Heart attack claims James Leach, decorated veteran, advocate for military

Retired Col. James Leach
Retired Col. James Leach

(Editor's note: This was corrected Dec. 18, 2009)The remarkable life of decorated World War II veteran and former S.C. Adjutant General James "Jimmie" Leach came to a tragic end Thursday afternoon on Lady's Island.

Officials say Leach, 87, lost consciousness while driving on Pleasant Point Drive near Picadilly Circle at about 2:30 p.m. and veered off the road, striking landscaping rocks. He was taken by ambulance to Beaufort Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead, said Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen. A heart attack, and not the crash, is believed to be the cause of death, Allen said.

Leach is survived by Marion, his wife of 58 years, and his son, Jamie.

Marion Leach said Thursday night that she and her son, who was en route to Beaufort from south Florida, were "holding up fine but we'll be better tomorrow when we're together."

Born in Houston, Texas, in April 1922, Leach joined the Texas National Guard at 16 and at 22 became the platoon commander in a tank company under Gen. George Patton during World War II. Leach was a five-time Purple Heart recipient and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his service during the war. The medal is the nation's second-highest military decoration, behind only the Medal of Honor.

Leach retired from the Army in 1972 after tours in Korea and Vietnam and eventually settled in Beaufort, where he was active in veterans' affairs and served as an adviser to the Adjutant General of the S.C. Military Department, who oversees the S.C. National Guard and S.C. Air National Guard.

Gov. Mark Sanford said late Thursday he hoped more South Carolinians would strive toward Leach's example.

"General Leach served his state and his nation with valor and selflessness," Sanford said in a statement. "His heroism through multiple wars, passion for life, efforts to commemorate and recognize the service of veterans nationally and in Beaufort County, and commitment to the job at hand was both commendable and an example for all those he came in contact with. It's worth remembering the noble quality and high honor of a life well spent, and indeed hoping there will be more men and women like General Jimmie Leach."

Locally, Leach is perhaps best known for his campaign to expand Beaufort National Cemetery.

Most recently, Leach convinced U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson to file legislation to purchase the five-acre Lafayette Square apartment complex just north of the cemetery to allow for future expansion. Wilson did not introduce the legislation in 2008, citing a self-imposed one-year moratorium on earmark requests, but did file the bill in January 2009. The bill was referred to a House subcommittee where it remains, according to the Library of Congress.

Wilson said Leach will be remembered for devoting his life to serving others.

"His distinguished military career, his devotion to America's veterans and his commitment to upgrading Beaufort National Cemetery will not be forgotten," Wilson said Thursday night through a spokeswoman.

State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said the former Army officer was her go-to source for military and veterans' affairs information.

"He was this area's most knowledgeable person when it came to veterans' issues," Erickson said Thursday, fighting back tears. "He lived an incredible life of devotion to his country, his family and his God. We should all be proud to have had him as a member of our community."

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said Leach embodied the strong tie between Beaufort and the military.

"He was a pillar of this community," Keyserling said. "He may have retired from the military, but he never left the military behind."

In addition to fighting for fellow veterans and heading the Veterans Cemetery Committee of Beaufort County, Leach also was a member of several Beaufort-area clubs, including the Rotary Club of Beaufort.

Port Royal Town Manager Van Willis, president of the club, said he and everyone who knew Leach was saddened by news of his death.

"(Leach) was a very well-respected and inspiring gentleman," Willis said. "It's a truly disappointing loss."