Forgotten History:Sergeant Leo Major-One Eyed Hero

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This man is true inspiration to me in a very personal way.Like me he had only the use of one eye, but unlike me he risked his life many times.

Leo Major was a French Canadian man born in 1921. He probably didn’t think he was going to be more of a hero than the average soldier when he joined up with the Canadian Army at the start of World War II—supposedly he simply joined up because he wanted to show his father, with whom he had a shaky relationship, that he could do something to be proud of.

Léo Major DCM & Bar (1921 – 12 October 2008) was a French Canadian soldier in the Régiment de la Chaudière in World War II.

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He was the only Canadian and one of only three soldiers in the British Commonwealth to ever receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal twice in separate wars.

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On the night of 13 April 1945, Major single-handedly liberated the city of Zwolle in the Netherlands from German army occupation.This action earned him his first Distinguished Conduct Medal. He received his second DCM during the Korean War for leading the capture of a key hill.

Major died in Longueuil on 12 October 2008 and was buried at the Last Post Fund National Field of Honour in Pointe-Claire, Quebec. He was survived by: Pauline De Croiselle, his wife of 57 years; four children; and five grandchildren.

During a reconnaissance mission on D-Day, Major captured a German armoured vehicle (a Hanomag) by himself. The vehicle contained German communication equipment and secret German Army codes.

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Days later, during his first encounter with an SS patrol, he killed four soldiers; however, one of them managed to ignite a phosphorus grenade. After the resulting explosion, Major lost one eye but he continued to fight.

He continued his service as a scout and a sniper by insisting that he needed only one eye to sight his weapon. According to him, he “looked like a pirate”

Major single-handedly captured 93 German soldiers during the Battle of the Scheldt in Zeeland in the southern Netherlands.During a reconnaissance, whilst alone, he spotted two German soldiers walking along a dike. As it was raining and cold, Major said to himself, “I am frozen and wet because of you so you will pay.” He captured the first German and attempted to use him as bait so he could capture the other. The second attempted to use his gun, but Major quickly killed him. He went on to capture their commanding officer and forced him to surrender. The German garrison surrendered themselves after three more were shot dead by Major. In a nearby village, SS troops who witnessed German soldiers being escorted by a Canadian soldier shot at their own soldiers, injuring a few and killing seven. Major disregarded the enemy fire and kept escorting his prisoners to the Canadian front line. Major then ordered a passing Canadian tank to fire on the SS troops.

He marched back to camp with nearly a hundred prisoners. Thus, he was chosen to receive a DCM. He declined the invitation to be decorated, however, because according to him General Montgomery (who was giving the award) was “incompetent” and in no position to be giving out medals.

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In February 1945, Major was helping a Chaplain load corpses from a destroyed Tiger tank into a Bren Carrier.

 

After they finished loading the bodies, the padre and the driver seated themselves in the front whilst Major jumped on the back of the vehicle. The carrier soon struck a land mine. Major claims to have remembered a loud blast followed by his body being thrown into the air and smashing down hard as he landed on his back. He lost consciousness and awoke to two concerned medical officers trying to assess his condition. He simply asked if the Chaplain was okay. They did not answer, but loaded him onto a truck so he could be transported to a field hospital 30 miles (48 km) away, stopping every 15 minutes to inject morphine to relieve the pain in his back.

A doctor at the field hospital informed him that he had broken his back in three places, four ribs, and both ankles.Again they told Major that the war was over for him. A week went by and Major had the opportunity to flee. He managed to get a ride from a passing jeep that drove him to Nijmegen, a town where he had previously met a family. He stayed with that family for close to a month. He went back to his unit in March 1945. Technically, Pte Major would have been AWOA (Absent Without Authority). There is a lack of sources regarding how Major was able to avoid punishment.

 

In April 1945, Major’s regiment was approaching the city of Zwolle.  His commanding officers asked for two volunteers to do a reconnaissance run and report on the  number of German troops patrolling the city. If possible, the volunteers were also asked to get in contact with the Dutch resistance as the Chaudiere regiment was to start firing on the city the next day. At the time, Zwolle had a population of around 50,000 people and it was likely that innocent civilians would number among the casualties.

