Leroy Sullivan: Voice of the Forgotten
by Jennifer Jones
It is October 1940. Germany is heavily engaged in the Battle of Britain, Charlie Chaplin has just released his film, The Great Dictator, and Leroy “Sully” Sullivan restlessly taps his pencil on his desk while he gazes out the window of his University of Chattanooga classroom. Sully is the freshman class Vice President, makes good grades, and enjoys popularity among his many friends, but his thoughts are far from school and Chattanooga. The world is at war, and Sully is ready to join. Before the year is over, Sully will leave his hometown and studies to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
As a fighter pilot, Sully will participate in campaigns in England, South Africa, Sudan, and Egypt. He will rise to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and will become a commanding officer of his squadron in Africa. Sully will live his dream, but it will be short-lived. He will die in action when his plane malfunctions on takeoff in 1943. And like many of his American comrades, he will be buried in England in the Canadian section of a military cemetery.
Seventy-five years later, Sully’s remains are still buried in the grave of a foreign country, but his written story and legacy are preserved in his hometown through the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga’s special collections. Sully’s archived writings consist of three diaries he kept during his time in service along with sixteen letters he wrote to his friend, Grady Long.
Sully’s writings reveal a young man whose life and legacy are forever linked to this nation’s past, but like so many others of that time, one whose story had become buried in the annals of history—dusty and forgotten like their graves overseas. The preservation of individual accounts gives us an important connection to the past. Diaries and letters link us to historical insights with a deeper understanding of events that too often become glossed over in textbooks. They help move us forward with a better appreciation for how we got to this point in our Nation’s growth and where we are going. In textbooks, the past is recorded in terms of the big events—dates, names, and what happened where, when, and why. Diaries and letters give us a personal look into those events and in some cases, can supersede the authority of what is written in textbooks. In Sully’s case, the contents of his writings add to the narrative of WWII by providing a voice for a little-known aspect of America’s involvement—the thousands of Americans who volunteered to fight with Canada before the U.S. entered the war and if killed, were buried as foreigners on foreign soil.
On a balmy April day in 1941, while Sully was stationed in Canada training to become a fighter pilot, he met his mother for a visit in Detroit. They frequented coffee shops in the morning, walked along the waterfront, and talked into the night. Mrs. Sullivan rode an escalator for the first time and bought a fancy new hat in an upscale shop. A hat which, Sully wrote, she “looked wonderful” in. When their visit had come to an end, Sully lamented her departure: “Feeling like hell once leaving mom, and I know how she feels - I love her more than anything in world.” While reading Sully’s diaries and letters, the impression came through that Sully’s need to live the life he wanted versus the concern for his mother if something should happen to him, weighed on his mind—a conflict that remains a constant throughout his writings.
Once overseas, Sully’s writings were more reflective, but also filled with the daily antics of young soldiers. On the cusp of manhood, Sully pondered the meanings of religion, literature, and poetry but also enjoyed the social outings that included drink and women. He found no shortage of opportunities to get lost in the escapades of soldiers letting off steam: putting a praying mantis in a comrade’s bed or “recovering two ties from a party a few nights ago.” During one seemingly long bout of downtime and boredom, Sully wrote that he and the boys:
“Found a shot-gun and cartridges, took the pellets out of all (or at least we thought all) the shells and proceeded to fire them off in various peoples’ rooms. Consequently, we have a couple of big gaping holes in the ceilings, due, no doubt, to some slight miscalculation!”
With a borrowed typewriter, cigar, and a long whiskey in hand, Sully wrote to Grady Long about his frequent encounters with women: “No lie, Grady, the women over here go for my Mom’s fair-haired boy in a large way. Not bragging at all. In some instances it gets me in a few mix-ups, but I suppose I can chalk it all up as experience.”
In his quiet time, Sully acquired an interest in poetry after reading a volume of poems by A. E. Houseman, sent to him by Long. Sully found a like-mindedness with the poet and decided to try his hand at writing poems himself. He wrote to Long, “Here I am, nineteen years of age and full of wind and piss attempting to write poetry.”
