Monday, February 24, 2014

"I Have a War to Finish" - The Legacy of Leo Major

One of the most celebrated Canadian soldiers, Leo Major served in World War II as well as the Korean War. His actions earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal, a prestigious award only two other Canadians have received yet he has achieved this honor twice. Born in Massachusetts on January 23, 1921, his family soon relocated to Montreal, Canada. Suffering a tempestuous relationship with his father, Leo ran away from home to live with his aunt. Once he completed high school, the lack of career opportunities prompted him to enlist in the Canadian army. He was placed in the Regiment de la Chaudiere, sent to Scotland to train as a sniper and was selected as a member of the elite squadrons to engage D-Day operations.
Leo writing a letter after being hospitalized
Landing on Normandy, he survived the dash across the beaches and single-handedly captured a German Armored Vehicle that conveniently contained German Army codes. During a melee with an SS Patrol, he managed to kill several soldiers before one launched a phosphorous grenade at him. The blast caused him to lose vision in an eye. Although medical doctors prepared to evacuate him to England, he defiantly refused by stating, “No way! Sorry, but I have a war to finish.”
           He now wore an eye patch over his left eye, chuckling that he appeared like a pirate. Instead of wallowing over his loss, he cheerfully stated that he only required one eye to serve his country. The man’s steeled resolve allowed his skill to flourish despite his marred vision and after healing sufficiently, he resumed combat. Shortly following the summer of 1944, forces clashed in the Battle of Scheldt, wherein Leo captured ninety three German soldiers in Holland. Scouting the location of a missing Canadian infantry unit during a reconnaissance mission, Leo came across his captured compatriots. Swiftly he ambushed two German troops with the intent to make them his prisoners. Successfully doing so, a nearby garrison witnessed the activity. Believing their commander had surrendered, they followed suit, allowing Leo to march roughly one hundred prisoners back into the Allied camp.

A video homage to the French-Canadian war hero

February 1945 rumbled through as did the Padre. Leo assisted by loading corpses from a destroyed Tiger Tank onto the vehicle, and as just as the driver ignited the engine, the carrier struck a tank mine. Leo’s body collided with the ground, causing him to instantly black-out. He was loaded onto a stretcher, driven thirty miles away to a field hospital and yet again instructed to return home. The doctor’s report revealed that three portions of his back were broken along with four ribs and both ankles. Not daunted in the slightest, Major devised an escape route during his week-long recovery. He hitched a ride onto a jeep which drove him to Nijmegen where he stayed with a family for a month before returning to his regiment in March. Precisely during this time, his unit approached Zwolle, a resisting Belgian city enduring German occupation. Volunteering along with his close friend Willy Arseneault, the men desired to contact the Dutch Resistance and overrun the city despite the fact that their orders were to only calculate the amount of Germans stationed within Zwolle. Accidentally giving his position away, Willy was gunned down by machine fire which sent Leo into a rage. Major slung Arsenault’s weapon and his own rifle onto his back, grabbed a German machine gun from the now-dead sentry who had shot Willy then crept into town under the cover of darkness.
Willy & Leo
Major’s strategy resembled maniacal flailing as he ran through the city ambushing troops. He consistently captured German soldiers, a reported ten times throughout the night, then escorted them to the Canadian troops positioned along the city’s periphery before heading back to satisfy his grief. His vicious attack convinced the Nazi troops that a grand force had infiltrated the city, whereas it was merely a single man wielding three machine guns and a sack of grenades who sprinted throughout the city shrieking and firing at any visible Axis soldier. One of the most notable events of his killing spree was when he found his way into an SS club and managed to kill four high-ranking officers before burning down the Gestapo’s headquarters. Before the sun rose, the entire German force had evacuated the city and returned control to the Dutch. At 5:00 am, Leo arrived back at camp after collecting the remains of his friend. Alone and exhausted, Leo served as Zwolle’s liberator.
DCM Award Ceremony
This victory heralded his first DCM. However, he rejected the award, believing his commander, General Bernard Montgomery, was incompetent and unqualified to award such a medal - a bold claim issued from a lowly private to the Canadians' Allied High Commander. Although he did not accept the award, he is credited for his service and soon gleaned another DCM for his service in the Korean War where he captured and held Hill 355 against the 64th Chinese Army which had driven the Third US Infantry off the slope.

