Korean War Legacy Project

Don Leaser


Don Leaser was born in Decatur, Illinois, in 1933, moved to Wisconsin with his family, and graduated from Antigo High School. He enlisted in the United States Navy in 1951 and attended boot camp in White Lake. He was a quartermaster during his time in the Navy and his main duties were signaling and sometimes steering the ship. He served on the destroyer USS Herbert J. Thomas which had four hundred seventy-five sailors with five-inch guns. His ship was able to rescue an American pilot from the sea who was shot down by North Koreans. After he left the Navy in 1954, he went back to Wisconsin and worked on the farm while also holding several other jobs.

Video Clips

Quartermaster on USS Herbert J. Thomas

Don Leaser describes his duties on the destroyer USS Herbert J. Thomas which was based out of Hawaii. He describes his responsibilities of signaling and sometimes steering the ship. He recalls the dangerous nature of his responsibilities.

Tags: Weapons

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Rescuing an American Pilot

Don Leaser describes rescuing an American pilot from the sea who had been shot down. He recounts how North Koreans were also shooting from the banks near Wonsan. He recalls being hit by shrapnel from a North Korean cannon that bounced off his helmet while on the deck, but he was not injured.

Tags: Wonsan,North Koreans

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Life on the USS Herbert J. Thomas

Don Leaser describes life aboard the USS Herbert J. Thomas. He recounts how they slept on bunks and that his favorite foods were eggs and cheese. He shares that his ship was the head of the fleet which had three ships. He notes he was able to write letters home but adds he did not write enough, only writing one letter to his girlfriend, Geneva.

Tags: Food,Letters,Living conditions

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Video Transcript

[Beginning of Transcribed Material]


D:        My name is Don Leaser, LEASER.

I:          LEASER.

D:        Right.

I:          And when is your birthday?

D:        Eight, eight, thirty-three.

I:          So, your birthday was a few days ago.

D:        Yep.

I:          Happy Birthday, Don.

D:        Thank you.

I:          So, where were you born?

D:        Antigo, Wisconsin.

I:          ANT?

D:        IGO.



I:          DO.

D:        GO.

I:          Wisconsin?

D:        Yes.

I:          Antigo.

D:        I was supposed to [INAUDIBLE] Decatur, Illinois.

I:          What is it?
D:        Decatur.

I:          Could you spell it?
D:        DECATUR.

I:          DEC




D:        ATUR, Decatur.

I:          Decatur.

D:        Illinois.

I:          Tell me about your family when you were growing up, your parents and your siblings.

D:        We lived on a farm [INAUDIBLE] [TROUBLE BREATHING]

I:          Take your breath.  Take your time.



D:        Okay, I guess.

I:          Um hm.

D:        We can go.

I:          So, you had a farm.
D:        We had a small farm.  My dad ran a dairy farm.  So, he come up here to [INAUDIBLE]

I:          Okay.  How about your siblings, brothers and sisters when we were growing up.

D:        No.

I:          No brothers?  You were an only child?


D:        Yeah, we had a little girl.

I:          How many?

D:        Just one sister.

I:          Just one sister.  And when did you graduate high school?
D:        Fifty-three.

I:          Fifty-three.

D:        Fifty-three.

I:          And what high school did you graduate from?
D:        Antigo.

I:          Antigo?
D:        Antigo.

I:          ANTI?

D:        GO, yeah.

I:          TIGO, Antigo High School.

D:        Right.



I:          In your school, did you learn anything about Korea at the time in your school?
D:        Not really, no.

I:          You didn’t know?
D:        It was large.

I:          And?



So, you didn’t know anything about Korea at the time, right?
D:        No, not really.

I:          Not really.  Did you know anything about China and Japan?
D:        Yeah.  My parents spent lots of time in China.

I:          Uh huh.  But you didn’t know anything about Korea.

D:        No.

I:          Okay.  And what did you do after high school?

D:        Was on commission.

I:          Uh huh.  What do you mean?



D:        I was started up in uh, Japan.

I:          Japan?  So, did you join the Army or what?
D:        Navy.

I:          Navy.  When did you join the Navy?
D:        Eighty-one.

I:          What do you mean ’81?

D:        I was graduated from high school.



Went to the Navy.

I:          Navy.  And that was in ’53?

D:        Yeah.

I:          Okay.  And where did you get the basic military training?
D:        [HEAVY BREATHING]  In boot camp.

I:          Boot camp where?
D:        White Lake.

I:          White Lake.



And then you went to Japan?
D:        Yeah, off and on.

