Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: April 24, 2014

George Leitmann, United States Army

George Leitmann was born in Vienna, Austria in May 1925. His father Josef was a certified public accountant and later became a businessman. His mother Stella Fischer Leitmann was an accountant.

At age 14, George left German-annexed Austria for the United States with his mother and both grandmothers. He attended high school in New York and, after graduation in December 1943, volunteered for engineering training in the US Army. Instead, he was called up for service in preparation for the upcoming invasion of Europe.

His battalion assisted the first French Army in Alsace Lorraine. Serving in the reconnaissance unit, George participated in the liberation of Colmar in northeastern France. For this action, he was later awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palmes. Later, he took part in the liberation of the Landsberg concentration camp at Dachau in southern Germany.

After the war’s end in 1945, the Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) recruited George for what was called his “language and area competence”. At age 20, he became the CIC’s youngest special agent. He worked with the French Secret Service to investigate suspected collaborators and then joined the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial Team as an interrogator for the prosecution. Among the people he interviewed were Field Marshal Heinz Guderian, Heinrich Himmler’s wife and daughter, and most sobering of all in his recollection, a group of female guards from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Returning to the US, George attended Columbia University under the G.I. Bill of Rights, earning degrees in physics in 1949 and 1950. He began work at the US Naval Ordnance Test Station (USNOTS) near China Lake, California, a rocket development center. In addition to weaponry, the center worked on trajectory planning and optimization which were also concerns for the early space program.

After obtaining a Ph.D. in engineering science at UC Berkeley in 1956, George became head of the USNOTS Aeroballistics Section. A year later, he joined the faculty of UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering which has remained his academic home.

The UC Berkeley community knows Professor Leitmann as a distinguished member of the College of Engineering faculty since 1957. George is an internationally recognized authority on optimal control theory and its applications. He has worked tirelessly on behalf of the university to establish research and teaching relationships with global partners, particularly in Europe.

In 2013, the Government of France awarded George the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor.

The French Legion of Honor, or in full The National Order of The Legion of Honor, is the highest decoration that can be given for civil or military conduct in service to the French Republic. Created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the award was established to recognize extraordinary contributions to France regardless of birth or class, focusing solely on merit. Though the honor is French, citizens of other nations who risked their lives on French soil fighting in World War II may be given the distinction. Only a small number of Legion of Honor metals are awarded each year to US veterans, and great care is taken the select only those with the most distinguished records.

George Leitmann’s military record more than lives up to the necessary criteria. On the World War II battlefield and during the period of reconstruction that followed, Professor Leitmann served the French Republic in ways that exemplify the conduct required to be appointed to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor.