His last letter home expressed a hopeful attitude. "I may be home soon," Army staff Sgt. Leonard Gude of St. Joseph wrote to his sister, Eda Barthle, on June 30, 1944. "Best of luck to everyone. Please pray for me."
The 23-year-old infantryman, who had tons of family and a sweetheart eager for his return, wouldn't see his loved ones again. He died in a field hospital in France five days later after being hit by shrapnel, at a place later dubbed Bloody Hill.
Today, his body rests in a cemetery near Normandy, where his unit was part of the D-Day invasion. His memory lives on in a book his relatives put together using photos, letters and old newspaper clippings that chronicle his first Communion, boxing with his brother and his military service.
Ten years after his death, on Flag Day of 1954, his name was engraved on a new memorial dedicated to Pasco residents who served in World War II. The memorial, made from an octagonal bandstand that had been built in 1925 to honor famed bandmaster John Philip Sousa, included 1,857 names hand painted on quarter-inch thick wood-fiber slabs. Protected by sheets of Plexiglas, the 14 panels lined the outside walls of the bandstand.
Today, the memorial still stands in the shadow of the historic courthouse in Dade City. But time, heat and skateboarders have taken their toll. Some of the panels have cracked. Parts of names have disappeared as the material deteriorated. Two years ago, when county officials needed to add an omitted name, the panels were so brittle that no one was willing to hand paint it.
That state of affairs didn't sit well with some county employees.
"We wanted to do something more permanent," said Dan Johnson, a former Marine who retired last year as assistant county administrator for community services.
Fundraising efforts are under way to restore the memorial. County commissioners recently agreed to provide up to $25,000 to match private donations.
"We're losing the greatest generation, and those that are still around from World War II are in their mid to late 80s," Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said. "I think it would be a really kind, nice gesture."
The group is setting up a fund through the Pasco Clerk of Court's office to collect donations. Efforts also are being made to set up a method for credit card donations.
The new memorial panels will be made of granite, with the names engraved instead of painted. The cost is expected to total between $41,000 to $44,000, with the bulk of that to be spent for engraving.
One thing that might change is how the names are set up. The names of African-American veterans currently appear separately on two panels. Johnson said he'll let the families of those honorees and local African-American leaders decide whether the lists should be integrated. If they remain as they are, a marker will be put up to explain the history of race relations.
Organizers hope it can be finished and dedicated on June 14, 2014, the memorial's 60th anniversary.
"I think it's really nice what they are doing," said Leonard Gude's brother, Carl, 81. He has another brother, Florian, now 89, listed on the wall along with four cousins who served, including Louis Rachel, who was killed in action. He said he will likely contribute toward the restoration effort.
Carl Gude was 12 when Leonard died. He still can remember his mother's cries of "Oh, no, not my boy," as soon she saw the drab military truck roll up to the house. The secretary of war posthumously awarded Leonard a Purple Heart.
"When people stop and realize how important the people of this generation were, I don't see how they would not support (the restoration)" said Johnson, 64, who was born three years after the war ended in 1945. He said he didn't fully appreciate those who fought in World War II until 12 years ago after reading Tom Brokaw's book, The Greatest Generation.
"If it wasn't for them we would not have anything," he said. "They saved the world. Literally."