George, Shirley, and the Metal Plate
When I first started working at the Gate House Museum in Sykesville several years ago, I found a gray box filled with war medals. There were six neatly arranged and pinned against black felt. There were others lying loose in the box. I recognized two purple hearts.
I didn’t know what the other medals were, but they all belonged to someone named George Leakins, whose picture was also in the box, along with several documents, letters, newspaper articles, and even a very nice, official thank you from the government of France.
Digging a little further, I found a medal from the Sykesville Volunteer Fire Department hanging from a beautiful, tattered ribbon. I also found a shoulder patch for the 9th Infantry Division, and a few other items, including two very nice pins of some sort that seemed to have something to do with England.
But most intriguing was a small metal plate with a hole at each end large enough to drive a nail through, or tiny screw, as it would turn out. There were no words inscribed on the plate, no numbers, nothing to indicate its purpose. I couldn’t imagine it had any military significance, or why it was in the box. I thought it might be some sort of crude belt buckle, but that didn't seem likely.
A few months later, I opened the box again. I dug deeper and found a piece of flat cardboard that said, “Metal plate removed from George Leakins’ head.”
Needless to say this got my attention.
Who was George Leakins?
Why did he have a metal plate in his head? And what on earth was it doing in the museum with all these medals and buttons and British prins? Eventually, I realized that most of the answers were in the gray box. So I started digging.
George Gaither Leakins, Jr., was born in Howard County, Maryland, on October 13 of 1922. He moved to the Sykesville area at 15, when his father, also named George, took a job at the Springfield Hospital Center as a farm laborer.
As a teenager, the younger George worked at Renehan’s Apple Butter Market just outside town, and then as a clerk in the Harris store on Main Street. When America declared war in December of 1941 after Pearl Harbor, George tried to join the navy. He thought their uniforms were cool. But his blood sugar was too high. They told him to cut out sweets and come back later.
Before he got back, the government sent him a letter: “You are hereby notified that you have now been selected for training and service in the Land or Naval Forces.”
They told him to report to the Court House in Ellicott City, where he would learn his fate. Sadly for George, his fate was the army. And even worse, his fate was Company E of the 39th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division. They were called the "Fighting Falcons," and they were about to live up to their name.
They trained George as a combat rifleman, which meant a foot soldier, an infantryman. When I was in the army, we called them "grunts." These were the guys who marched and ate C-rations and threw hand grenades. They suffered terrible burns and wounds and died on beaches. They died in forests and foxholes and ruined streets and buildings in countries far away. They made good, close friends and lost them in terrible ways. They killed other men. There was no glamor in it. No real glory. And their survival rate was low.
George was 20. After training, he was off, and right in to it. North Africa. Sicily. Invasions. Hard combat assignments against strong forces. And George was a combat soldier.
In 1944, they shipped his unit to England for the hardest assignment of all.
D-Day Plus 4
If you know anything about World War II, you probably know that by spring of 1940, the Germans had conquered most of Western Europe, including France, and that on June 6 of 1944, over 150,000 allied troops, including 73,000 Americans, crossed the English Channel from England to drive them out.
They landed on the coast of France in the greatest land invasion in history. It was D-Day.
George Leakins was not with them. He got lucky. He waded ashore on Utah Beach on June 10, D-Day plus 4, and didn’t have to slog through muddy ocean under machine gun fire with his M-1 raised up over his head and bodies floating all around him.
But the 9th Division didn’t linger on the beach. They began fighting their way through occupied France, and George was lightly wounded on July 18. They sent him to a hospital in England. He met a woman there named Rita Campbell, a member of the British Royal Corp of Signals.
Three weeks later, when it was time for George to leave, Rita asked for something to remember him by. He offered her a kiss. She said that would be nice and gave George his first kiss. She also gave him what I originally thought were two epaulets from her uniform. I'm now fairly certain these were pins from her cap. Eventually those pins ended up in the gray box in the museum, closed up and forgotten.
(ATS stands for Auxiliary Territorial Service. This was the women's branch of the British army during the war. Over 200,000 served and about 330 were killed.)