I:          Uh huh.

D:        Korea and come back, [INAUDIBLE] around, go again.

I:          Um hm.

D:        I was kind of a quartermaster from [INAUDIBLE] There’s some pictures there.



I:          You have some pictures, right?
D:        Yeah.

I:          Yeah.  And what was your specialty?
D:        I was a quartermaster.
I:          What does that mean?
D:        You have seven men.

I:          Huh?
D:        And you lead the pack.

I:          So, you did signal?
D:        Yeah.

I:          Uh huh.

D:        Signal, that’s it.

I:          Do you remember any signals still?
D:        Oh, some.

I:          Can you show?
D:        I had to steer a ship once in a while.



I:          Um hm.

D:        [INAUDIBLE] A whole bunch of pictures there.

I:          Yeah.  I’ll show it to you later, okay?

D:        Okay.



I:          Is this your ship?
D:        Yep.

I:          Can you hold it?  What is the name of that ship?
D:        I was here.

I:          You were there at the post?
D:        Yeah.

I:          What is the name of that ship?
D:        USS Herbert J. Thomas.

I:          Herbert J. Thomas.

D:        Right.



I:          What kind of ship was it?

D:        Destroyer.

I:          Destroyer.  Explain it to the students.  Students will listen to you.  So, what does destroyer mean?
D:        We were recruited to pick up downed pilots, We would pass?

I:          And,



And you were at the mast of the Quartermaster, right?
D:        Right here.

I:          And, with the flag, did you signal them?

D:        Yeah.

I:          Uh huh.

D:        Yeah.

I:          Was it dangerous?

D:        Yeah.

I:          Was it dangerous?

D:        Yes.  We were out there a mile away.

I:          A mile away.

D:        [INAUDIBLE] We had to back in because there were two bridges on the right.

I:          Huh.



So, were you near to Korean seas?
D:        Yeah.

I:          What did you do?

D:        [INAUDIBLE]

I:          What was your mission to be near Wonsan you told me, Wonsan?

D:        Yeah.  We were there to pick up a pilot.

I:          Oh.  What happened?

D:        He got shot down.

I:          Oh.  When was it?

D:        Sometime.

I:          In 1953?

D:        Yes. Fifty, or ’51.




I:          But you said that you graduated high school   in ’53.

D:        Fifty-one.  I’m sorry.

I:          Fifty-one you graduated.

D:        Right.

I:          And then you went to Japan when, ’51 or ’52?

D:        Both.

I:          Okay.  So, you went to

D:        We had to back in to pick up a pilot, and they were shooting from the bank [INAUDIBLE]

I:          Um hm.



D:        You can see the flags.

I:          How many sailors were in that destroyer?
D:        There are pictures of it over there.

I:          I don’t have it here.  How many sailors?
D:        Four hundred and

I:          Four hundred?
D:        Seventy-five, yeah.

I:          That’s big.

D:        It’s big.



I:          In that destroyer, there were 475 sailors?
D:        Yeah.  There’s a picture there somewhere.

I:          Yeah.  We’ll pick it up later.

D:        Alright.

I:          Wow.

D:        I got hit by a pair of [INAUDIBLE]  I was on the deck up here, and they came in

I:          Uh huh.

D:        And they hit my



attack you might say.

I:          You mean enemy what?
D:        Those were the enemy.  He was the pilot.

I:          Oh.  You mean the North Koreans or U.S.?
D:        U.S.

I:          How did they hit that?

D:        They were shooting with rifles.  That’s how close we were.

I:          I don’t understand.  U.S. pilot hit your ship?



D:        He was part of the North Koreans.  There’s a picture in there somewhere with all of those men.  Anyway, I got hit by shrapnel.  I was on the deck.  We were right close, and it hit my helmet.



I:          Uh huh.

D:        And bounced off.

I:          Was it North Korean cannon?
D:        Yeah.
I:          Uh huh.  How close were you to North Korea?

D:        Well, close enough to get shot at.

I:          Wow.  But you were not wounded?
D:        No.  It bounced off my helmet.

I:          You’re lucky.

D:        Yes. [INAUDIBLE]



In the sea.  We had to go get him.

I:          Um hm.  So, the U.S. pilot was rescued by your destroyer?
D:        Yes.

I:          Wow.  Tell me about it. What happened?  And describe how you, did you see him in the ocean?

D:        Yeah, you could see him.

I:          Tell me, tell me about it.  What happened?

D:        Well, we backed in cause we couldn’t turn around in there.



