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Portrait of an Immigrant U.S. Soldier

Leon Goure is WWII vet, scholar and author.

On May 7, 1945, Staff Sgt. Leon Goure stood in a soggy field encampment on the German-Austrian border, along with General Patton’s Third Army in the south. “Then some officer simply announced ‘It’s over,’” the Potomac resident recalls. “The war. It was over.”

With that news, “there was no wild celebration. It was very anticlimactic. Everyone just went to sleep ... exhausted.”

World War II veteran Goure registered for the draft shortly after arriving in New York as an immigrant in December 1940. His early life in Europe was one of constant westward movement and escape — from Moscow, to Berlin, to Paris, then Marseilles, and finally, to New York. He left Europe as a teenager, at the height of Nazi aggression, but he would soon return as an American soldier of the 99th Infantry Division.

The 99th shipped out in September 1944, and entered combat in November, seeing some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Goure’s first combat duty was to man an outpost in the Ardennes, right next to the Siegfried Line, the Germans’ notorious defensive string of fortifications, mines and traps.

However, he was one of few soldiers in his division who was fluent in German and French, as well as Russian. Goure was transferred away from his front line position to work as a special agent of the Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) just before the Germans undertook their last major offensive of the war, the Battle of the Bulge.

BUT HE MAY as well have been on the front line one sleepy Sunday morning in the village of Buellingen, Belgium.

“We were staying in a house. I just happened to be awake and looked out the window. I saw German tanks coming right into the village. ... Driving right up the roadway. They were probably a half a kilometer away. There was no advance warning. It was a total surprise. The German breakthrough was behind our line.”

At that point, Goure recalls, “It was a question of survival, not of fighting. We only had rifles, and they were coming in tanks. I woke up the other guys.” Of the six in the house, two were killed by mortar fire. Luftwaffe fighters were soon circling overhead.

In all, about a dozen soldiers managed to flee the scene with Goure and make their way into the woods. Once there, they organized a patrol. It was touch and go since no one knew how far the Germans would advance.

“We walked parallel to the Germans, through the woods. Eventually we bumped into U.S. reinforcements, the 1st Infantry, coming from the opposite direction. We managed to finish up in CIC headquarters,” in Verviers.

The Battle of the Bulge raged on for six weeks. It was the largest WWII land battle in which the United States participated. More than a million men fought in it. Total casualties — dead, wounded and captured on both sides — are estimated at 160,000 to 200,000. The total death toll was close to 40,000, about half that number American.

“When things stabilized, we returned” to the 99th. Goure and his regiment ended up on the Remagen Bridge, “the only bridge on the Rhine that the Germans hadn’t blown up. We crossed it and had to hold the area. We were there quite a while.”

Eventually the division was turned around and joined the Third Army under General Patton in the south. Its soldiers had advanced all the way to Austria when they got word of the German surrender and the end of the war.

Goure’s linguistic abilities kept him on in Europe through 1946 to interview prisoners and be part of the process of de-Nazification. Captured Gestapo files helped him distinguish the “good guys from the bad.” One of the great ironies in the aftermath of the war, according to Goure, was how cooperative the Germans were. He recalls a time when he questioned a Nazi colonel who tried to pass as a buck private by altering his papers. “I asked him, ‘Aren’t you ashamed to lie like that?’ and he said ‘Yes.’”

“You’d ask questions, and they’d answer. You’d march them off to jail, and they’d go. Sometimes they could go home to get stuff, then, they’d go back to jail,” without any kind of resistance. Goure recalls that his counterintelligence unit had suspected and searched in vain for an underground German resistance set up to fight the Americans, but it never materialized. “There were no underground spies, no secret agents, no nothing. I find it strange that there was such strong identification with the Nazi ideology, and it all fell apart totally with the surrender.”

CIVILIAN LIFE: Goure’s early life cuts closely across an amazing number of major turning points in modern history. His roots are in 1920s Soviet Russia. His father was exiled in 1923 under Lenin and settled in Berlin. In 1933 the family fled to Paris after Hitler became chancellor. Perhaps the most dramatic scene is the image of his family catching the last train out of Paris on that day in 1940 when the city fell to the Nazis. Goure jokes that his three-time flight from oppression — from Moscow, Berlin, and Paris — makes him a “professional refugee.”

