Léo Major, DCM and Bar, soldier and war hero (born 23 January 1921 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, died 12 October 2008 in Montreal, QC). Major was a veteran of the Second World War and the Korean War. He is the only Canadian to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for two separate wars.
Second World War
Léo Major grew up in a tough working-class district of Montreal during the Depression. He enlisted in the Canadian army in 1940 and joined Le Régiment de la Chaudière. Major landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944 as a scout platoon sniper and helped capture a German half-track that day. Later, in a fight with a four-man SS patrol, a phosphorous grenade went off, leaving him partially blind in his left eye. Major insisted on remaining with his unit; as a sniper, he said he only needed his right eye. He stayed, sporting an eye patch.
During the Battle of the Scheldt that fall, Major captured 93 prisoners single-handedly. In February 1945, in the fierce battles to capture the Rhineland, he was wounded again when his vehicle hit a mine and tossed him to the ground. Major broke both ankles and injured his back. After treatment, he refused evacuation and returned to the Chaudières.
On 12 April 1945, the Chaudières occupied positions outside of Zwolle, a German-held city of 50,000 people in central Holland. In preparation for an attack, Major and Corporal Wilfrid Arsenault volunteered to scout the enemy defences. At 9:30 p.m. on 13 April, the two friends moved out. They encountered a German outpost and killed its occupants, then hid for a while. Heading out again at eleven o’clock, Major crossed a railroad track, but Arsenault was killed as he crossed. Major decided to carry on alone, but first “…I got rid of the ones who were responsible for [Arsenault’s] death.”
Armed with two Sten guns and several grenades, Major arrived in the city centre about 1:00 a.m. to find the streets deserted. He went through the city for several hours, firing his weapon and throwing grenades, tricking the Germans into thinking a large force was attacking them. When the last German left, an exhausted Major returned to his unit with Arsenault’s body.
Major was awarded the DCM for liberating Zwolle. His citation reads in part, “The gallant conduct of this soldier, his personal initiative, his dauntless courage and entire disregard for personal safety, was an inspiration to all.”
On 25 June 1950, war broke out when North Korea invaded South Korea. Canada joined the United Nations force to restore the situation, while China supported North Korea. Major reenlisted and served as a corporal in the scout platoon of the 2nd Battalion, Royal 22e Régiment (“Van Doos”) under Lieutenant-Colonel Jacques Dextraze. On 22 November 1951, the Van Doos occupied positions on the Canadians’ right flank. Suddenly, Chinese artillery fire and soldiers swept forward and captured Hill 355, a key piece of high ground to the east. On 23 November, an enemy battalion attacked the Van Doos’ D Company. Then the Chinese occupied nearby Hill 227, almost surrounding D Company. The Canadians managed to fight off all attacks, but during another assault on 24 November, No. 11 platoon was overrun. Dextraze formed a 20-man assault group from the scout platoon under Major to retake the position. They set off at midnight, wearing running shoes for silence.
When Major’s group attacked the enemy from the rear, the Chinese fled. By 12:45, Major had occupied his objective. An hour later, the Chinese counterattacked and Dextraze ordered Major to withdraw. He refused and moved back a few metres to some shell holes. From there, Major directed artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire onto the attacking Chinese, including those close to his position.
Major’s men held their ground for three more days, until a tentative UN ceasefire agreement. Major was awarded a second DCM. His citation reads, “Against a force, superior in number, Corporal Major simply refused to give ground. His personal courage and leadership were beyond praise. Filling an appointment far above his rank, he received the full confidence of his men, so inspired by his personal bravery, his coolness and leadership.”
Major’s DCMs for two separate wars is unique in Canada and will never be equalled, since the British replaced the DCM with another medal in 1993. Major was invited to return to Zwolle several times, established close ties with its people and was made an honorary citizen in 2005. The Dutch named a street “Leo Majorlaan” (Léo Major Lane) after him.
A documentary film titled Léo Major: Le fantôme borgne (“The One-Eyed Ghost”) was released in 2019. On 8 May 2020, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp for the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day, which includes an image of Major.