IPSWICH — Serving in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary from Ipswich was a duty Robert Leet took very seriously as a young adult during World War II, but he didn’t know until more than 70 years later that he had earned medals for his service.
On Friday, Leet’s family gathered at U.S. Coast Guard Station Gloucester to watch him finally receive the World War II Victory Medal and the American Campaign Medal, which is given specifically for service within the nation’s borders.
“It’s amazing to see this,” said John Lobherr, the station chief and executive petty officer. “It’s few and further between that we get to do something like this, especially for World War II veterans.”
Leet, now 93, was happy that his family helped him receive the overdue recognition.
“It meant a lot, really, because for years, people said, ‘I got a service medal.’ And I did service, but I never got a medal,” Leet said.
As a child, he’d had polio and suffered some paralysis in his leg, so he wasn’t allowed to join the armed services. Instead, he found a way to be involved from home.
And he proved his value during the just over two years that he served; he spotted a German submarine off the shore of Crane Beach during a patrol one day.
A native of Ipswich who has lived here his whole life, Leet enrolled in the Coast Guard Auxiliary in August 1943, when he was 19, and was assigned to walk Crane Beach looking for foreign submarines or planes.
“I was walking the beach by myself,” he said. “Right in front of the beach was a submarine out in the bay.”
He notified his superiors, and the Coast Guard sent one of its boats out to investigate. German U-boats, or submarines, were found off the coast of North America during the war. One was found sunk off the coast of Nantucket, another near the Rhode Island shores, according to multiple reports.
Leet isn’t sure what happened after he spotted the submarine, but throughout his experience, he was glad he could do his part for the war effort. It was difficult, he recalled, to see other young men his age go off to war while he stayed at home.
“They wouldn’t take me even though I wanted to go,” he said.
The auxiliary was a way to help. He served until late September 1945.
After his service, Leet went on to live a life devoted to Ipswich. He became an auxiliary police officer for the town, and, after working for the Boston and Maine Railroad company, he became Ipswich’s town accountant. He and his wife, Lorraine, raised three daughters — Bonnie, Cindy and Laurie.
Leet didn’t talk about his service while she was growing up, daughter Cindy Whittle said.
“He didn’t think he had any kind of impact,” she said.
It was his son-in-law, Don McGarrell, who is married to Bonnie, who decided to start researching to see if there was any recognition for which Leet was eligible.
Patrolling the beach for the Coast Guard Auxiliary isn’t the kind of service most people think of when they think of World War II, but for Leet it was a way to serve, to show how much he cared for his hometown.
“He wanted to give back and he couldn’t join up in the traditional way because of his leg,” Whittle said. “This was his way of sort of protecting his town and his country and the people he loved.”
Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SN_AMacNeill. ___
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