WASHINGTON – The war stories that Lockport’s William F. Leonard used to tell his three daughters – about receiving Holy Communion in a bombed-out church in Strasbourg, France, and finding the best bread in the world in a deserted bakery in a tiny French village – probably would not be of much interest to any president.
But the story Leonard never told – the one about leading a charge up a hillside with a back full of bullets and a sharpshooter’s eye that picked off one German soldier after another – proved plenty interesting to President Obama.
Obama on Tuesday belatedly rewarded Leonard and 23 other World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration. And doing so seemed to leave the president in awe.
Reflecting on 24 long-lost tales of bravery and sacrifice, Obama said: “Their courage almost defies imagination.”
Patricia Kennedy, of Lockport, Leonard’s eldest daughter, seemed even more overwhelmed, fighting off tears as she accepted the Medal of Honor from the president on behalf of her late father.
“I just felt so proud of him,” said Kennedy, who joined her two sisters – Rosemary McQueen of Lockport and Carol Maxey of Dry Prong, La. – at the White House. “It was just such an incredible experience. But it would have been so much better if my father could have been there.”
Tuesday’s award ceremony was the culmination of a surreal month for Leonard’s three daughters, who knew that their dad had served in the Army in World War II and that he had won medals, but who were surprised to learn the details of his heroism.
The details came clear, though, in the Army citation that was read at the White House ceremony.
On Nov. 7, 1944, five months after D-Day, Leonard and his platoon served among the American forces trying to push the last remaining German troops out of northeastern France. In a battle near Saint-Dié, France, that day, the Germans fought back hard, raining artillery, mortar, machine gun and rifle fire down on Leonard’s platoon and leaving only eight men standing.
In spite of the carnage all around, Leonard led the survivors up a hill through machine gun fire toward their goal: a German roadblock they wanted to clear and capture.
“Ignoring bullets which pierced his back, Pfc. Leonard killed two snipers at ranges of 50 and 75 yards and engaged and destroyed a machine gun nest with grenades, killing its two-man crew,” the citation reads. “Though momentarily stunned by an exploding bazooka shell, Pfc. Leonard relentlessly advanced, ultimately knocking out a second machine gun nest and capturing the roadblock objective.”
Leonard’s daughters never heard any such thing from their father, whom they recalled as a quiet, hardworking man with a dry sense of humor and a patriotic streak.
A butcher by trade, Leonard left the Army with the rank of staff sergeant and worked at Harrison Radiator after the war, walking to the plant every day despite a limp from his war wounds.
His daughters remember him coming home every Christmas in a taxicab stuffed with toys, even though his wife had already done the Christmas shopping.
And they recalled the American flag he always flew on the front of the house and the Army uniform he kept on display in the garage, in what Kennedy described as “one of the original man caves.”
All the while, the daughters only encountered hints of his heroism.
“We read about his citation, probably, when we were young, because it was in a book he had,” Kennedy said. “He didn’t really mention details.”
Kennedy vaguely remembers, too, that one time she heard someone refer to her father as “Lockport’s Audie Murphy.” Not knowing that Audie Murphy was one of America’s most decorated World War II combat soldier, Kennedy didn’t think much of it at the time.
“From what I understand, there are a lot of veterans who don’t talk about what happened to them,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s just a very sad time in someone’s life. You’re doing your duty – I’m sure that’s how he felt.”
Leonard’s refusal to tell his tale kept it in the shadows with many others. For example, it took until Tuesday for the nation to properly honor Pfc. Leonard F. Kravitz – the uncle of rock star Lenny Kravitz, who attended the ceremony – who sacrificed his life to save his platoon in the Korean War, as well as Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, who rescued a fallen colleague while simultaneously killing the Vietcong troops who had just shot him.
Such heroes had long deserved fuller recognition, said Obama, who noted that while 10 of the new Medal of Honor recipients died in combat, the rest came home, worked hard and built families and communities.
“These veterans lived out their lives in the country that they helped defend, doing what the loved, like William Leonard, who at age 71 passed away in his backyard [in 1985], sitting in his chair, listening to his beloved Yankees play on the radio,” Obama said.
Leonard’s tale of heroism might have died with him if it hadn’t been for an act of Congress.
After discovering that the Army had failed to award the Medal of Honor to some Jewish and Hispanic war heroes who deserved it, Congress in 2002 authorized a review of war records. The review covered the experiences of thousands of troops, including many, like Leonard, who were neither Jewish nor Hispanic but who had not been honored just the same.
In the end, the Army determined that 24 additional men who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War – all Distinguished Service Cross recipients – deserved the Medal of Honor. And Leonard’s wartime actions earned him a spot among “the Valor 24,” the largest class of Medal of Honor winners since World War II.
“Today, we have the chance to set the record straight,” Obama said.
For Kennedy and her sisters, it was the chance, too, of a lifetime: the chance to visit briefly with the president in the Oval Office and to mingle in the White House with the families of other war heroes.
“It still doesn’t seem real that we’re here and this is all happening,” Kennedy said.
For Leonard and her sisters, it’s seemed unreal from the start. In fact, when an Army representative called Kennedy last month to tell her that her father had earned the Medal of Honor, Kennedy didn’t believe it.
“I thought that she was going to say: If you give me your credit card number I will mail you the medal,” Kennedy said in an interview before Tuesday’s ceremony. “I was sure that this was some sort of scam.”
But when she got on the phone that day with her youngest sister, Carol Maxey, reality started to set in. Maxey had her television tuned to CNN, which was reporting the news about her father.
“When they started showing pictures of Dad, I was crying hysterically and Pat was crying hysterically,” Maxey said.
“And we were screaming,” Kennedy added. “It was just unbelievable that our dad was on CNN.”
Their dad was on CNN again Tuesday, as all the networks provided extensive coverage of the 24 long-unnoticed war heroes.
“We were always very proud of him,” said Rosemary McQueen, Leonard’s middle daughter. “But now everybody knows.”
William F. Leonard
Place of birth: Lockport
Date of birth: Aug. 9, 1913
Date of death: Aug. 4, 1985
Military branch: Army War zone: Europe
Top rank: Staff sergeant
Previous top honor:
Distinguished Service Cross
Postwar employer: Harrison Radiator
Wife: The late Mary E. Barone Leonard
Daughters: Patricia Kennedy and Rosemary McQueen of Lockport; Carol Maxey of Dry Prong, La.