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Along with his friend Willy Arseneault, Major started to creep toward the city. Willy was killed by German soldiers around midnight after the pair ran across a roadblock.

 

Reportedly, Willy was able to kill his attacker before dying himself. Understandably angry, Major picked up his friend’s machine gun and ran at the enemy, killing two of the remaining German soldiers; the rest fled in a vehicle.
Major continued on and soon ambushed a staff vehicle and captured the German driver who he had lead him to an officer drinking in a nearby tavern. He informed the officer that Canadian forces would begin firing heavy artillery on the city, resulting in the deaths of many German soldiers and Zwolle civilians alike. He didn’t mention that he was alone.

Afterwards, Major gave the man his gun back and, with that seed of knowledge soon to be spread throughout the German troops, he immediately began running up and down the streets shooting a machine gun and tossing grenades. The grenades made a lot of noise, but he made sure to place them where they wouldn’t cause much damage to the town or its citizens.

In the early hours of the morning, he stumbled upon a group of eight soldiers. Though they pulled a gun on him, he killed four and caused the rest to flee. Major himself escaped the confrontation without injury and only one regret: he later stated he felt he should have killed all of them. 

As he continued his campaign of terror throughout the night, the German soldiers began to panic, thinking a large body of Canadian forces were attacking them.  By 4 a.m., the Germans had vanished. An entire garrison—estimated to have been made up of several hundred soldiers—had been made so afraid of nothing more than a single, one-eyed man that they fled the town. The city of Zwolle had been liberated without the need for the death of civilians or many of the soldiers on both sides of the lines that would have taken part in the messy battle.

Rather than fall asleep after running around the city in the wee hours of morning avoiding German gunfire and causing all kinds of mayhem, Major enlisted the help of several Dutch civilians to retrieve the body of his friend Willy. Only after his friend’s body had been recovered did Major report to his commanding officer that there was “no enemy” in the city.Major found out later that morning that the Germans had fled to the west of the River IJssel

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and, perhaps more importantly, that the planned shelling of the city would be called off and his Régiment de la Chaudière could enter the city unopposed. Major then took his dead friend back to the Van Gerner farm until regimental reinforcements could carry him away. He was back at camp by 9:00 am. For his actions, he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.The Canadian army marched in to the sound of cheers rather than gun shots. For his actions at Zwolle, Major received a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Léo Major fought in the Korean War, where he was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal for capturing and holding a key hill (Hill 355).

This position was being controlled by the Third US Infantry Division (around 10,000 men) when the 64th Chinese Army (around 40,000 men) lowered a decisive artillery barrage. Over the course of two days, the Americans were pushed back by elements of the Chinese 190th and 191st Divisions.

They tried to recapture the hill, but without any success, and the Chinese had moved to the nearby Hill 227, practically surrounding the US forces. In order to relieve pressure, LCol J.A. Dextraze, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion Royal 22nd Regiment, brought up an elite scout and sniper team led by Léo Major. Wielding Stenguns, Major and his 18 men silently crept up the hill. At a signal, Major’s men opened fire, panicking the Chinese who were trying to understand why the firing was coming from the center of their troops instead of from the outside. By 12:45 am they had retaken the hill.

However, an hour later two Chinese divisions (the 190th and the 191st, totaling around 14,000 men) counter-attacked. Major was ordered to retreat, but refused and found scant cover for his men. There he held the enemy off throughout the night, though they were so close to him that Major’s own mortar shells were practically raining down on him.

For three days his men held off multiple Chinese counter-assaults until reinforcements arrived. For his actions, Major was awarded the bar to the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

 

 

“I fought the war with only one eye, and I did pretty good.”

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In Zwolle a street was named after him with a subtext on the street sign saying “Canadian first liberator of Zwolle (1921–2008)”

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(the picture is taken by Jocely Major, whom I presume is either a daughter or grand-daughter)

It just goes to show that one man can make a difference.

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