By Janie Southard
MONTEZUMA -- Within a year of graduating from Coldwater High School in 1942, Leonard "Slim" Belsher took the gunner's seat facing backwards on a Navy torpedo bomber and began the first of 35 missions over the Pacific during World War II.
The majority of Belsher's 80 years have been spent around airplanes. Since retiring from Celina's Huffy Bicycle plant in 1984, he's worked as a mechanic at Lakeview Airport, from where he'll soon retire.
"As a kid I built model airplanes, like kids do, but it wasn't until senior year (in high school) that I got interested in flying. But, that was the war and all the hero stuff," Belsher told The Daily Standard last week during an interview at Lakefield Airport.
The war and hero stuff took him to Air Group 33 aboard the USS Sangamon, a converted Exxon oil tanker employed by the Navy to fill the void while heavy cruiser hulls were being constructed. The ship was hit by a kamikaze attack, or as Belsher said "we were suicided," and he was among those transferred to the sister ship, USS Shenango.
The Navy torpedo bombers (AvengerS) are the planes that land and take off on the flight deck of the huge cruisers. The three-person crew who flew these planes were often called upon to land on the cruisers at night, always a dangerous undertaking. Belsher said night landings were very thrilling but he was "too young to be scared." His 60-plus carrier landings went without incident. It was during a practice landing off the coast of Maui that his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean at 250 mph.
"At that speed you've got about three minutes before the plane sinks, so all three of us got out pretty quick, got the life raft out (of an outside compartment) and got it inflated," he recalled.
Fortunately, it didn't matter that the life raft had a big hole in the bottom.
"Life rafts are inflated with air on all four sides so that keeps them up even with a hole this size in the floor bottom," he said making a circle of his thumbs and index fingers. "We stayed afloat 48 hours but we were sitting in water the whole time."
Although they saw the rescue effort flying overhead, they weren't seen from the sky. It was a civilian who finally spotted them and came out in a boat and rescued them.
"The guy was manager of the King Ranch operation in Hawaii," he said naming the Texas-based cattle ranch said to be the birthplace of the American ranching industry.
In 1946 he came home to Mercer County, took some classes at the University of Dayton and worked at the new Lakefield Airport for his old high school superintendent Perry Nole. He also joined the Air Force Reserves and in 1950 was called to serve in the Korean Conflict as an instructor flight engineer in San Antonio, Texas.
"You know, before I went in the service, I'd only had one airplane ride in my life and that was out at the old Coldwater emergency air field, northwest of town," said Belsher looking out over the Lakefield strip.
In the late 1930s commercial airlines had emergency fields every 60 miles. Coldwater's field served this purpose with a grass landing strip and some landing lights.
In 1948, Belsher was working alone at the old Lakefield hangar when some Celina and fair board officials drove out and asked him to "put on some clean coveralls and clean up the place because the governor and his wife were flying in the next day for the fair."
County and city workers got busy and cleaned up the roadway into Celina and, the following day, various greeting committees waited at Lakefield to greet Ohio Governor and Mrs. Thomas J. Herbert.
"Well, they waited and waited. Finally someone drove over and said the governor's group were already at the fair," he recalled.
The party had landed at the Coldwater field, which still causes Belsher to chuckle.
"Jake Huwer was a real character and he worked over at the Coldwater field sometimes. He drove a truck that he used to haul chickens plus he always had a spittoon in the front seat.
"Well, that's how the governor got to the Mercer fair that year, in Jake's truck," he laughed.