Like many veterans, Sgt. Lawrence E. Leea kept quiet about his time spent overseas once he returned to Utah after World War I.
When he came home in 1919, after a year and a half in France, instead of talking, he started drinking. He hit a rough patch through the Great Depression, when he didn’t have a steady job or much hope. Though he straightened out later in life, much of what he saw and did during his time in the war remained a mystery to his family for decades.
“He didn’t talk a whole lot about his time in the war, so our information is sparse. Matter of fact, no one knew he still had his World War I uniform until after he died,” his great-granddaughter Susan Leiber recently told The Salt Lake Tribune.
His death in 1975 gave his family members more than just a uniform. It gave them a veritable treasure trove illustrating that time in his life in the form of a leather-bound trunk filled with mementos from the war — like his doughboy uniform and helmet, in addition to letters to and from his French girlfriend.
Now those items will tell his story to a new audience. On the 99th anniversary of Armistice Day — celebrated as Veterans Day in the U.S. — Leea’s belongings will go on display at the Museum of the Great War in Meaux, France.
Leiber, who lives in Texas, said she was attending the Saturday opening of the exhibit.
Stowed away for decades in the trunk in Utah’s arid climate, the Salt Lake City native’s keepsakes — in particular the uniform — are among the best preserved and the most complete collection the museum has ever received from a U.S. soldier, Leiber said, though her family’s knowledge of Leea’s life overseas is far more scant.
They do know he was one of about 21,000 Utahns who enlisted or were drafted to serve in World War I alongside millions of other Americans. The soldiers accounted for about 5 percent of Utah’s population at the time, said Kent Powell, longtime historian with the Utah State Historical Society.
World War I was a proving ground for Utahns at a time when others across the U.S. doubted whether the state’s loyalty lay with the union or the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“So World War I gave Mormons, in particular, a chance to demonstrate very much that they were Americans, that they were patriotic, that they were willing to do their part in the fighting,” Powell said.
In addition to troops, Utah also supplied the war effort with copper, coal and sugar from sugar beets.
A life remembered
One of the few stories Leea’s family knows about his time in the military is how a team of mules saved his life.
Leea told the story to his only child, Lila, who passed it down to the next generations, Leiber said.
In early 1918, just before Leea and his company debarked in Europe, someone asked if anyone could drive a mule team. Leea, who likely learned how from his grandfather, stepped forward. That led to his assignment to the Quartermaster Corps, which hauled supplies to troops.
That kept Leea out of the trenches and away from the barrages of machine gun and artillery fire.
“He told my grandmother, he felt like that saved his life,” Leiber said.
However, that’s about all Leea told his family about his time overseas.
Even in the Quartermaster Corps, Leiber said it is possible Leea witnessed devastation. World War I was among the bloodiest wars in history.
“We don’t really know exactly what he saw,” Leiber said. “We just know he wouldn’t talk about it a lot.”
Most of what else family members know about Leea’s time overseas, they learned from perusing his trunk after he died at age 81.
For instance, they learned from clues in a letter sent to Leea by his French girlfriend that his unit was initially the 306th Supply Company Quatermaster Corps, and later the 2115 Casual Detachment Company. The letter also gave family members their first inkling that Leea had a French girlfriend, whose name was Germaine.
A letter from Leea to Germaine offers some of the only insight into his thoughts about his time in France after the war had ended.
“Isn’t that great. We have a chance to see things here now that millions are spending thousands of dollars in peacetime to come over and see,” he wrote in June 1919, “Lucky Devil I am.”
Midway through that letter, though, after describing France’s beautiful summers, Leea tells her he is getting homesick.
“But still I want to leave here for the states,” he said. “Everything in time gets stale, no matter how grand or wonderful it is. I always find it that way.”
Leea soon got his wish. He returned to the states about a month later, and was discharged from the military about a month after that.
His family believes Leea was proud of his service and saw it as a productive time in his life, when he contributed to something bigger than himself. But his homecoming wasn’t quite what he expected.
“When he came home, like a lot of other veterans, his job was not waiting for him,” Leiber said.
Leea soon slipped into lethargy. There were times when if his second wife, whom he married in 1922, didn’t have work, the couple wouldn’t have had a roof over their heads, Leiber said.
Their struggles continued through the years of the Great Depression.
At some point, Leea developed a drinking problem, which he later overcame, Leiber said. He went on to work in a mine, where he became a foreman. Later, he worked at the Clearfield Naval Supply Depot in the civil service. He was a founding member of the Murray American Legion, a wartime veterans service organization.
Leiber was 13 when her great-grandfather died, but she recalls many fond moments with him. How he would read to her, let her pester him and sometimes play dolls with her. Though he was a tall, thin man in his wartime photos, she remembers his big belly later in life.
And she remembers the canaries that lived in a small cage next to Leea’s favorite chair.
“He would take his canary out and let me pet it, and hold it on my finger,” she said.
Leiber’s hope is that schoolchildren and others might get something out of her great-grandfather’s war experience. As she sees it, it’s better for his items to be at a museum than sitting in her closet.
For one thing, she said, those experts can preserve it much better than she or Utah’s climate ever did.
She also hopes his story can help teach children about the war, in particular the fight against military aggression and the hope for peace.