PEABODY – “I was a soldier and no matter what they told me, I did,” said centenarian Leon “Leo” Ditchek about what his service in the Army as a field medic during World War II meant to him this Veterans Day.
“No question,” said the Jewish war veteran. “Whatever the training was, we went to it. And what did the service mean to me? I served my country for good reasons.”
The 101-year-old lives in a comfortable room surrounded by pictures of his family with a well-stocked bookshelf on the third floor of the Harriett and Ralph Kaplan Estates, an assisted living facility owned and operated by Chelsea Jewish Lifecare in Peabody.
“Leon is beloved by staff and residents alike,” said Ellen Gordon, director of resident life at Chelsea Jewish Lifecare. “I truly enjoy speaking with Leon about current events and timely issues. He’s quite the conversationalist and so well informed.”
A native of the Bronx, Ditchek turns 102 on Feb. 28. He recalled how he was drafted into the service, getting a letter from then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his 23rd birthday in 1943. The letter told him when to report to Penn Station in New York City.
Once there, he recalled going from one doctor to another as they checked his blood pressure and other vitals. If he failed those tests, he would have been deemed unfit for service. He passed.
“They asked me ‘Army, Navy, Marines’? I told them, ‘Army.’”
From there, he went to Fort Dix, N.J., and then to Fort Stewart, Ga., which was called Camp Stewart at the time, he said.
“I went through the training, different marches, 7, 15 miles, it was a whole bunch of training. I was designated to be a medic, a field medic,” Ditchek said. From there, he was sent to El Paso, Texas, where he trained with an eye toward being sent to Africa.
“But we defeated [German General Erwin] Rommel over there and they didn’t need me over there,” he said. “So, it was one training after another training.”
He was finally sent overseas to the Pacific. From Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss., he boarded a train to Puget Sound in Washington State. There, he boarded a cargo ship that took him to Oahu, Hawaii, where he was housed in the Schofield Barracks Army Base.
“And to me, that was the best thing that could happen, because up until then I was always sleeping on the ground,” Ditchek said. “Now, I got a cot, a house …
“But, then they dropped the two bombs on [Japan],” Ditchek said, referring to the U.S. dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, one on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki a few days later, which hastened the end of the war. “I hung around for a couple of months, and then came back to Fort Dix.”
“I was in the service three years,” he said. “I never saw any combat.” He served until March 1946 and was discharged with the rank of corporal.
He went back to the Bronx and met up with his friends who had also served in the military.
He met Libby Rimland, and they got married in 1947. The couple were married for 61 years. Ditchek worked in sales and later as a truck driver in Manhattan. He retired at age 58 and he and his wife moved to Sunrise and Tamarac, Fla., and later to Midland Park, N.J.
He has been living at Kaplan Estates for about six years. He went to live there to be close to his son and daughter-in-law, who live in Ipswich. Ditchek is the father of four; two sons and two daughters. He also has seven grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
Being Jewish in the service mattered, Ditchek said.
While serving in Georgia, he recalled “It was boys from up north like New Jersey, New York, and then the boys from the South, and both in the same outfit. So, one of them went over and was feeling the back of my head. And, I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I’m checking to see your horns.’ Yeah. And they believed it! Unbelievable.”
Ditchek said he is very lucky to live such a long life. He doesn’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s, he said. He quit smoking two packs a day when he was 40.
“I’m lucky,” he said of having reached 101.
To mark Veterans Day on Nov. 11, Deutsches Altenheim, an assisted living and skilled nursing facility in West Roxbury operated by Legacy Lifecare and affiliated with Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, will host a celebration with a distribution of poppies to all residents and a discussion about the historical perspective of Veterans Day with Sandy Finder, the nonprofit’s historical affairs program leader. There will be a video tribute from Deutsches Altenheim leaders and Boston officials. The a cappella group the Latonics from Roxbury Latin will perform the national anthem.