 30, 1945 Russian tanks crashed through barbed wire and liberated the prisoners in Stalag 3.
The next day, Sgt. Lanier and his buddies set out to search for American Forces. They were able to get food and spend some nights in Russian military camps. After wandering for days, they were able to find the Elbe River and American Troops. Sgt. Lanier was placed on C-57 aircraft to Rheims, France and stayed at the American camp “Lucky Strike”. He says, “They had good food and milkshakes made with eggs – as many as you could drink.” Leo traveled to Le Havre, France and boarded the USS General Putney for his last voyage across the Atlantic ocean. They docked at Newport News, VA where he had the first steak he’d had in years.
Sgt. Lanier received his final discharge October 10, 1945. Thirty days later, he married the girl of his dreams, Reita Thomas. They will celebrate their 75th anniversary on November 9 of this year.
Leo will be 98 years young on January 14, 2021. After the war, he and Reita settled near Trion where Leo was employed at Trion Mills. Later, he was employed by the US Postal Service as a rural mail carrier in Chattooga County and retired after many years of service.