History in Focus: Robert Eric Leckenby and the river of war
The swift and terrible current of World War II uprooted Robert Eric Leckenby from the Yampa Valley and carried him through four arduous years before it finally released him from its clutches near Epinal, France.
Called Eric by friends and family, Leckenby came from a family of Routt County pioneers. He was the grandson of settlers of the Twenty Mile area. His father, Don, a lineman for Mountain States Telephone Company, also worked a family ranch near MacGregor (near modern day Milner). His uncle, Charles, purchased the Steamboat Pilot in 1897, and the paper was owned by the family until 1988.
Like so many boys of the era, Eric pursued many interests, and his name is sprinkled across the pages of the Steamboat Pilot. As a schoolboy, he was a member of the Boy Rangers Club and went on day hikes with the Reverend C.E. Hardesty while “carrying their kits with frying pan, plate, eggs, bacon and lunch.” In junior high school, he played the role of the wise man in the play “Columbus Up-to-Date,” a spoof on the life of Christopher Columbus distracted by the modern age of telephones, radios and a “flivver” (slang for an old beat up car). In 1934, he was a member of the Steamboat Springs High School football team, which trounced Moffat County 26-0.
In 1937, his parents moved down valley to Craig for Don’s new position as manager of the Colorado Utilities Commission. Now a young man out of high school, Eric joined Craig’s Company A of the 157th regiment of the Colorado National Guard. In August 1939, Company A was called out to quell the “Kremmling Insurrection,” a labor strike that turned violent during the construction of the Green Mountain Dam (see “Company A” July 17, 2015, Craig Daily Press).
By 1940, the swelling river of war had reached Craig. In September, Company A was federalized into the U.S. Army. While training for war at Camp Barkeley, Texas, Eric’s mother, Ellen, passed away after suffering for years from congestive heart failure. After 32 years of marriage, Eric’s father faced silent and lonely nights, concerned for the lives of his two sons in the armed services.
For the next four years, Eric would see action with the 157th in North Africa, Sicily, up the Italian Peninsula at Salerno and deadly Anzio and the southern invasion of France. In October 1943, a short blurb in the Pilot reported Eric had been wounded but was recovering “somewhere in North Africa.” Evidently, it was a minor wound, and he hoped to be back with the 157th in Italy.
By September 1944, the 157th was less than 100 miles from the German border. Near Epinal, France, an important railroad and highway junction, the 157th met stiff resistance from German panzers and infantry. After forcing their way across the Moselle River, the Germans retreated, and the 157th relentlessly pursued the Nazis out of the river valley and into wooded farmland. On Sept. 28, the river of war finally let go of Eric by claiming his life.
On Oct. 26, the Pilot finally reported Eric was missing in action. “It is hoped that he may be a prisoner of war.” The desperate hope for his life as a POW was ended in November, when Eric was declared Killed in Action. In December, his father quietly received his son’s purple heart.
The raging river that was World War II swept hundreds of men away from the Yampa Valley, and after it receded, many of our boys were deposited in graveyards around the world, such as the American Cemetery at Epinal, France, the final and distant resting spot of Eric Leckenby. In August 2017, his name received a warm welcome home at the dedication of the new World War II memorial in Craig City Park.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School.