After fleeing Paris, the family continued to move south to avoid the Nazis, ending up in Marseilles where a teenage Goure often witnessed police round-ups and arrests of displaced persons. By December 1940, his family arrived in Hoboken, N.J. Within three years, Goure reported to the draft board in New York. He never held citizenship to any country until he and 150 other soldiers were brought before a judge to obtain expedited U.S. citizenship while in basic training.

After the war, Goure continued his education on the GI Bill, and eventually got a Ph.D. in political science from Georgetown. He married Rachel “Raymonde” Ripps in 1948, an interpreter and linguist from Brussels. Her family fled to Australia in 1937, and she was only visiting New York when she met her future husband. “My aunt from Berlin knew Leon’s parents. For a party she was told ‘bring your niece, we have a young man coming.’”

“It was a conspiracy,” notes Leon. Raymonde adds, “So my three-month visa became forever.” They celebrated their 57th anniversary this year. The Goures raised two sons. Readers may have seen and heard Daniel Goure, who is a military analyst and commentator for NBC. The younger son Paul is a sound engineer living in Atlanta.

Neighbors in Potomac know the Goures as devoted owners of Mishka, a Chow-Shepherd mix they adopted from the Rockville shelter eight years ago.

“We used to walk the dogs together,” said Joe Massie, a Potomac neighbor and friend since 1989. “It was kind of through the dogs that we got to know one another. ‘Fascinating’ is the primary adjective to describe Leon. He’s a very articulate and organized speaker ... and a linguist. You don’t meet many of them these days.” Massie is impressed not only with Leon’s intellect and background, but with his warmth as a person. He notes that Goure’s life experience is “something our children’s generation can’t grasp ... it’s a book experience.”

Ask Goure if he suffered any war injuries, and you’ll hear an ironic story about the old Hechinger’s at Montgomery Mall. “I never got a scratch in the war. When I got back, yes ...” In 1985 Goure was parked in the loading lane at Hechinger’s, putting some purchases in the trunk of his car. “The guy behind me stepped on the gas instead of the brake and plowed into me. I broke my hip and my thigh, and the fender cut a chunk out of my calf. . . . I’ve lived much more dangerously in peacetime than in the war.” His wife Raymonde adds, “Leon says he broke three legs, because he broke one leg, then the second one twice.” He was in the hospital for two months and has had many complications. Today two teenage neighbors, Benjamin and Brian Green walk Mishka for the Goures.

GOURE’S NEXT-DOOR neighbor, Bert Simson, recalls that the accident was a major setback for someone who was strikingly energetic. Simson, a retired CPSC executive who came to the United States from Israel in 1957, says Goure was an avid gardener who “even in the heat of the day” would be outside tending the plantings.

“He is a very learned man, very well versed in political issues,” Simson notes. “He always has something interesting to tell about the Cold War.” By the 1960s, Leon Goure had become an eminent scholar of Russian history and Soviet foreign policy, and author of The Siege of Leningrad (Stanford University Press, 1962) and Moscow in Crisis (The Free Press, 1955).

He was an analyst for the RAND Corporation and also led an intelligence unit in Vietnam during the 1960s. By 1978, the Goures moved to Potomac, after about a decade in Florida where Goure worked as a professor of political science at the University of Miami. He retired in 2004 from SAIC in Fairfax, Va., where he was director of Russian and Central Eurasian Studies. While at RAND, Goure was an associate of Erik Willenz, who is now retired from the State Department and living in Rockville. Theirs is a solid friendship that goes back nearly 60 years. At RAND Goure was a Soviet expert while Willenz was a scholar of European politics and culture. “We became friends not only because of our common studies, but we shared a common path,” Willenz reflects.

“We both fled Hitler.” While Goure fled from Paris, Willenz fled Vienna in 1938, after the Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria. Both came to the United States, got expedited citizenship, then went back to Europe to fight in the war. While Goure was in the 99th Infantry, Willenz was in the Air Force, serving as a navigator in a bomber. Both also stayed in Europe after the war to aid in denazification efforts. Willenz was part of the British-American commission that drew up the indictment of the German Air Force for the Nuremburg trials. Willenz guesses that there were a few thousand immigrants like he and Goure, who fled the Nazis, became American citizens, and then went back to Europe to fight. “None of us objected to going back to fight. [We] felt it was imperative to defeat Hitler.”