As the country celebrates one of the most important holidays we can observe, Memorial Day, it is only right to take a few minutes to reflect on those people who gave their lives in military service to the citizens of the United States, like you and me, so that we may remain free. In particular, there were many local men, some from Kiowa County, who gave their lives on the scattered battlefields of numerous wars in which we have been involved.
Memorial Day is the most solemn of holidays with origins of the holiday being traced back to local observances for Confederate soldiers with neglected gravesites during the Civil War.
For generations it was called Decoration Day (perhaps you’ve heard your grandparents calling the holiday that) and it was a day to make sure that the fallen soldiers of the country had graves that were recognized and decorated. May 30 was originally chosen as the day for Memorial Day as it was considered the day of the year with best and most flowers in bloom that would be used to decorate the graves.
One such grave that gets decorated every year on Memorial Day by the Kiowa County Veterans volunteers is that of Leland Frost.
Leland Frost was already walking the line between safety and danger; riches or rags; and even life and death when he was born almost exactly on the state line between Colorado and Kansas, in Kiowa County near the town of Towner, Colorado to an older couple, Claude and Mary Muriel Frost.
Leland was born at the height of the Roaring 20s, a decade where the people on the high plains enjoyed good farm prices, abundant crops and towns that were quickly developing nearby. He was a happy little fellow during those golden years of the 1920s, by most accounts anyway, and began his childhood adored by two much-older sisters in Fern and Eunice. But the next two decades would have Leland walking through the Shadow of the Valley of Death numerous times, until death finally found him less than a month after his 21st birthday on October 5, 1944.
His first walk through the Valley of the Shadows was when he was 7 years old on March 26, 1931.
That particular spring day dawned promising and looked to be one of those memorable balmy days that for a child seemingly goes on forever. The weather was unseasonably warm that morning prompting some of Leland’s classmates to leave their heavy winter coats at home.
Ariana Harner and Clark Secrest, writers of the non-fiction book entitled Children of the Storm: The True Story of the Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy, described the beginning of the day that nearly took Leland’s, and his older sister Eunice’s lives:
“In the Claude Frost household, a quarter-mile northwest of Huffakers and just inside Colorado, Eunice, fourteen, and Leland, seven, hurried to get ready for school. They washed their necks and ears (always ordered by their mother, Mary Muriel), combed their hair, brushed their teeth, gulped breakfast, then grabbed wraps and lunch pails, and scampered out to meet Carl Miller’s approaching bus. Their mother called to them to put on warmer clothes despite the balmy temperature, so Eunice dashed back into the house for her four-buckle overshoes. Ever protective of her happy-go-lucky younger brother, Leland, Eunice clutched his hand to help him climb onto the Chevrolet’s running board. She greeted her cousins, the Huffaker children.”
The day was warm, and the children shed their coats and sweaters during recess until a large snowbank appeared on the horizon and a cold north wind suddenly began blowing. They gathered their items and ran into the school. As big flakes started to swirl around the schoolhouse the teachers and bus driver made the decision to load the children back on the bus and get them home before the storm took full force.
Unfortunately, that decision doomed the lives of 5 children plus the bus driver as soon the bus got stuck in a bar ditch when the driver, Carl Miller, became disoriented in the white out conditions. For 36 hours the children of Pleasant Hill School located just outside of Towner fought to stay alive in one of the cruelest blizzards on record. That included the youngest student on the bus—Leland Frost.
Harner and Secrest wrote, “Leland Frost was growing heavy on his sister Eunice’s lap. She looked down at his sleepy face and prodded him awake. ‘Do not sleep,’ she warned. He just looked confused. It was no use explaining to him the danger they were in. She talked to him and rubbed his feet and hands to keep the circulation going.”
Finally, after 36 hours the blizzard let up and the anxious parents began looking for the children. They found the bus towards evening of the second day and quickly took the children who were still alive to the home of Andy and Fern Reinert as it was the closest. There the desperate parents tried to revive their children:
“When Fern Reinert saw her younger siblings, Eunice and Leland Frost, she rushed to hug them and rub their hands and feet. Poor little Leland, she thought, he’s only seven years old. She began to take off his shoes so she could massage some blood back into his feet, but Andy (her husband) stopped her. He pointed out that Leland’s shoes were frozen to his feet, and that they dare not try to remove them until the skin began to thaw. “Now fully awake, (Eunice) looked around for her little brother, Leland, who had kept her lap warm the past day and a half on the bus. He was in the corner with their father, Claude, who was rubbing salt on Lelands’s legs. She did not even remember seeing her father walk in.”
There was only one phone to be found in the Towner area, but citizens quickly called the Lamar Hospital for help and through a lot of give and take arranged for a plane to land on the wind-swept road near the Reinert’s home. That plane would take the most critical children to the hospital in Lamar.
“The remaining children were not in sufficiently in critical condition to be flown to Lamar. Around 2:30 pm neighbors drove Lena and Carl Huffaker, Eunice and Leland Frost, Clara Smith, and Maxine Brown to the Holly Hotel and to the homes of Holly physicians F. E. Casburn and John Neinhuis for evaluation. As seven-year-old Leland Frost’s nerves awoke to the pain of his frostbite and his emotions to the previous horror, he became hysterical. He screamed in terror throughout that night and for many nights to come. His father and a nurse had to hold him down in bed to prevent self-injury.”
Leland and his sister Eunice were both spared with few lasting injuries, but they were both left without the ability to discuss the horror they experienced during those 36 hours of hell.
As the Great Depression pressed down on the people of southeastern Colorado in the next few years after the Towner Bus Tragedy, the Frost family lost their home to bankruptcy and were forced to move into Towner. Leland then went to school in Towner and graduated from high school in 1941—the year that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II.
Leland was soon drafted and entered the military at the very height of the war to end all wars. Six more times as a member of General Patton’s 3rd Army, Leland Frost walked through the Valley of Shadows and survived just as he had as a little boy and a teenager growing up in the Great Depression:
According to the book, The War Years and the Veterans of Cheyenne-Kiowa County, Colorado, compiled by Betty J. Sterns, “Leland Thomas Frost was a Private First Class in the Co. A, 137th Infantry serving in General Patton’s 3rd Army. He was in 6 major battles in the European Theatre of War.”
But ultimately, Leland Frost’s journey took him further through the Valley of the Shadows and into the Valley of Death: “He was wounded near Varanceville, France on September 16, 1944. He was moved to an army hospital in England where he died on October 5, 1944, age 21 years, 29 days. He was buried at Cambridge Military Cemetery at Cambridge, England. His body was later moved to Eads, CO. Among his medals is the Purple Heart, awarded for Military Merit and for wounds received in action. The Purple Heart was established by General George Washington at Newburgh, New York on August 7, 1782, and is the highest military award given.
Leland Frost’s certificate of receipt of the Purple Heart posthumously reads:
“He stands in the unbroken line of Patriots who have dared to die
That freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings.
Freedom lives, and through it. He lives—
In a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.”
This is just one of thousands of stories involving soldiers who died fighting wars on foreign ground against people they didn’t know just so their fellow-Americans could stay free. This year, more so than ever, it is vital we take a few minutes and reflect on sacrifices given by Leland Frost and by so many more like him.
Below is the list of military service men from Kiowa and Cheyenne County who died defending your right to a beautiful life filled with the freedoms this country and its Constitution has afforded us:
Source: “The War Years and the Veterans of Cheyenne – Kiowa County Colorado”- 1995 and Kiowa County Veterans. Note: this is not a complete list.