:: Mile High Newspapers Online | Leith knows the language of life ::

MLeith knows the language of life

WWII veteran returns to China to dedicate museum

By Briana Hovendick
write the author
April 05, 2007

Hal Leith has worn the same jade ring since 1945, a constant reminder of his experiences in World War II.

Now Leith, 87, is preparing to return to the place where he helped liberate 1,600 prisoners of war Aug. 16, 1945.

In May, Leith and his wife, Helen, of Golden will travel to Shenyang, China, to dedicate a museum at the site of the prison camp.

When Leith parachuted in 62 years ago, Shenyang was Mukden, Manchuria, home to the POW camp, where the Japanese forced Allied prisoners to work as slaves.

Leith’s fluency in several languages, including Chinese and Russian, made him ideal for the paratrooper mission, he said.

While Leith flew to the site where he would parachute into Manchuria, he remembers praying they would get to the Mukden camp before the Japanese had a chance to kill anymore of the POWs.

“My prayers were answered,” he said. “I’m grateful for that.”

Leith developed an affinity for China and the Chinese people, and he has returned there several times, he said.

In 2003, the Leiths traveled to Shenyang and were able to help identify buildings that were part of the original camp. The preservation of the site is a joint effort of the Chinese, Japanese and American governments, and the organizers offered any former POWs who wished to attend a free trip to China, Helen Leith said.

“They’re very different than they were in 1945,” Leith said of the Japanese.

During the couple’s last visit to China, Leith, who is also fluent in American Sign Language, taught many of the townspeople a simple sign that expresses general affection for one another. Leith saw the sign in the streets many times, he said.

“It’s nice when the Chinese see me and they give me a big smile,” he said.

Leith’s extensive language skills have come in handy several times. During a trip to Russia in 1994, he successfully warded off a group of gypsies who tried to take his wallet. He learned American Sign Language and was the director of the deaf skiing program at Winter Park for 25 years, he said.

Leith learned French, German and Russian many years ago while he was a student at the Salt Lake City music conservatory, and he learned Chinese at the University of Chicago in preparation for his military service. He is studying Chinese flashcards in preparation for the May trip, Leith said.

“It makes people very happy when you can speak their language,” he said.

Leith’s skills make him especially fun to travel with, Helen Leith said.

He agreed.

“I taught her how to say, ‘I love you,’ in 14 languages,” he said. Continue

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