Sam A. Leal, 80, warrant officer in Army who served in three wars

April 28, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In the drama of America's mid-20th century wars, Sam A. Leal of Fort Washington had a role in every act.

Mr. Leal, an Army chief warrant officer, not only fought in the major conflicts of his time - World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War - but he also witnessed nuclear bomb tests in Nevada.

"He was a rare breed," Linda Yankolonis said of her father, who died of cancer Monday at Rock Spring Village in Forest Hill at the age of 80.

"When he got out [after World War II] and looked around to see what was available for jobs, he realized the best job in the world was a soldier. That was all there was to it."

Born in San Antonio, Mr. Leal joined the Army in November 1942 and was transferred to Europe in September 1944. He was wounded just before the Battle of the Bulge during the Ardennes-Alsace campaign, for which he received a Purple Heart.

"I can remember him talking about World War II, being in the foxhole and not knowing what tomorrow would bring, not being sure if he'd make it through the night," said his daughter, a Havre de Grace resident. "He said he'd never forget the sound of bullets when they zoom by your head."

As harrowing as Mr. Leal's European experience was, he much preferred discussing it to talking about his later service in Asia. He arrived in Korea in 1952 and fought in the Korea, Summer-Fall and 3rd Winter campaigns.

In 1968, he went to Vietnam, where he served two tours.

His family heard little about those years.

"He just never spoke of Vietnam. Ever. To anybody. When we would ask, he would say, `There's nothing to say,'" his daughter said.

Her father was conflicted about the fighting in Asia because it lacked a clear purpose, she said.

"I know he felt that the way we were fighting after World War II was an entirely different way of fighting, and he didn't understand that way," she said. "In World War II, you were fighting for a reason. In Vietnam, you were there because you were sent there, which is a different kind of fighting."

Col. William W. Taylor Jr. became a close friend of Mr. Leal's after they met en route to Japan during the Korean War, where they served in different regiments of the 1st Cavalry Division.

Their wives met each other while traveling to join their husbands, then lived together at the Air Force base where soldiers' wives were housed, sealing a lifelong friendship between the two couples.

Colonel Taylor recalled the time the courier plane that carried soldiers to and from the Air Force base crashed, killing two dozen soldiers. Colonel Taylor knew that Mr. Leal was scheduled to be on the plane, but he didn't know until he frantically called the base that Mr. Leal had been bumped off at the last moment by a colonel.

"I thought the world of Sam. He was a good, valuable person," said Colonel Taylor, who lives in Alexandria, Va. "He was kind of like I was - the Army just got in his blood. It does for certain people, and it's a way of life."

Of Mr. Leal's 30 years of service, 16 were spent apart from his family. Other postings included Fort Bliss and Fort Hood in Texas, Oakland Army Base in California, Fort Polk in Louisiana, Vicenza and Livorno in Italy, and Ludwigsburg, Germany.

His last assignment was at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where he retired as a chief warrant officer in 1973.

His awards included a Bronze Star with three oak-leaf clusters, a Combat Infantryman Badge, and two Meritorious Service Medals.

Services were held yesterday at McComas Funeral Home in Bel Air. Interment with full military honors will be June 3 at Arlington National Cemetery.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Tillie Leal; two other daughters, Delia Arnold of Stafford, Va., and Denise Mayer of Woodbridge, Va.; a son, Sam Leal Jr. of Annapolis; and three grandchildren.

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