Our veterans who served our country: Leo Tarpley

Published 10:27 pm Thursday, March 12, 2015

Leo Tarpley was born in Springfield, Mo. before his family moved to what became the Dust Bowl area in the high plains in Kansas. After his parents divorced, his mother married her sister Mabel’s husband, Dr. Frank Balyeat, and they moved to Norman, Okla. where he attended high school.

“I was a senior in December 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I took a semester of college after I graduated and tried to enlist in the Navy when I turned 18. When I took the physical, they said I had a heart murmur and did not qualify. My doctor back home told me it was just temporary from having strep throat and, a few weeks later, it was gone. I thought I would let them draft me, but then the Army Air Corps opened up cadet training for voluntary enlistments and I passed the mental and physical tests and was accepted in May 1943.

COLUMNPersonalLegacies Leo Tarpley-2

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“After a few days of basic training in Wichita Falls, Texas, I was sent to a college training detachment for aviation cadet training. You needed at least two years of college to qualify for aviation cadet training, so they sent some of us with less than two years to what is now Oklahoma State University to take the basic college courses to qualify.

“After they sent me to San Antonio, Texas where I was classified as a pilot, I went to the West Coast Training Command in Santa Anna, Calif. to learn about general flying. In January 1944, I went to King City, Calif. for primary flight training for three months, flying with instructors in little open-cockpit airplanes.

“One day, after I landed and was about to get out of the plane, the instructor said I was ready to fly solo. After I flew back up, I did a snap roll. This high-speed stall flips the airplane over but centrifugal force keeps you in the airplane. That was a good thing because, in my excitement, I had forgotten to refasten my seat belt! Had I tried a slow roll instead, I would have fallen out of the airplane!

“After basic flight training at the Marana Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., I learned how to fly bigger airplanes in formation and then how to fly twin engines in advanced flight training in Douglas, Ariz. Now a second lieutenant, I was assigned as first pilot to a B-17 bomber (Old Flying Fortress) that I learned to fly in Roswell, N.M. I met my crew in Lincoln, Neb. in October 1944 and we went to Alexandria, La. to learn to fly together. That January, we went back to Lincoln to get our brand new B-17 and receive our orders, which we were not allowed to open until we were outside of the country. On the way to Gander, Newfoundland, I opened my orders and learned we were in the 346th Squadron deployed to join the 99th Bomb Group in the 15th Air Force at the Tortorella Airfield near Foggia Plains in southern Italy.

“My first bombing run as a co-pilot was on March 23, 1945. I flew a total of ten sorties (completed missions) mostly into Southern Austria and Germany until April 26, 1945. Although we didn’t encounter many German fighter planes because we had destroyed so many of their oil refineries, fields and manufacturing plants, we had a lot of flak from German gunners on the ground.”

When the war ended, Tarpley served in the Occupation. In January 1946, he received a certificate of service instead of being discharged, just in case the Army Air Corps needed him again. He married his first wife, Reba, and they had three daughters, Theresa, Tonya, and Tamese. He joined the Air Force Reserve while attending college at University of Oklahoma and then joined the Air National Guard.

When he graduated, Tarpley worked as a comptroller of the Humpty Dumpty/Standard Supermarket chain in Oklahoma City, where he met his present wife, Mariana, who then moved with him and her two daughters, Lucretia and Samantha, to Chicago to work for the Jewel Food stores. They both retired in 1986, eventually moving to Landrum in 2006.

A volunteer for St. Luke’s Hospital, Tarpley also works at the Hospice House in Landrum and is involved in the First Baptist Church. He says, ”I have gone through so many situations that could have taken my life and am still here by God’s grace.”

If you are a veteran and would you like to share about your experience in the U.S. military, please contact Robin Edgar at 2robinedgar@gmail.com or call The Tryon Daily Bulletin at 828-859-9151.