          Leo had quietly resumed civilian life but returned to war when Canadian commander Dextrase asked him to serve as his Corporal in 1951. By this point, the Americans appeared surrounded. Fortunately, Leo Major’s sniper division crept up and recaptured the hill. Success was not easily won for the Canadian force bravely mustered a three day counter-assault until reinforcements arrived although Leo had been ordered to retreat. According to General Dextrase, Leo ought to have received at least eleven DCM’s for his actions in WWII alone for he viewed the one-man army as the epitome of the Allied soldier.
Zwolle celebrating one of Leo's visits
Concluding the war, Leo returned to Montreal and lived with his family until his death in 2008. He made numerous trips to the Netherlands and was further honored by being dubbed an honorary citizen of Zwolle. Leo continues to be revered by the citizens of Zwolle and his fellow Canadians who feature his exploits in their educational curriculum. His fearless determination and devotion ought to be recognized and applauded for his selfless dedication to duty and liberty.


Suggested Reading:

Brown, George A. For Distinguished Conduct in the Field: The Register of the Distinguished Conduct Medal 1939-1992. Eastbourne: Antony Rowe Ltd, 2009. Leo Major (accessed February 24, 2014).

Zuehlke, Mark. On to Victory: The Canadian Liberation of the Netherlands, March 23—May 5, 1945 (Canadian Battle). Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, August 2010.—May-ebook/dp/B003Z9JMRK/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1393269404&sr=8-2&keywords=Private Leo Major (accessed February 24, 2014).

"Liberator of Zwolle: Léo Major, the forgotten hero." (accessed February 24, 2014).

"Léo Major - War Hero." Youtube. (accessed February 24, 2014).

"Leo Major." The Hero Construction Company. (accessed February 24, 2014).

"Divergent Portraits of War: If you saw him sitting in a hotel restaurant along the Stationweg in this old walled city, your gaze likely wouldn't linger." Canada. (accessed February 24, 2014).

Fowler, T.R. "LÉO MAJOR, DCM and BAR." kvacanada. (accessed February 24, 2014).

Monday, February 10, 2014

Beasts of Burden: The Animals of WWII

For centuries mankind has waged war, implementing new technologies and strategies; thriving through combat-transforming innovation. Since the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution, forces have employed animals into service positions, endeavoring to develop militaristic tactics. Common beasts of burden, such as elephants, horses, mules, and camels were utilized for transportation methods and engineering purposes while 20th century conflicts witnessed the use of messenger pigeons, canines, dolphins and even bears. These animals not only provided emotional support but offered a unique advantage that often altered the course of war.

Notoriously, World War II is famed for using messenger pigeons, dogs and war horses due to their sensory benefits and adept skills which could be honed. In order to recognize their service, the United Kingdom established the Dickin Medal in 1943. This award honors animals of WWI and WWII who have displayed “gallantry or devotion to duty.” The majority of these recipients adhere to pigeons and dogs, such as Lady Astor, a pigeon who carried an Allied message to North Africa despite a broken leg and a wing tarnished by gunfire while another pigeon, Gustav, flew one hundred and fifty miles to England to deliver the first official news of D-Day’s success. In 1944, Paddy made the fastest recorded crossing of the English Channel to deliver messages from Normandy, travelling two hundred and thirty miles in four hours and five minutes. Pigeons' natural homing devices, small stature and flight were used as a means of strategic intelligence. These birds were assembled into special units and viewed as highly prized combatants that were protected by the American and British army which launched sixteen thousand pigeons throughout the course of WWII.

