MAKING IT OFFICIAL — Leonard Krajewski is pictured with the diploma he received from S-GI as well as a letter from Harry S. Truman congratulating him. Photo by Jeff Martin.
COLDEN — Sixty-eight years ago, Colden resident Leonard Krajewski told what he said he felt was a little white lie, in order to head into the field of battle.
It was 1944 and World War II was raging. Krajewski was 13 years old. He said that he felt he had no choice but to follow his cousin, who was seven years older than he was, across the ocean.
“We were very close,” Krajewski explained, from his home in Colden. “We hung out, every week. We did everything together.”
Krajewski decided to volunteer for the service. He said it was the best option and a perfect fit for a young boy full of patriotism and an urgency to escape. He went to the local enlistment office and, before going in, approached a woman in the street.
“I never found out who she was,” he said. “I never got her name. I just asked her if she could sign as my mother and she agreed to do it. [The military] thought I was 17, because she told them I was.”
Just before his 14th birthday, Krajewski enlisted in the 65th National Guard Regiment, 106 Field Artillery Company I. A picture in the Buffalo News, dated July 6, 1944, showed Krajewski preparing his orders and equipment, under the direction of superiors. Col. John F. Malone Jr. commanded 68 of the 578 enlisted men who were in the company.
Krajewski said that many soldiers who enlisted during World War II were under the legal age of 17. He said that some lied about their ages to get away from difficult home lives. Others did it for the swelling sense of patriotism – a feeling that Krajewski said he believes is now lacking in the United States.
“There was so much more patriotism, back then,” he said. “It wasn’t like it is today. People don’t understand. They’ve never been to the countries that I have and seen all of what I’ve seen. People take advantage of what they have, here. America is the greatest country.
“I wanted to go,” he said. “I just had to go.”
After joining the National Guard, he was sent to Camp Smith, near Peekskill, N.Y., where, following training, he remained stateside and worked as a cook.
After two years of service with the National Guard, he enlisted in the Marines. After forging his birth certificate, Krajewski asked his father to sign for him. At that time, he was not yet 16 years old, but, with the forged document and his father’s signature, he was accepted.
“I remember my father telling me that, if he signed me up, it was a done deal,” Krajewski said. “He said he wouldn’t get me out of it.”
He was assigned to the Marine Fighter Squadron 225, based in Cherry Point, N.C. In 1946, the war was over. He was sent to serve on the U.S.S. Siboney, an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic fleet. Working as a cook, he traveled to several countries, as part of post-war aid effort.
“The devastation I saw was just tremendous, just awful,” he said. “The people in those countries were so grateful to us, to Americans. They’d run up and hug you. They’d take you into their homes and cook you meals.”
When he got out of the service at age 18, he returned to the Buffalo area and married. He and his wife had six children. Krajewski held several jobs, throughout his life, including that of a steel mill worker. He said that, even during “the difficult years,” he was able to make a living.
He did not, however, find the time to earm his high school diploma, a fact that Krajewski said bothered him for most of his life.
“I thought, a lot of times, that I could go back, but I just couldn’t find the time,” he said.
Three years ago, Social Security caught up with the veteran, concerning his age. Krajewski had two different birthdays, according to the Social Security Administration and had to sign an affidavit proclaiming his real age.
In past years, veterans who had left school without graduating could not receive their high school diplomas but when Krajewski heard that he was eligible to receive his high school certificate, he said he jumped at the chance. He contacted the New York State Department of Education and was referred to the Springville-Griffith Institute School District.
On Dec. 11, Krajewski received his diploma from the S-GI Board of Education. The local color guard was also in attendance.
“It’s the greatest country there is,” he told those in attendance at the meeting, before he received two standing ovations.
These days, Krajewski explained that he now spends his days looking out his back window at the hills and creek that, he said, keeps him alive. He uses a wheelchair, but Krajewski still maintains his yard by tractor, during the summer.
The veteran said that he is pushing forward now, with his diploma. “Maybe now, I can go to college.”