With Rita's kiss on his mind, George crossed the Channel back from England into France. He returned to the 39th Infantry, just in time to go into battle against powerful, entrenched German forces.
First Northern France. Then Belgium. And finally into Germany on September of 1944, when the 39th were among the first to cross into the what the Germans called "the fatherland."
On September 14, they captured Roetgen, the first German city to fall to allied forces. Next, they headed into Germany’s Hurtgen Forest, where the fighting was particularly ferocious. It would take the division the rest of September, all of October, and into November to make it through.
George missed all that. Shortly after entering the woods, on September 16, he was blasted into the forest floor by German artillery. And there he lay. Maybe no one saw him. More likely they thought he was dead. And there was a fight going on, and no time yet to pick up casualties.
They found him later, motionless on a patch of forest dirt, sprawled out with lots of other dead Americans. Except George wasn't dead. He was blind. He was comatose and covered with blood. There were shards of steel deep in his head, mostly concentrated between the eyes. There was a large hole in his forehead. But his heart was definitely beating, and they got him out of there.
Back in Sykesville, Sadie Leakins received a message from Washington through Western Union. It said, “Regret to inform you your son was seriously wounded in action in Germany sixteen September.”
It didn’t say anything about the nature of the wound or what his chances were. It just told Sadie the number of an APO box (army post office), where she could send mail.
George passed his twenty-second birthday in a coma, and stayed that way six weeks. Slowly, his brain worked its way back to consciousness. His vision came back. But he would never again be the person who kissed Rita Campbell.
He spent 18 months in hospitals, lying in bed mostly. The shrapnel was close to his brain. Doctors were afraid to operate. Finally he made his way home. He’d gone into the army at 19, weighing 188 pounds. Now he weighed 122. He hadn’t seen his family in three years. No one recognized him. He seemed like what he'd become. A different person.
He suffered terrible pain and other debilitating symptoms, and in 1947 they decided they had to go into his head and see what they could pull out. They got some shrapnel, but couldn't it get it all, too deep, too much, too small, too close to the brain. There was still that hole in his forehead, large enough to hold an egg. They plugged it with the metal plate and screwed it in.
When I first started at the Gate House, the first of the five town managers I worked for told me that a woman named Shirley Bossom had left a large donation to the museum. I believe it was close to $200,000. The town government took the money and put it somewhere. And no one I asked knew a thing about Shirley, or why she left money for the museum.
The year George entered the army, Shirley entered first grade. She was six. After the war, George was 100 percent disabled and would never work again. He couldn’t bend over. He couldn’t lift anything. His face hurt. The plate in his head conducted heat and cold and caused terrible headaches, especially in winter.
He hung out often at the Harris store on Main Street. He was friends with Jack Harris, who ran the cash register for several decades. Jack suffered from some sort of debilitating arthritis all his life. When he stood up, he was bent far over at the waist. Jack would sit at the register all day. George kept him company. They'd been friends before the war, and now they had their disabilities in common.
One day in 1954, the Harris family took George to a turkey dinner at a church in Ellicott City. Shirley Bossom was there. They hit it off, eventually got married, and spent 45 years together.
When he was 77, George got sick. His vision blurred. The pain in his head became more intense. He blamed it on the shrapnel and the plate, but actually it was cancer of the sinus that had spread to his brain stem.
In fall of 2000, he entered the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center. They operated. There were several doctors, and the operation took 18 hours.
The doctors removed a tumor the size of an orange from beneath his left eye. They also removed the eye and replaced his metal plate with a modern version that didn’t conduct the heat or the cold. The doctors were cautiously optimistic.
George had never received the medals he earned for his service. Shirley set out to get them, and on October 6 of 2000, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett visited the hospital, where George lay in bed recovering from surgery.
George could barely speak. He had just lost an eye. There was a tube in his nose and a plate in his head, and with local news recording, Roscoe Bartlett took the hand of George Leakins and thanked him for his sacrifice. He presented George with his medals, 55 years late. The story made the front page of the November 2, 2000 issue of USA Today and made the television news in Baltimore.