And they come and get us and get us out of there.  That’s what it was.  [INAUDIBLE]

I:          So, you loved that ship, right?
D:        Oh yeah.

I:          You embraced it like your baby.

D:        Yeah.

I:          So, what do you think about that ship and your service now?  I mean, looking back all those years, what do you think about it?



D:        It was, [INAUDIBLE] It was too close.

I:          Too close.

D:        With that one picture with all the men on it right here.

I:          Um hm.  And how was life inside of the ship there?
D:        Great.

I:          Tell me about it.



What did you eat?  Where did you sleep?

D:        Slept in bunks.  Four hundred and seventy-five guys, that’s a lot of guys.

I:          A lot of guys on a small ship.

D:        Yep.  We had five-inch guns.

I:          Five-inch guns?
D:        Yeah.

I:          Uh huh.  And uh, how was eating, food?  How was it?



D:        Food was good.

I:          What was your favorite?
D:        [INAUDIBLE], that kind of thing.

I:          Uh huh.

D:        And we’d be ahead of the fleet.  There was two of us spread out, downed pilots.  We’d go in and get them.

I:          So, you are at the forefront of the whole fleet, right?
D:        Right.

I:          Yeah.  What was the name of the aircraft carrier



That you were ahead of?

D:        It was, [INAUDIBLE] I think it was.

I:          What was it?
D:        Chihuahua.

I:          Chihuahua?
D:        Yeah.

I:          Um hm.

D:        I think that’s what it was.

I:          So, there was not much difficultly living inside of the ship, right?

D:        No.

I:          Huh.  Were you able to write letters back to your family?

D:        Oh sure.

I:          Uh huh.  How often were you able to do that?



D:        Oh, as many as you want.

I:          So, how often did you do it?
D:        Not enough.

I:          Who did you write to?
D:        My parents.

I:          Did you have a girlfriend at the time?
D:        Yeah.
I:          Oh.  What was her name?
D:        Geneva.
I:          Geneva.
D:        Right.

I:          Yeah.  And did you write letters back to her?
D:        Yeah, once I think.

I:          Huh?
D:        Once I think.



I:          Just once?

D:        [INAUDIBLE]

I:          Oh, come on.  Why didn’t you write more?
D:        Cause I was just too busy.

I:          Didn’t you want to see her?
D:        Not that much.

I:          Oh.  And

D:        We were in Hawaii for quite a while.  I had a home base over there.

I:          Hawaii was your home base?
D:        Yeah.
I:          How was it?
D:        Fine.



You can go over there and see more pictures.

I:          What did you do in Hawaii?
D:        [INAUDIBLE] mainly.  Cigars and cigarettes.

I:          And what was your rank?
D:        Third class.

I:          Third class.  And how much did they pay you?

D:        Oh [INAUDIBLE], like $125 or something like that.



I:          Uh huh.  And what did you do with that money?
D:        Spent it.

I:          On what?

D:        Booze.

I:          Drinking?
D:        Yeah.

I:          Uh huh.  What was your favorite drink?
D:        I don’t know.  Beer I guess.

I:          Oh, beer?

D:        Yeah.

I:          You’re a beer drinker.

D:        Yeah.

I:          Uh huh.

D:        And [INAUDIBLE] ammunition also.


I:          What was the most difficult thing during your service in Korea?
D:        That was it I guess, going to Korea, the rescues of those pilots and [INAUDIBLE]

I:          Had you landed in Korea any time during your service?
D:        Yeah, the destroyer.

I:          Huh?

D:        North Korea.

I:          North Korea?  Where did you land?

D:        Wonsan Harbor and higher south.



I:          Did you land in there?
D:        Yeah.

I:          Actually?
D:        Yeah.
I:          And what did you do?
D:        We picked up the pilot like I told you.
I:          Oh.  So, it wasn’t from the sea?
D:        Yeah, it was from the sea.

I:          But you landed in Wonsan.
D:        Yeah.

I:          And you put your foot into the soil?
D:        Yeah.

I:          Wow.

D:        We used to land




I:          And when did you retire from the Navy?
D:        Forty-four.

I:          Forty-four, 19

D:        Yeah.
I:          Fifty-four?

D:        Yes, forty-four.
I:          What do you mean?  You graduated high school 1951.

D:        Yeah.

I:          And then you served in Korea until when?



D:        Yeah.

I:          Firty-three or ’54?

D:        Fifty-four I guess it would be, wouldn’t it?

I:          When did you join the Navy?
D:        While I was in school.

I:          Fifty-one?
D:        Fifty-one.

