By BRIAN BLACKWELL, Special to the Baptist Message
MONROE – Leroy Higginbotham will never forget hearing the electrifying news on the radio Dec. 7, 1941 – a day that changed his life and the future of millions of Americans.
A high school senior at the time, Higginbotham listened as the newscast reported Japanese forces had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
[img_assist|nid=6845|title=Leroy Higginbotham of Monroe displays the medals, Purple Heart and battle ribbons, he received as a U.S. Marine in World War II|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=75]Immediately, Higginbotham asked his mom if he could join the Marine Corps, as he was not yet of legal age to enter the armed forces. Four days later, he was sworn in to fight in World War II.
“I knew it was something I had to do,” said Higginbotham, a member of Loch Arbor Baptist Church since 1946. “I wanted to go out on an adventure and fight for the country.”
Higginbotham was one of more than 16.1 million military personnel involved in World War II. About 2 million remain alive today; they’re dying at a rate of about 900 a day.
Higginbotham spoke with the Baptist Message one recent weekday. His pastor, Andy Myrick of Loch Arbor Baptist Church, was present.
“I’ve never heard him talk this much about the war years,” Myrick said.
The years that followed for Higgenbotham included tours in Hawaii, Marshall Islands, Mariana Islands and Iwo Jima. His memories included some pleasant ones, such as camaraderie with fellow Marines and watching games of a military football league that included several NFL players.
But his time in the service also included witnessing death on the battlefield and smelling the stench of fresh blood in various locations where he fought, including when his division entered Saipan on June 15, 1944.
As the Marines inched closer to the island Higginbotham recalls enemy shells hitting the water all around them. Higginbotham said it was at this moment that he realized the war was going to be filled with much misery and the invasion on the Pacific Ocean island “wasn’t going to be a picnic.”
About eight months later Higginbotham was fighting in the Battle of Iwo Jima and sustained an injury that he remembers few details about, though he recalled that physicians in Guam later diagnosed it as a blast concussion.
By the fall of 1945 Higginbotham returned to Camp Pendleton in California with about 40 or 50 of his fellow group from his company. The other 200 that served alongside Higginbotham in his company did not return to the United States; some lost to death on the battlefield and the rest remaining overseas for post-war time duties.
Those who did return participated in a Navy Day parade in Los Angeles. Higginbotham said he still sheds tears when he thinks of the parade.
“The war was over and we were marching down through Los Angeles,” he said. “The people would just close in on us and want to touch us as we went by. They made us feel proud and happy to come home.”
Higginbotham’s time of service was over. He received his discharge papers on Dec. 24, 1945, which Higginbotham considered a great Christmas present.
He doesn’t know why he didn’t receive a Purple Heart at the time, and didn’t think much about it until a friend asked why he didn’t have one. A query to Rodney Alexander’s congressional office led to a 2003 ceremony in Monroe he was honored for the incident with a Purple Heart, a decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving on the battlefield.
Throughout the war, Higginbotham said, his faith played a vital role in his survival.
“I prayed, including when I was on the battlefield,” said Higginbotham, who chronicled his time as a Marine in a 31-page memoir. “I can remember having a church service in Saipan and the preacher giving his message while bullets flew all around us. It was inspiring.”
“My faith and companionship with my buddies are what got me through,” he said. “You knew you weren’t alone with a buddy right beside you.”
After his discharge Higginbotham spent the next 65 years working for companies in Louisiana and California. Today, Higginbotham lives near Monroe and spends time bowling, playing the guitar and visiting with his two sons, one step son, one step daughter, 12 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
Reminiscing on the experience as a Marine, Higginbotham said fighting for his country was an honor that is priceless.
“Freedom is it,” Higginbotham said. “If you don’t have it, it’s not worthwhile to live.”