Leonard Snyder didn’t have an easy childhood, and by 18, he had experienced more than his share of hardships.
“It was rougher than rough,” Snyder said. “At that time, walking down the streets (of Chicago), somebody would shoot somebody (else) for no reason. They call it a drive-by today. Sixty years ago, it wasn’t drive-bys. It was just killing.”
So when he graduated high school, the military felt like his only way out.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Snyder said. “It was either that or get killed.”
Snyder was born on Aug. 2, 1947, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was a middle child with five siblings.
By the time he was 3 years old, his mother and father had left him and his siblings.
“My grandmother took on everybody,” he said, adding that there were a number of his cousins also living with them. “She raised us to the best of her abilities.”
At 15, Snyder was shot in the arm, which was when he and his brothers decided that enough was enough — they were leaving Alabama. They headed out to Chicago, as that’s where their parents were.
“Since they had left us, we figured they wanted us back, which they didn’t, so we had to hustle,” he said.
They met three women, who were kind enough to give them a place to live and some work. “We had to pay our way … (but) had it not been for those women, I don’t know where I would be.”
Snyder enjoyed playing baseball and was being scouted by the pros in his senior year. “The Chicago Cubs wanted me, but I had to eat.”
That’s when he and a friend decided they were going to do something, so they volunteered to join the Army. Though he was a good student, both he and his friend failed the test, so instead, they tried the Navy and aced the test. “I haven’t figured that one out, yet,” he said, chuckling.
Snyder left three days later for the Navy.
In August 1965, Snyder was sent to Naval Station Great Lakes for boot camp.
Though he knew nothing about what it’d be like, he said he was prepared for anything. “Anything was better than where I was at.”
It was there that he met two other soldiers, Joseph Browser and James McGee, who he was lucky enough to be able to stick with throughout his journey in the service. “We just felt close to each other.”
Next, Snyder went to Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines just as the Vietnam War was beginning to ramp up.
“I was placed on patrol,” he said. “We were on boats, going up and down the channel, making sure everything was OK.”
In July 1967, a fire broke out onboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal off the coast of Vietnam, killing 134 sailors and airmen.
“I was one of the ones that had to offload the bodies,” Snyder said. “We had almost finished. I think we had about four or five (bodies) left when I reached over to hook this one guy, and the guy sat up. I ran and ran ’til I got to the barracks, which is about 4 miles away. I don’t know how I got off that ship to this day.”
That experience scarred him and it was a turning point for him and his time in the Navy. “That stopped me from pursuing the military, because I would have stayed in the military and made a career out of it.”
Snyder spent his last year on the USS Oklahoma City, USS Providence and USS Brinkley Bass, traveling from shore to shore in the South Pacific, including all through Japan, Tahiti, Australia and New Zealand, which he enjoyed.
Though he enjoyed it all, his favorite places to travel were Sydney, Australia, and Wellington, New Zealand.
During this time on the ships, Snyder was in charge of the ship’s stores. “We called it ‘small stores.’ Everybody came to me to get clothes, from the officers all the way down (in rank).”
Snyder went back to Chicago after he was honorably discharged from the Navy as a seaman.
He began working for Chicago Transit driving buses, which he did for about a year and a half until there came a day when he stepped off the bus and realized it was colder on the bus than off and he just couldn’t take the cold weather any longer. “I knew then this was no place for me, so I jumped in my car (and) drove it all the way to California nonstop.”
When he got to Los Angeles, he began driving buses for the Southern California Rapid Transit District and drove for two years before moving on to bus inspection. “I did that for a little over 21 years and enjoyed every bit of it. It was good to me.”
He married Anne, his wife of 50 years, in 1970. The couple have two sons and five grandchildren.
“I would have left me so long ago,” he said referring to Anne, laughing. “She saw something good in me, and I’m glad.”
For about 15 years, Snyder volunteered with Kiwanis International, an international service club, serving as a distinguished member and even president. He also started a catering company after retiring, and coached a number of sports, including football, basketball and baseball.
During the Holcomb Fire in 2017 near Big Bear, his catering company was able to help feed more than 4,700 people.
Snyder was very passionate about volunteering, as it gave him the opportunity to help others who were struggling as he had once. “I was just glad to be able to give back, and it was a blessing.”
A few years ago, he and Anne moved to the Santa Clarita Valley to be closer to their two youngest grandchildren, who are 4 and 9 years old. “It’s been an experience for me starting all over (with the kids), (but) I love it.”
Snyder hasn’t gotten a full night’s sleep since the incident with the dead body in 1967.
“I’ve been sick ever since,” he said. “Every night (at) 1:30 in the morning, I jump out of the bed. I’ve been doing that for over 50 years. It is very hard to deal with.”
Though he’s visited a number of doctors, they keep telling him nothing’s wrong, he said.
The incident has prevented him from attending the funerals of any of his loved ones, including that of one of his best friends from his time in the military, McGee.
Snyder said it helps to talk to some of his fellow veterans, many of whom he met and befriended at the Bella Vida senior center.
“We all got something to talk about,” he said. “It’s easier, but it isn’t easy.”
Still, Snyder credits the Navy with turning his life around for the better, saying he wouldn’t have changed that decision.