Joe was born in Erie, PA, on August 29, 1920. His mother and father were first-generations Americans who originally met in Poland, then came to America separately where they re-met and married. The family spoke fluent polish in the house, and Joe taught his parents English.
Joe was an athletic young man. From age 13 on went for 10 mile runs up to four times weekly.
In 1939 he graduated from Erie Technological High School where he studied electricity and ran machines for the school. For a year he worked in a CC (Civilian Conservation) Camp, then for a year as a tool-and-die maker for General Electric.
When the war broke out, Joe initially volunteered to be in the Air Force, wanting to be a pilot. He learned how to repair plane engines and boxed on the base’s team. He took the military’s exam to be a pilot and ended up with high marks, but the military lost his records and denied entrance into the program. In the meantime they trained him to repair self-sealing fuel tanks.
Joe didn’t want to spend the war stateside, so he volunteered to be an Army paratrooper. Seven months later, the military found his records to be a pilot, but by that time he was already in the Airborne.
The records for Joe Lesniewski's examination to become a pilot were lost, so he applied to be a paratrooper instead. Later, the records were found noting he passed the exam with flying colors. [photo courtesy Joe Lesniewski].
Joe went overseas with the 541st Infantry Regiment and was sent to London on special assignment to be an interpreter attached to the Polish resistance. For this assignment, Joe and 5 others were made members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence agency that eventually became the CIA. The assignment was eventually cancelled.
Joe was given his choice of joining any outfit. He’d heard good things about the 506th regiment of the 101st Airborne. Joe joined Easy Company late 1943, when they were in Aldbourne, England. Two of his first friends in the new company were Alex Penkala and Skip Muck. Together, they started an informal Western singing group. Alex and Skip were both later killed in Bastogne.
Joe parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and landed next to Ed Joint, who was from the same hometown. (Ed and Joe remained lifelong friends—Ed died this past May 12, 2012).
Joe fought in Carentan, and was one of the five men on patrol when Albert Blithe was shot by a sniper in the neck (as seen in the HBO series). Joe packed a clean tee-shirt around Albert’s wounds, and, still under fire, helped carry his friend back to medics.
Joe parachuted into Holland for Operation Market Garden. He was wounded in the neck by grenade fragments while out on patrol in an area called “The Island.” (In 1994, he went to the hospital again, and they still found a piece of shrapnel in his body.)
Joe rejoined Easy Company in Mourmelon, France, just prior to the battle of Bastogne. In Mourmelon, Joe turned in his boots to get new ones. The military didn’t have the right size boot for him. When the call came to fight, he still didn’t have boots, so Joe tied burlap bags around his feet and fought in the ice and snow of Bastogne anyway.
Joe was wounded in both legs during the battle of Foy. He kept fighting, and his wounds festered. By the time the company reached Haguenau, a serious infection had set in, and doctors wanted to amputate both Joe’s legs. A kindly Major intervened and prevented the amputation, and Joe’s legs eventually healed.
While Joe was in the hospital in Belgium, Captain Ron Speirs mistakenly sent mail home to Joe’s parents marked “killed in action.” A sister intercepted the letter and didn’t show the parents. Fortunately Joe was able to write a letter to his parents, letting them know he was still alive.
Envelope sent home to Joe's parents marked "deceased."
Joe rejoined Easy Company in Austria, which is where he was when the war ended. He was a high points man and was sent home right away. Joe won $298 in a dice game on the ship ride home, but was robbed back in the States while hitch-hiking from base to home.
Following the war, Joe worked for GE for a short time, then for the United States Post Office for 34 years. He and his wife had 6 children and 9 grandchildren. Later, he was married a second time.
Joe was a lifelong avid fisherman. For years following the war he owned a fishing camp in Canada with some friends.
Historian Rich Riley, who personally knew Joe well, described him as “a warrior on the battlefield—a tough guy of the first order, as he often had to let his fists do the talking.”
At the same time, Rich said, “Over the years I saw a thousand acts of random kindness come from him. He had a heart of gold. He never stopped giving, as he was proudly involved in numerous charitable causes in his community.”
When I interviewed Joe for the book I asked him about his thoughts on heroism.
“Being a hero?" Joe said, "I don’t even care for the word. The work had to be done. I was asked to do it. So I did. I give talks to kids in school, and I tell them the same thing: don’t brag that you’re anything more than you are.”