Apart from the antics, girls, and musings on poetry, Sully’s days were filled with the serious work of campaigns, classes, training, and flying fighter bombers such as the North American Harvard. He occasionally wrote of an airplane mishap, or near-miss ,which he called a “shaky do.” In an October 17, 1941 entry, he wrote of one such shaky do. While he and his comrade were doing spins at 7,000 feet, Sully was in the back of the plane, “under hood.” The motor cut at 5,000 feet. They would have to make a forced landing. At 3,000 feet, the plane caught fire and Sully, as ordered, jumped. The fire went out and his comrade successfully landed the plane. Sully got away with a sprained ankle. “I am the first man to get out of the back end of a Harvard alive,” he wrote.
Shortly after that entry, the diary page marked November seventh was left empty in 1941. In 1943, someone had recorded on that page that Sully had been killed in an aircraft accident at Martlesham Heath Airdrome, near Ipswich, Suffolk, England. On the page marked November eleventh, an entry was made stating Sully was buried at Brookwood Cemetery, near London in the Canadian section. The diary then picks back up on November 21, 1941 with Sully’s entries and continues on.
I work for an ophthalmology practice in Chattanooga. Daily, we see parades of wheelchairs, walkers, and canes guided by white-haired, elderly folks moving slowly around the lobby and corridors. At the time I read his diary, I had calculated that Sully would be ninety-four years old if he were alive, and so I watched for patients of that age to come through our doors in hopes that someone might have known him. It was surprisingly easy. On my second day of seeking out and questioning the eldest of our patients, a ninety-four-year-old woman, Hilda Crabtree, came in for her eye examination. She was alert and sprightly, well-dressed in slacks and a blouse and had impeccably-styled brown hair. I had made a point to be the one who would do her tests before she saw the doctor, and once I had her captive the interview began. After establishing that she had grown up in Chattanooga and had attended Chattanooga City School, I asked if she remembered Leroy Sullivan.
“Oh yes! He went to the war,” she said. Then in a quieter voice, “He was killed there. I could never understand why he went to Canada.”
She remembered him. She remembered him well. I asked if she could tell me more. She sat back in her chair, crossed her legs to get comfortable, and folded her arms on her lap.
“He was good looking, outgoing, and well liked,” she said. “He was always interested in the ROTC.”
I asked about his family: “His mother raised him by herself and his father had died when he was very young. He was an only child.”
Ms. Crabtree provided bits and pieces to Sully’s story that I could not find elsewhere. She answered the question that had been churning in my mind and confirmed what I had feared—he was his mother’s only child. In turn, I told her about Sully’s diaries and letters, and what I had learned about why he joined the RCAF—that in the U.S. two years of college was required to qualify for pilot training. Sully could not wait, so he headed to Canada where there was no like prerequisite.
As I talked to Ms. Crabtree, I got the sense that Sully’s story moved her, meant something to her. I was telling her things she didn’t know about an old friend whom she hadn’t seen in over seventy years but had never forgotten. I wanted to reach out and touch her arm, touch this person, this living connection to someone whose life and legacy are so much a part of our nation’s history, as though doing so would connect me, too. Like diaries and letters, the memories of our senior citizens are valuable treasures. They can help fill the holes and gaps in the stories of the past, to be carried on into the future.
In his diaries and letters, Sully predicted his death and that he would remain overseas. In a letter to Long dated February 8, 1942, he said that he “does not expect to be back, try to keep Mother’s spirits on an even keel,” then, in an undated poem:
Midst azure blue of cloudless sky
Our man-made wings upward soar;
To give us strength to do or die-
Perhaps to live for evermore.
On foreign soil I’ll come to rest;
From a flaming sky that’s shocked to see
Her loyal sons turn to the West,
And what yet remains of me.
But will it not to be in vain-
This test of courageous youth and spirits,
Long centuries ofter we have lain
Our debt is paid and God remits.
Although Sully’s grave lies forgotten along with thousands of other American soldiers buried overseas, his diaries and letters give us and future generations a look into the daily life of a WWII fighter pilot as a comrade, student, poet, lover, dreamer, and son—like his diary, interrupted by the entry of his death, his story continues on.
Jennifer Jones graduated from UTC with a Master's in English: Creative Writing in May 2017. Originally from Bridgeport, Connecticut, she now lives in Chattanooga and works for Pomerance Eye Center as an Ophthalmic Technician. Her one-act play, "The White Rose," has been produced at Dalton Little Theatre and Dalton State College. It was also given a staged reading during Chattanooga Theatre Center's Festival of New Plays in April and May 2017. She has had newspaper articles published in several Connecticut papers, Dalton Daily Citizen, and the Chattanoogan.