I:          And then you retired from the Navy in 1954.

D:        Right.

I:          And what did you do after you retired?

D:        Went to a farm.



I:          Farm again?
D:        Yeah.  We had a farm, my folks did.

I:          So, you took care of the farm?
D:        Yeah, I helped.  Me and my brother.  He went to the east coast, and I went to the west coast out of boot camp.

I:          Um.  So, you had a brother then.
D:        Yes, stepbrother.

I:          Oh, stepbrother.

D:        Yeah.

I:          And you have one sister, right?
D:        Right, but I think she died.



I:          Have you been back to Korea?
D:        No.

I:          Do you know what happened to Korea?
D:        [INAUDIBLE ] no, not really.

I:          Korea is a very small country, right?
D:        Right.

I:          But it’s 11th largest economy in the world.

D:        What?
I:          Eleventh largest economy in the world.

D:        Yeah, you might say so.

I:          Right.  So, Korea is now what Korea used to be,



Very strong economy and democracy.

D:        Right.

I:          Did you know about that?
D:        Yeah.
I:          Oh.  How did you know?

D:        Over the radio.

I:          Radio?
D:        Yeah.

I:          What else do you know about modern Korea right now?

D:        Well, they’re in a fight for missiles.

I:          North Korea.

D:        North Korea.

I:          Yeah.  Tell me about it.  What do you know about it?



D:        Not much.  We still have [INAUDIBLE] drop them over there.

I:          Uh huh.

D:        And we would just sit there in the hills cause they have tunnels through there, through the mountains.  And they’d go in there and shoot and [INAUDIBLE] and closed them back in the [INAUDIBLE].



I:          So, what do you think about your service in Korea?
D:        What do I think about it?
I:          Yeah.

D:        [INAUDIBLE]

I:          Hm?




Should have been in that pot over there.

I:          Okay.  We’ll look at it later, okay?  So, what is the legacy of the Korean War to you?

D:        Well nothing [INAUDIBLE]

I:          Um hm.  Would you want to go back to Korea?



D:        Sure, I’ve been there.

I:          You’ve been there and you wanna go back?
D:        I’d go back, sure.  [COUGHING]

I:          Do you need tissues?
D:        No, I’m fine.
I:          You’re fine.  So, when did you check into this Veterans’ Home?

D:        About a year ago.
I:          A year ago.

D:        Better than a year.

I:          Uh huh.  And how do you like it here?

D:        I don’t mind it.



I:          Do you like it?
D:        Yeah, it’s alright.
I:          Um hm.

D:        You get everything done for nothing.

I:          Right.  What do you think about North Korea right now?

D:        They’re in the wrong.

I:          Huh?
D:        They’re in the wrong.  And they keep trying to shoot missiles over there.



I:          What do you think we have to do?
D:        Stop them somehow.

I:          Somehow, right?
D:        Yeah.
I:          Yeah.

D:        They can [INAUDIBLE] they say.

I:          Yeah, they say.  But nobody knows, right?
D:        Nobody knows.

I:          Any other memory that you have about your service in Korea?



D:        Well, not really.  I have a tattoo there.

I:          How did you get it?
D:        Got it in the lower Korea [INAUDIBLE].

I:          You had it when you were in Korea?

D:        Yeah.  I got it taken in Korea.

I:          Who did it for you?

D:        I don’t know the [INAUDIBLE]

I:          [INAUDIBLE]?

D:        Yeah.

I:          Huh.  What is it?  Could you show that again, your tattoo?

D:        Where was it?


It’s not finished yet.  See?  I got one there.  And I got one up here, too.

I:          Ah.  Do you see, do you have many other Korean War veterans here in this facility?
D:        There’s a few.
I:          Do you talk to them?
D:        No, not really.

I:          Not really.

D:        Yeah.
I:          Okay.  Any other story you wanna leave to this interview?



D:        No.

I:          Okay. Don, very nice meeting you.  Thank you for coming.
D:        You’re welcome.

I:          That’s your beautiful ship.

D:        [INAUDIBLE]

I:          Yes, I’ll give it to you later, okay?  But thank you for sharing your story with me.

D:        You’re welcome.

I:          Thank you.  Don, could you explain what that is?

D:        The ship.  This is for, right here.

I:          Um hm.



D:        And this is [INAUDIBLE]

I           Yeah.

D:        This one’s the one I wanted to show you with all the names [INAUDIBLE]

I:          Yeah, I wanna see that later, okay?    Thank you, Don, again.

D:        You’re welcome.