In 1939, Leonard “Len” Zerlin was 17 years old when his high school history teacher showed the class a newspaper article about a Civil War soldier who was still alive.
“Wouldn’t it be great if this Civil War soldier with a wooden leg came to our class to tell us his stories about the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Gettysburg?” the teacher asked the class.
Unfortunately, the soldier died before Len’s class got to hear him speak, but Len was enthralled with the notion nonetheless. Today, Len is a 97-year-old soldier telling his own stories from World War II. He considers it his destiny to chronicle his life, share his memorabilia and represent the many World War II veterans who have died, so they are not forgotten.
Len’s cozy home of 60 years in Thousand Oaks is like a museum filled with rich treasures, some sentimental, many historical. Every wall and surface seems covered with pictures, photo albums and mementos of a fascinating past. Virtually every piece of furniture and decorative accessory is a beautiful handmade wooden artifact that Len created with his own hands. He hopes his home will someday become a museum so that his stories continue to be told to generations to come.
It was late May 1944 when his squadron, part of the 9th Air Force, was shipped to the coastal town of Bournemouth, England. They were prohibited from making phone calls, writing or receiving letters or leaving the base as training became more and more intense. Two weeks or so after arriving, Len took his binoculars and went to the control tower to look around. There, as far as the eye could see, were miles of jeeps, trucks and tanks.
“I noticed that the jeeps had big exhaust pipes that jutted out higher than the vehicles’ roofs, which could only mean that the troops would be driving the jeeps into the water,” he says. “The talk around the base was that within weeks there was going to be an attack.”
That attack would come to be known as D-Day.
At 2:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, Len’s crew chief rousted the men in his quonset hut. “Up and out men,” he said. “This is the day.”
Then it was, “Dress warmly,” as he handed a bucket of white paint and a wide paintbrush to Len, and a bucket of black paint and a wide paintbrush to another man.
He instructed them to go paint their aircraft. Searchlights flooded the airfield, giving the appearance of daylight. But it was overcast, foggy, and cold. Len climbed a ladder to the top of his airplane wing and nearly slipped off. Regaining his footing, he saw that the plane’s body, wings and empennage (the tail assembly) were masked with tape. His task, along with many other men, was to paint groups of three white stripes and two black stripes sixteen inches apart on thousands of planes, to identify them and help keep them from sustaining friendly fire.
At 4:30 a.m., Len’s squadron was debriefed on the tactical plans for the mission. The B-26 Medium Bombers were to be airborne by 6:30 a.m. on June 6, and would have a second mission at 2:30, p.m. Their aircraft were scheduled as leads for the invasion. because of their low-flying capabilities and fire power. Strafing the American sector, Utah and Ohama beaches, they were to interdict enemy advancements and destroy their advancements and weapons.
“I felt anxiety leading up to the debriefing, and then I knew it was time to do the job I had been trained to do,” Len said recently, sitting at his kitchen table and recalling his part in that momentous day. “No more studying; this is the exam, and failure is not an option.”
His squadron of B-26 Medium Bombers led the assault on the Normandy Beaches, strategically defending and protecting American troops who landed there. They flew low at high speeds, firing at anything that moved, including German trucks, trains and troops. Len told the Guardian that he can still smell the cordite — a smokeless, nitroglycerine-based propellant — from his strafing bullets.
Preparing for the second mission, the ground crew cleaned the decking from thousands of spent casings. One of the armorers joked, “Hey, Len, gotta change your twin barrels. Almost burned them out — lucky you’re not paying for them.”
Airborne again, Len peered out of the turret of his aircraft and observed moving objects on the beaches — American and English men and equipment conducting the most iconic invasion of modern times. Most memorable, he says, was the view of the English Channel dotted with more than 6,000 warships, lobbing shells on the beaches and debarking our young men on the hostile shores. The memory is ingrained forever in his mind.
Allied forces braved rough weather and fierce German gunfire as they stormed Normandy’s coast, taking high casualties but ultimately driving the Germans back and turning the tide of World War II.
More than 16 million Americans served in World War II, and 156,000 Allied troops touched sand on France’s beaches on D-Day. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, 325,574 Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2020. Veterans of that war are dying at a rate of about 245 per day.
“I have no more friends to schmooze with,” Len says sorrowfully.
Len, now in his tenth decade, speaks candidly about his mortality. He also encourages today’s generation to continue to honor June 6, which this year marks the 77th anniversary of D-Day, cherishing it as a day of remembrance for veterans — like Len — who risked their lives to fight for our freedom.