CRYSTAL LAKE – Leonard Buresh found himself in the middle of the largest convoy of U.S. military ships to ever cross the Atlantic Ocean.
He didn’t know where he was going, but he would be the first of anyone on the ship – including the captain – to find out as he was responsible for decoding the Morse code command.
As a young man in his 20s who had never been out of McHenry County, the trip alone was enough to overwhelm the self-described “hick from the sticks.” Knowing the ship would enter Nazi territory no matter where it landed was just a little extra pressure to not mess up the translation.
Buresh considered himself lucky that day, receiving the call that the ship needed to head to Hull, England, to load fighter jets with anti-personnel bombs. Had the 8,500 tons of ammunition been intended for infantry, Buresh’s ship would have likely been headed to Normandy.
It was one of many stressful trips Buresh made during World War II as a Merchant Marine tasked with delivering supplies.
Now 94 years old, Buresh spends his time spreading the word about the importance of Merchant Marines to fellow residents at The Fountains in Crystal Lake, students at area schools and anyone willing to listen.
Reporter Jeff Engelhardt recently spoke with Buresh about his service and his latest mission.
Engelhardt: Obviously it seems like being a Merchant Marine was a very dangerous job; how many trips did you have to make?
Buresh: I served from 1942 to 1945 and took about three trips to England, a couple times to Cagliari [in Italy] and once on a tanker in the Caribbean. It certainly was turmoil, especially for a hick from the sticks like me. I hated being away from my wife. I was always anxious to get back.
Engelhardt: Would you say the trip to Hull was the most dangerous?
Buresh: If they would have loaded our ship up with combat stuff, we would’ve been in Normandy. But landing in Hull was special. You couldn’t see the sky the next morning because so many of the airplanes we loaded up were taking off all at once to give the Nazis hell. I still get emotional about it.
Engelhardt: What made you want to join the Merchant Marines?
Buresh: Everyone I knew was enlisting. Some of my buddies were killed. I needed to do my part, but I was classified as 4-F because of a bad knee and the Merchant Marines were the only ones who would take me.
But if it weren’t for the Merchant Marines, the war wouldn’t have been won. General [Douglas] MacArthur once said he held Merchant Marines in the highest esteem. That always meant a lot to me.
Engelhardt: You don’t hear much about the Merchant Marines. Why do you think that is, and are people surprised when you tell them about the group?
Buresh: I have a hat that says U.S. Marine Merchant Combat Veteran on it and everyone thinks that means I was in the Marines. They’ve never heard of the Marine Merchants. Ninety-nine percent of people I’ve talked to never heard of them. I think it’s pretty sad. These people died in the war, too. There were ships torpedoed by the Japanese.
Engelhardt: How do you look back on your time in the Merchant Marines?
Buresh: I don’t think enjoy is the right word, but it was important. There was a lot of turmoil. And like I said, I was always anxious to get back home to my wife.