WILKES-BARRE – After 92 years and a D-Day crash landing that left him a POW, World War II veteran Tony Leptuck said he is still getting along.
With his wife of 67 years, Betty, Leptuck attended a luncheon Friday at the Quality Inn hosted by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center to recognize prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.
"I'll never forget the sound when them bullets hit that plane," said Leptuck, of Swoyersville. He was in the Airborne Division and recalled D-Day, June 6, 1944, when Allied troops invaded western Europe.
Leptuck said his plane flew over the English Channel and as soon as they had reached France, they began taking fire.
"We had a good pilot who held that plane so we could all jump out," Leptuck said.
He watched the plane crash as they parachuted onto enemy soil, with little idea of where they were.
As he was stepping out of his parachute, Leptuck said he heard a sound from over an embankment. He found a soldier lying on the ground crying for help, claiming he could not walk.
Leptuck still remembers the wounded man that they were ordered by the commanding officer to leave behind.
"That's what you call war," said Leptuck, who added he still regrets what happened.
After wandering around Nazi-occupied France for a few days, he said they stumbled into a German base and were captured. He said their captors insisted on U.S. and Nazi cooperation.
"They said, ‘America and Germany could whip the whole world.'
"We said, ‘We don't want the world.' "
Leptuck was held captive for 11 months.
He said 20 years later, the pilot from his plane called him. He had made it out after 26 days hiding behind enemy lines.
"He asked, ‘So, How'd I do?' I said, ‘Buddy, you did pretty damned good.' "
Lackawanna County President Judge Thomas Munley spoke casually to the former POWs. He served in Vietnam during that war.
He said when he was in Vietnam, capture was his greatest fear.
"I always said to my friends in Vietnam, ‘I don't know if I can make it if we get captured.' "
He said, though he often speaks publicly, he finds camaraderie with former prisoners of war.
"There's nothing that even comes close to being in a room with people like you," Munley said. "You people are the heroes."
During World War II, and Korean and Vietnam wars, 142,246 prisoners of war were taken from U.S. forces. Of them, 32,254 survive today.
World War II veteran William Smith, a machine gunner from the 106th Infantry Division, said he was captured when a tank blew up a truck he was following and knocked him down.
He said he and other POWs spent three months marching in the snow without in their uniforms with no cold-weather gear.
He said the Germans were not prepared to take prisoners; rather, they planned to walk their captives to death.
He said he was liberated when Russian and U.S. troops flanked the Nazis on the Elbe River.
On the train back to Wilkes-Barre, Smith said sores caused his leg to swell so much while he slept that he could not put his right boot on.
Carrying his boot and limping with a swollen leg, Smith walked from his sister's car to his family waiting in front of his house.
"When my dad saw me, he plain passed out," Smith said.