Somerset County native was part of largest airborne operation during WWII
(This is part of an ongoing series about World War II veterans from Somerset County. Close to 500 veterans from that war die daily, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The newspaper will tell the stories of those who remain and of those who have died as they and their families come forward. It’s the Daily American’s effort to document an important part of the nation’s history.)
Elwood Leister was part of Operation Varsity, which was the largest airborne operation during World War II. He watched bullets pierce the wings of gliders as he and his fellow soldiers drifted through the air over Germany. He wasn’t a fan of flying, and he had less control over his fate.
That’s how Leister, originally of Fairhope, described his experience to his nephew Craig Tomlinson later in his life. Leister was drafted into the Army in 1943. Prior to that he worked on the railroad. He was assigned to the 17th Airborne Division and volunteered for a parachuting assignment.
Operation Varsity, which happened on March 24, 1945, was a successful American–British airborne operation that took place toward the end of World War II, according to the Naples Museum of Military History. It involved more than 16,000 paratroopers and several thousand aircraft.
The American division for Varsity, the 17th Airborne, was commanded by Maj. Gen. William M. “Bud” Miley, a veteran airborne officer who had previously served as assistant division commander of the 82d Airborne when Matthew Ridgway commanded the division, according to the National Museum of the United States Army.
The division captured Rhine bridges and secured towns that could have been used by Germany to delay the advance of the British ground forces. The two divisions involved incurred more than 2,000 casualties but captured about 3,000 German soldiers.
Following the declaration of victory in Europe, Leister spent time in Berlin, Germany, after the war.
“It was well-twisted up,” he said in a video interview conducted by his nephew. “People were starving. Nothing to eat. Nothing they could eat. There may have been some hogs and cows. But I didn’t see them.”
Upon his return home, Leister married his wife, Marie, and had seven children by her. He worked various jobs throughout his life. He currently lives in Bedford.