WASHINGTON – Nearly 70 years after then-Pfc. William F. Leonard of Lockport fought his way through sniper fire to capture a roadblock from the Germans in a World War II battle in France, President Obama will posthumously award him the nation’s highest military honor next month.
Leonard, who died in Lockport in 1985 at age 71, is one of 24 veterans who will receive the Medal of Honor in a March 18 ceremony that will be one of the largest ever of its kind.
All 24 of the soldiers previously had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military award. And all of them are being upgraded to Medal of Honor recipients in wake of a congressionally mandated review of their actions.
“The White House ceremony on March 18 will recognize these 24 men for their gallantry, intrepidity and heroism above and beyond the call of duty,” the Army said on a website in which it announced the Medal of Honor recipients. “The United States Army is proud of these soldiers and glad to see their professionalism, service and sacrifice being recognized again – in full view of a new generation.”
Leonard’s honor results from his valiant efforts during a battle near St. Die, France, on Nov. 7, 1944.
Leonard was a squad leader with Company C, 30th Infantry Division, and that day found him in the middle of a vicious firefight with Nazi forces.
With German artillery, mortars, machine guns and rifles blasting away from all around, Leonard’s unit was reduced to eight men, the Army said in a narrative of his experience that appeared on the website.
In spite of it all, Leonard led the survivors on an assault over a hillside, with the Germans shooting at the Americans the entire time.
Amid all the gunfire, Leonard shot back, killing two snipers at ranges of 50 and 75 yards.
Then – after being shot in the back – Leonard continued his assault, destroying a heavy machine gun with rifle grenades and killing the two men operating it.
But the wounded soldier from Lockport wasn’t done yet.
“Stunned by an exploding bazooka shell, he continued his relentless advance to knock out a second machine gun and capture the roadblock objective,” the Army said.
In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, Leonard previously received the Bronze Star, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one Bronze Service Star, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Honorable Service Lapel Button-World War II.
Leonard left the Army with the rank of staff sergeant and returned to Lockport after the war, working in the auto industry, as a butcher and finally at a radiator company, the Army said. He died five days before his 72nd birthday as he sat in his backyard, listening to a New York Yankees game on the radio.
Two of Leonard’s daughters, Patricia Kennedy and Rosemary McQueen, still live in Lockport. A third daughter, Carol Maxey, lives in Dry Prong, La.
Leonard will be one of seven World War II veterans to receive the Medal of Honor at the ceremony. In addition, nine Korean War veterans and eight Vietnam War veterans will be honored.
The awards stem from a 2002 congressional mandate that the records of Jewish and Hispanic American war veterans be reviewed to determine if they deserved greater recognition than they had received. The Army said that during the review, Army officials found that several other soldiers who were not Jewish or Hispanic also deserved the nation’s top military honor.