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Stories of Honor: Military veteran from Blair guided to long, fulfilling life
Winona Daily News - 8/8/2022
Aug. 7—Leland Walter Chenoweth recalled his time as a soldier in New Guinea, where American forces were fighting the Japanese during World War II. He was lying in bed with "jungle rot" when a nurse admonished him for making light of his condition.
"She says, 'Hey, you're dying; don't make fun of it,'" Chenoweth said.
Chenoweth cheated death in the jungle. He overcame disease and a chest full of shrapnel to live a long, productive life. Today, he's 103 years old and lives with Bonnie, his wife of 65 years, in Blair. He credits his long life to "guidance," a word he uses often.
"The only answer that I've come to lately is that I've been with guidance all my life since the time I was a kid," he said. "It was guidance of one kind or another ... that's my whole life."
Except for college, a brief life as a "hobo" and five years in the military, Chenoweth is a lifelong resident of Trempealeau County, where he was born July 25, 1919. When he was a sophomore in high school, his mother and primary source of guidance as a youth first showed signs of dementia. He said the loss of his mother's influence triggered a spirit of "independent thinking" and led to two years of alternating between attending college and hopping freight trains while living the life of a hobo.
The college/hobo part of his life ended in 1940, when he went to Arcadia and signed up for the military on the eve of World War II. He joined the Army's 32nd Infantry Division, a military police company. After basic training at Camp McCoy (now Fort McCoy), the unit was assigned to Fort Beauregard, Louisiana. The unit was then moved to Boston with orders to board ships for Great Britain, which was already at war with Germany.
Chenoweth never boarded the ship. He spotted an item on a bulletin board that advertised a need for a typist in the G2 Division, a military intelligence unit within the 32nd.
"I had a semester of typing in high school," he said. "I learned to be a good typist, and so I wrote my name down, and that's what division headquarters wanted. The purpose of the G2 Company was to get information about the enemy for the general in charge of the division."
While the military police unit sailed for Europe, the rest of the 32nd was assigned to the Pacific after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Chenoweth first landed in Australia, where he learned how to shoot a rifle. In the meantime, he was promoted to sergeant and then staff sergeant.
It was in the Pacific where Chenoweth found the positive leadership he was looking for. He remembered a sergeant, in particular.
"Before I was promoted, a sergeant gave me a job of cleaning the latrine ... the sergeant told me what to do and how to do it, and I finished the job, and the sergeant came back and said, 'Oh gosh, I like what you did there. That was a good job.' I never had anybody before tell me I was doing a good job. I still remember that story about leadership. That's the kind of leadership I had."
From Australia, it was off to the jungles of New Guinea, where the Allies made their initial stand to halt the advance of the Japanese in the Pacific. Chenoweth requested a transfer to the 128th Regiment. He believed the transfer would get him closer to the front, where his intelligence skills could best be utilized.
"Now we're supposed to fight the Japanese in New Guinea, but we know nothing about the Japanese — nothing whatsoever," he said. "I can now be on the front line getting information about the enemy."
The Allies halted the Japanese advance toward Port Moresby in September 1942, and Chenoweth was part of the Allied assault on Buna two months later. Chenoweth was wounded Nov. 22, 1942, when a bomb detonated in front of him. The shrapnel entered his chest, and some of it punctured one of his lungs.
Despite the severity of his injuries, Chenoweth had to remain in the jungle for nearly four days because there was no way to evacuate anyone. He was finally flown over the Stanley Mountains to a hospital in Port Moresby, where a doctor determined it was too risky to operate.
"He told me, 'There's nothing I can do for you. Either you'll get infected and die, or you'll heal,'" Chenoweth said.
Chenoweth healed. He was transferred to a hospital in Brisbane, Australia, and was discharged after three months. He was sent back to his unit, where he volunteered for Officer Training School. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant Sept. 28, 1943, and was promoted to first lieutenant a short time later. He was reassigned to his unit and put in charge of loading and unloading ships in New Guinea and Australia for the remainder of the war.
He returned to the United States in May 1945. He had the opportunity to remain in the Army and accept a promotion to captain, but he decided against a military career and was honorably discharged in October 1945.
Chenoweth returned to school at UW-La Crosse. Unlike his pre-war college experience, he took his studies seriously and received a bachelor's degree in education. He later received a master's degree in history and a law degree. He wanted to join the foreign service but didn't have enough money for travel to Washington, D.C.
He joined the U.S. Postal Service instead. At age 27, Chenoweth was walking down the street in Blair when he was approached by the local postmaster, who asked him if he wanted a job in the Postal Service. Chenoweth agreed on the spot, and it led to a 39-year career in the Post Office that included stints as Postmaster in Blair and Black River Falls.
The Postal Service job led to a busy and fulfilling life in Blair. He married Bonnie in 1955, and the couple had three children. His extensive civic life includes 36 years on the Blair School Board, membership in the American Legion and local Masonic Lodge and service as president of the Grandview Nursing Home.
Chenoweth's life was chronicled in a book "Who Am I?" that was published shortly before his 100th birthday.
He credits his extended lifespan to guidance from multiple sources throughout his life.
"I'm always looking for guidance," he said. "Real guidance was available to me when I wasn't aware of it. There has to be something guiding the universe. There has to be a leader."
The River Valley Media Group presents Stories of Honor in tribute to outstanding military veterans on Sundays and Wednesday in August.
La Crosse Tribune reporter Steve Rundio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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