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Leo Eldridge!

Every military veteran knows the most important rule in service is to never volunteer.

Leo Eldridge broke that rule and came out a winner.

A Madison High School saxophone player, Eldridge was drafted not long after he received his high school diploma in 1945.

"The first place I was sent was to Fort Hood (Texas) for 16 weeks of infantry training. But after six weeks there was a call for musicians to volunteer to play in a show band to back up traveling USO shows," Eldridge said.

He raised his hand, and his musical Army career was under way.

But first he had to complete training in light tanks. He was an infantryman when he was being shipped overseas.

"They asked musicians to play in bands aboard ship to entertain the troops," he said.

Again Eldridge volunteered, and this time he never went back to the infantry or armor. He was in show business.

He wound up serving in Leghorn, Italy, with the 117th Army Ground Force Band. He said the band's daily duty was to perform at the regular morning reveille at headquarters.

"After that was done, it was easy going," Eldridge said.

He said musicians never were allowed to handle weapons. Just their instruments. He played mostly alto and some tenor sax in the band. The music ranged from popular swing to classical productions.

Once, at Leghorn's Goldoni Theater, Opera star Lawrence Tibbit was on hand. The famed tenor would sing the popular "Begin the Beguine," and that required a baritone horn solo.

"I had played a trumpet once, so I volunteered to do the solo. I spent three hours a day for two weeks getting ready," Eldridge said.

When the show began, Eldridge said Tibbit asked the horn player to come up front and stand beside him during the performance.

"I played and he sang," Eldridge said with just a touch of pleasure at the memory.

There were 31 members in the band, but redeployment to and from the United States kept the personnel changing. Outside of morning reveille and playing martial music for troops landing at the Leghorn docks, Eldridge said the band played in a regular series of concerts.

"We never lived in barracks. First we were quartered in apartments and then finally in a big Quonset hut set aside from the regular barracks. Oh! We sure had it tough," he said.

Band members got to travel to Italy, France and Switzerland. Eldridge remembers his one visit to Rome with two buddies.

"We were Catholics, so I decided we had to visit St. Peter's Cathedral in Vatican City. While we were there, a Cardinal who spoke very good English asked us to join him. We were taken to a small chapel where a Mass was said by the Pope (Pius XII). Afterwards he came over to meet us. He spoke in broken English and his translators handled the rest. Then we all shook hands."

Eldridge said many of the band members lived hard, drank hard and had a good time.

In late 1946, it was Eldridge's turn to come home. He was discharged from the Army in January 1947.

Back in Mansfield, he worked for Westinghouse and then sold shoes and managed a shoe making plant in Michigan for a few years. His main job was working for the AMF plant in Shelby, where he retired as a plant manager after 30 years of service.

In Mansfield he wound up playing with small musical groups, mostly at veterans' clubs. One of his best friends, Paul Grassick, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, played trumpet with him in the seven-man Mike Hillagoss band.

Not long after Leo came home, he met Barbara Ward at a Monday night gathering at the downtown YMCA. They married in 1950 at the Grace Episcopal Church on West Third Street. Both are still active members there.

They have five children: Diane Heaberlin and Virginia Harmon, both of Mansfield; Joyce Reithmiller, of Woodsfield; Roger Eldridge of Hilliard, and Leo Jr., who died a few years ago.

There are nine grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The Eldridges were active for years in a small family business, the Eldridge Acrylic Company, which still operates on Oak Street.

The couple has attended up to 10 117th Army Band reunions, but only a handful of the players are still alive.

Eldridge said his main hobbies now are caring for the home on Ramsey Road and being with all his grandchildren. One of his great-grandchildren, Cameron Cox, a fifth grader in Madison Schools, is playing music. His instrument is his great-grandfather's alto saxophone.

"We're a pretty tight-knit family," Eldridge said.


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