The medals included a bronze star for valor, two purple hearts, a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, a World War II Victory medal, a combat infantrymen badge, and an honorable service lapel button for World War II.
George took his medals home. He underwent radiation therapy, but it didn’t work, and he died in August of 2001.
A few years before George died, a wealthy former showgirl named Lois Pope decided to establish a disabled American veterans memorial. As part of her efforts she wanted to honor an outstanding American veteran, an “unsung hero,” with $50,000.
Shirley nominated George. She wrote a letter to Lois Pope with this in it.
We have been married 45 years and I know the pain for him is horrible. He wears a medic alert bracelet that reads: ‘No MRI. METAL PLATE AND SHRAPNEL IN HEAD, ALLERGIC TO PENICILLIN.’ The doctor has said that an MRI would pull the plate and shrapnel out and kill him instantly. There also is a possibility that some of the pieces could move. We have a fairly normal life. My arthritis is so bad that my 14-years-younger body is nearly as old as his. But he is MY Hero.
George didn’t win the prize.
A couple years after George died, Shirley met a man named Cliff Hughes. He was also a veteran of World War II. They spent eight years together before Cliff passed away in 2011. Shirley died about three years after that on October 18, 2014, when she was 77.
Jack Harris had a cousin named Helen Gaither. Jack’s dad and Helen’s mom were brother and sister. Jack passed away years ago. Helen was 93, when she told me what I'm about to tell you. And then, not much later, Helen passed away, too.
Helen was a school teacher and very smart, with a head full of facts and stories and a great interest in the history of Sykesville and her family's place in it. She was small and stooped a bit and a wonderful artist, who painted different scenes from the town's past, including beautiful views of Main Street. She painted some on wood, and in those, the colors of the sky swirl with the grain of the wood.
Helen told me that when she heard about the death of George Leakins, she remembered reading about his medals. She didn’t really know Shirley Bossom, but she contacted her and suggested that Shirley donate George’s medals to the Gate House.
Shirley had never heard of the Gate House, but she liked the idea and gave the museum all those things that ended up in the gray box. And later, maybe to honor her husband, Shirley decided that on her death, she would leave the museum a large sum of money. Which she did.
Once I had a full understanding of the story, sometime in 2021, I thought it was terrible that all these years later, Shirley's money still sat in some bank somewhere. (I was never given access to it.) But mostly, I thought it was sad to keep the story of these people locked up in a gray box.
So on the museum's website, I created an exhibit dedicated to George Leakins. And on display in the museum, I put all his medals and letters and his amazing head plate, along with the cap pins that came with his first kiss. I enjoyed holding them. I enjoyed looking at them. I enjoyed picturing them on the cap of an English woman during the years of Hitler and Churchill and V-2 rockets crashing in from the sky.
Those pins are over 80 years old. They exchanged hands between two young people during the greatest war in history. I imagine a sad, romantic moment, and maybe even tears. George carried those pins into the Hurtgen forest. They were still on him when American soldiers carried him out of the forest. All through his life he carried them everywhere he went. Shirley even helped search for Rita, but they never found her.
The intense German bombing of England had stopped long before George had his kiss with Rita. The tide of the war had turned. England was much safer then. The bombs rained on Germany now. Still, it's not that unlikely that Rita never made it though the war. I hope she did.
Rita's almost surely gone now. George is gone. Helen Gaither's gone. And so is Shirley Bossom.
On Veterans Day in 2021, I offer this story in their honor.
Author's note: Rita's pins indicate that she was a member of the ATS and the Royal Corp of Signals. The ATS was the Auxiliary Territorial Services. These were the women who served in the British army during the war. Over 200,000 served and around 330 were killed. Most likely Rita was not actually a member of the Royal Corps of Signals, but rather a member of the ATS who worked with them.
Here's a link to the online version of the two exhibits I created to honor George and thank his wife. It includes pictures of the medals, more of the story, all the documents, and video of George on his hospital bed receiving his medals.
A version of this story will appear in my new book, "Sykesville Stories, Volume I," which is coming soon.