Special Reports

Kennewick Baptist minister guarded Harry Truman

This Kennewick minister wasn't with Harry Truman during the President's stop in Pasco for a whistle-stop tour of the Pacific Northwest in 1950, but his story is still an interesting look at the past.

Kennewick Baptist minister guarded Harry Truman

By John Harrison, Herald staff writer

Published on Aug. 3, 1973

Although he's switched his Marine Corps uniform for a clerical collar, the Rev. Jesse Leonard is probably the only minister around who ever guarded a president.

Surrounded by books in his office in the Kennewick Baptist Church, Leonard, talked about a far different kind of life than in church.

After graduating from high school in Mobeetie, a town in the Texas Panhandle, Leonard enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1945.

Because of childhood hunting with dogs, he was assigned to the K-9 Corps, the Marine's special dog unit.

Here he met Topper.

Topper was a 100-pound Doberman Pinscher with which Leonard would spend the next two years. Because of the nature of their training, each dog must only have one handler.

The young man and the "killer trained" dog were in for a big job. After the war and special FBI training in Quantico, Va., they were assigned to the special Marine Presidential guard for President Harry Truman.

Much of the duty, Leonard said, was providing security at "Shangri-La," now known as Camp David, in the Maryland mountains.

Arriving several days before the president, Leonard and fellow K-9 teams would live in special barracks when not patrolling the extensive grounds of the government retreat.

"We saw the president quite often," Leonard said in a southern drawl tempered by his years in the military.

"We would sometimes talk to him on duty when he was around. Truman spent a lot of time walking around the grounds."

One of Truman's favorite features at the retreat was a large telescope mounted on the balcony of the house, Leonard recalled. Through this scope, Truman could see downtown Baltimore.

Leonard said he had no real close security calls while at Camp David. However he did remember when a group of convicts escaped from a Maryland prison in 1946 while Truman was at his retreat.

Instead of escaping they stumbled in the dark into the Camp David grounds and were detected by the guard dogs, touching off "acres" of searchlights and sirens before being caught.

In the late 1940s, Leonard was selected for what he feels is his other great achievement in the military -- guard duty on a special "Freedom Train" to take America's precious documents on a nationwide tour.

But Topper wouldn't be going along.

After World War II, the military decided to cut back funds and eliminate much of the K-9 Corps.

"Topper had to be put to sleep," Leonard said wistfully. "The public doesn't realize the danger of these dogs. When they are trained to go for the throat, they can't be a pet."

Selected as one of 24 guards from 500 applicants, Leonard traveled on the Freedom Train for about a year, making about 300 stops across America averaging 15,000 visitors a day.

The visitors came to see such national documents as the original draft of the Declaration of Independence and an original letter by Christopher Columbus on the discovery of America.

Besides brushing elbows with such stars as John Wayne and Lana Turner, Leonard said he noticed how the people responded to the exhibits on the train.

"If people now could see the proof of our heritage," Leonard said reverently, "Maybe they would be more patriotic."

While in Atlanta he noticed something else besides patriotism in the audience: His future wife, Carolyn. "I lost my freedom on the Freedom Train," he said with a quiet chuckle.

After his discharge in 1949, Leonard moved back to Texas and enrolled in a Baptist college.

It was while he was a young pastor in Bonham, Tex., that he met what he said was a great personal friend, the Rep. Sam Rayburn, longtime speaker of the House of Representatives.

"In all of Rayburn's life there never was a question of his integrity," Leonard remembered. "When funding for the atom bomb came up, his fellow congressmen approved the money on his word alone without knowing what the money was for."

One of the greatest disappointments in Rayburn's life, Leonard said, was the nomination of John F. Kennedy for president over Rayburn's understudy and fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson.

"He took that very, very hard," Leonard said.

During his ministry, Leonard has done evangelizing work in California, Idaho, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and New York as well as Texas.

He now lives in Kennewick with his wife and three children after coming here in January from Midland, Texas.