Simon, the HMS Amethyst's cat, while injured from a cannon blast which killed 17 members of the UK crew, continued to protect the ship's dwindling rations from rats
Animals were engaged in every theater of war, serving as comrades-in-arms and altruistic companions. It was a common practice for soldiers to smuggle their pets from home or for an entire squadron to adopt an animal as a mascot for their battalion. Australians typically brought kangaroos on board while Russians and Germans were known to relish their cavalry.

Wojtek boxing with a comrade
One of the more far fetched mascots and soldiers appeared in Wojtek, an intimidating, artillery shell-carrying bear who fought alongside a Polish Regiment at Monte Casino. Besides overwhelming German nerves, he additionally captured a spy, enjoyed boxing with soldiers and later retired to the Edinburgh zoo. Although not all stories are quite as remarkable as Wojtek’s, the majority of mascots were pets who had been abandoned due to the devastation of war. Through adoption, an advantageous liaison formed between the soldiers and the stray cat, dog or bird that was taken in by a company. Cared for and fed, pets simultaneously returned gratitude by providing companionship for distraught men who were thousands of miles away from the soil and comforts of home. Referred to as “buddies,” military units of WWII established an enduring bond between themselves and their animal companions as displayed by Marine Burckhardt and his adopted kitten.
Marine Cpl. Edward Burckhardt adopted the kitten he found at Suribachi, Iwo Jima in 1945.
However, man’s best friend presided as the most efficient counterpart to martial affairs. Roughly ten thousand dogs were instituted into the military and were prized for their keen hearing, incomparable sense of smell and obedience. Allied forces as well as the Axis powers comprehended the unique role dogs played, their importance in war and thoroughly used that realization to the fullest extent. Most were trained to track enemies, guard supplies, protect units, serve as messengers, detect weapons and explosives as well as rescue drowned pilots.
Beauty with her P.D.S.A. Owner
A shining example of ingenuity, Beauty, a Wire Haired Fox Terrier and a recipient of the Dickin Medal, worked with the British civil defense throughout the war. She located sixty three other animals alongside their owners who had become trapped in the wake of London’s bombing. Rex, a rescue dog, saved sixty five lives after the blitz and also received the Dickin Medal in 1945. In addition to Allied breeds, German Shepherds became a famous symbol of the Third Reich’s authority while Great Danes were used to deploy bombs into tunnels or trenches. Disturbingly, the practice of “suicidal dogs” emerged as a Russian tactic. In such occurrences, bombs were attached to a dog’s collar before the Soviets released it towards the enemy as a last-ditch attempt to destroy oncoming tanks and vehicles.

Despite barbarianism and the horrors of war, compassion and endearment existed between the soldiers and the animals they worked, fought and died besides. These heroes proved their intelligence and steadfast loyalty, as captured by photographs stored in the National Archives and through military exhibits such as the New Orleans “Loyal Forces: The Animals of World War II” that document self-sacrificing creatures whose exploits saved hundreds of lives.

"Let the Soldiers Take a Short Sleep" (Czechoslovakia, 1945). Photo by G. Lipskerov


Suggested Reading:

Auel, Lisa B. "Buddies Soldiers and Animals in World War II." Prologue Magazine 28 (1996), (accessed February 10, 2014).

Dixon, Mary. "The National World War II Museum honors four-legged veterans with Loyal Forces: The Animals of World War II." The National World War II Museum: New Orleans. (accessed February 10, 2014).

"In pictures: Heroic dogs." BBC News. (accessed February 10, 2014).

Jones, Rob Lloyd. "Animals at War." Usborne Children's Books. (accessed February 10, 2014).

"PDSA Dickin Medal pigeons." People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). (accessed February 10, 2014).

Swick , Gerald D. "Loyal Forces: The American Animals of WWII – Book Review." Armchair General. (accessed February 10, 2014).