Chattooga County awoke this morning to heartbreaking news, Mr. Leo Lanier has passed away. There is no doubt when Leo Lanier, Jr. danced up to the pearly gates of Heaven that Jesus greeted him by saying, “Mission accomplished, good and faithful servant.”
In his 98-years on Earth, Mr. Lanier lived a life movies are made about.
I consider myself blessed beyond measure to have spent time with Leo Lanier and his bride of 75 years, Reita.
At the age of 19, Leo Lanier became a war hero. Lanier, along with all the graduating football players from Trion High School enlisted in World War II as soon as school was over. The team is remembered as ‘the team who went to war’. “December 7th 1941 changed not only my life in the years to come, but the whole world,” Leo Lanier said many times.
World War II Hero
Within one year of enlisting, Lanier was flying missions as part of the 303 Bomb Group, 360th Bomber Squadron. Lanier flew 21 missions to Germany, four missions to France, and one to Norway during his FIRST tour of duty in the B-17 bomber groups during World War II. Lanier was a waist gunner and ball turret gunner. The crew of a B-17 bomber carried only ten men trained as a combat team to deliver the payload of bombs to the enemy. Only 10% of the fighters were expected to survive the first 25 missions, if you were lucky enough to survive 25 missions the US Army Air Corps (there wasn’t an Air Force then) would send you back home. In the early days of the war the bombers had no escort of fighter planes to protect them, only about one out of every ten flyers reached the 25-mission mark. Sgt. Lanier completed 26 missions on his first tour.
Lanier: Chattooga County’s last World War II Prisoner of War
As a testament to his character, Lanier decided to sign up for a second tour in the European Theater and was shot down on April 10th, 1945 on the seventh mission of his second duty (33rd total mission). Near Brandenburg, Germany Lanier’s plane came under enemy fire and a fire broke out on the plane. The pilot ordered the crew of 10 to bail out, at 25,000 feet. Leo and his two buddies were the last to leave the plane, and their parachutes landed them within a half mile of each other. They were quickly captured by German soldiers and sent to a prisoner of war camp. Sgt. Lanier was held as a prisoner at Stalag 3A Camp.
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/concentration 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/concentration 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. “
His diary entry from that day read: April 10th, 1945 – Mission not completed
My first interview with Mr. Lanier, I asked him to tell me his war experience, it was Election Day and I looked ridiculous in American Flag leggings, I have always regretted not changing for the interview.
My wardrobe selection did not slow Mr. Lanier down, “Well what happened to me,” he said, as he began to share his story. It was if a switch flipped on as he told his story, he rarely paused. During his story that covered the span of his war experience ending with his POW experience, Ms. Reita sat on the edge of her seat. It would be later I learned this was the first time she had heard it completely.
The interview with Mr. Lanier was submitted to the Library of Congress.
For his service, including 33 missions over enemy territory, Sgt. Lanier was awarded: WWII Victory Medal; Air Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters; European Theatre Ribbon with 3 Bronze Stars; Distinguished Flying Cross; Presidential Unit Citation from President Roosevelt and the POW Medal.
Leo and Reita
Leo Lanier, Jr. was discharged October 11th, 1945 and wasted no time in marrying his love, Reita. The couple had a home wedding at Reita’s family home in Rome, Ga on November 9, 1945.
The couple had met at a party in Trion. In the 1940’s the game young adults played at parties was ‘Buying and Selling Cars’ instead of spin the bottle. The boys would buy the cars, and the girls were a certain car brand. “I had a Chevrolet car, Leo bought a Chevrolet, so we took a walk for quite a spell, we just started talking and kept talking,” recalls Reita. “The moon was shining so pretty and bright that night,” Reita said.
From that first walk on a country dirt road, over the next 27,645 days the couple always drove a Chevrolet.
The couple celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary in 2020. I stopped by and took the happily married couple red velvet cupcakes, Ms. Reita had given me some red velvet cake once that was heaven on earth, and of course coupons to get their Chevy washed.
Former State Representative Barbara Reece once said, “you can’t think of Leo without thinking of Reita,” no truer words have ever been uttered.
Mr. Lanier shared many stories with me over the years, but my favorites are the ones that have Reita in them. Two years ago, on his birthday I stopped by for a visit. Mr. Leo was surprised I took the time to see him before attending the Governor’s inauguration. I assured him, he was way more important than any politician and it was HIS day.
I am so thankful I made the time to stop by that busy day as it was the day he shared with me the story about how he retired Reita.
Leo was recalling when he retired from the Post Office at age 62, when he paused and asked me, “did I ever tell you the story about when I retired Reita?”
“Yes, I retired her…”
He went on to explain how he went about retiring his wife. After a season of being retired himself, he said he tired of being home alone. Reita was still working full time, and he missed her. He contacted the Social Security Office, asked the representative if he could retire his wife the same way he had retired himself, and was delighted to hear in fact he could.
Reita, as she always does chimed-in to share the rest of the story. She said when she arrived home from work that day, “he told me, ‘I did something today you might not like’, and I asked him “well, what did you do?” Leo then jumped in for the punch line, “I retired you.”
And sure enough, she said the next day the Social Security Office called her to confirm if she wished to retire, she said she did because “it’s what he wanted.”
She didn’t believe Leo missed her as much as he wanted her to be home to do the cooking, “he never could cook, we were eating little potatoes every night because that was all he knew how to cook.”
My heart, prayers and tears go out to Ms. Reita and the couples daughter, Patti, this will be a hard task as the family and Chattooga County prepare to say goodbye to our legend, Mr. Leo Lanier.
Mr. Leo Lanier, Jr. 98 of Summerville, Georgia, Chattooga County’s last Prisoner of War, passed away Sunday, July 18, 2021 at his residence.
Funeral Services are tentatively scheduled for 1:00 P.M. Tuesday in the Petitt Chapel of the Coffman Funeral Home with his pastor, Casey Bramlett officiating. Interment will be in the Green Hills Memory Gardens with the Shanklin-Attaway Post 5 of the American Legion providing full military honors.
The family will receive friends Tuesday from 11:00 A.M. until the funeral hour.
A complete obituary will be announced one arrangements are completed.