NILES - In October of 1945, just two months after Japan had surrendered officially ending World War II, Leonard Bean sat in a cramped military vehicle traveling 40 miles east through the rough terrain of central Germany, unaware of what awaited him.
"I got to Nuremberg by truck," Bean recalled. "Everything was by truck."
Bean, whose home was in Niles prior to being drafted, had received an assignment which sent him from his post in Ansbach to Nuremberg where he would stand witness to one of the most significant military tribunals in the history of modern warfare.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
World War II Army veteran Leonard Bean, 90, walks outside his North Bentley Avenue home in Niles.
Following the Allied Forces' victory, the three major wartime powers - United Kingdom, United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics - began a series of trials to punish those Nazi party members responsible for war crimes. Those tribunals were set to take place in Nuremburg's Palace of Justice.
Sgt. Maj. Bean's battalion was sent to help oversee the event. He was the highest ranking enlistedman in his battalion.
"We kept run of the House of Justice," Bean recalled recently. "We took care of that. There were a lot of things that needed looking after in order to keep the place running smoothly. From the mail room to other operations in the Palace, there was a lot to do. We stayed in the old German barracks, and our offices were on the ground floor of the Palace. The battalion commander was on one side of the hall and my office was on the other side."
Editor's note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.
While his responsibilities did not extend to the actual trial, interactions with some of the most infamous villains of World War II were not uncommon. One memorable occasion happened while Bean was on his way to a meeting in the Palace of Justice.
"I saw all of these people looking down the hall and I said to myself, 'What are they looking at?' The stairway came up from the prison to the palace," Bean said. "I looked down that stairway and up the steps comes Hermann Goering. So, of course I stood there as he passed by."
Goering was one of Adolf Hitler's highest ranking and most trusted commanders, largely considered the most important Nazi on trial in Nuremberg.
"He was just really skinny and his uniform kind of hung on him," Bean remembers. "He walked just a few feet in front of me. I never dreamed that I would see any of those kind of people."
Not long after their hallway encounter and on the day he was to be executed, Goering was found dead in his cell. He committed suicide with cyanide which had been given to him by an outside source. It is still unknown how he received the poison. Bean remembered that day vividly.
"I was in the Palace of Justice the day that they found out he had killed himself," he said. "I don't know how he got his hands on the cyanide. It is just too bad that (Goering) didn't get to hang with the rest of them."
Bean also recalls a scare during his time at the trials.
"Outside of Nuremberg, they had about 70,000 S.S. troops in an encampment," Bean explained. "There was a rumor floating around that they were going to break out."
The rumor, according to Bean, was that these escaped troops were going to overrun the Palace of Justice and free the prisoners.
"The U.S. Army sent us .30 caliber machine guns to carry in the hallway so that we could fire in any direction at any moment," Bean said. "They took the threat seriously, but the break out never happened."
In all, 12 war criminals would be sentenced to death by hanging and seven others received lengthy jail sentences.
Bean's time in Nuremberg and in the military came to a close in May of 1946.
"It was quite an experience to see," Bean noted. "We really didn't get into the trial all that much. I was maybe in there for two hours total during my time. I was on the other side of the wall, though, and all of that was happening around me. I had access to the trial any time I wanted. All I had to do was just go up to the balcony."
Prior to his arrival in Nuremberg, he had been stationed in Czechoslovakia and Ansbach.
"My first assignment overseas was toward the end of 1944 when I joined the first division in Czechoslovakia," he said. "The closest that I ever got to the action was when our guys were out in the field. The Germans were sitting down in a valley, while we were on one side and the Russians were on the other side. I never really got into the middle of the battle, though.
"Shortly after that I went from Ansbach to Nuremberg."
Bean was born on May 7, 1922, in Fairmont, W.Va., and his parents moved to Belmont Avenue in Niles when he was 12. After graduating from Mentor High School in 1940, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Now 90 years old and a resident of Niles, Bean still looks back with wonder at what he witnessed during his near two years overseas.
"Just knowing that you were there and a part of all of that is something to look back on," he said. "You would never dream that you would be involved in something like that."