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World War 2 History: Leo Major, the One-Eyed One-Man Army

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I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Leo Major

Leo Major on leave in the Netherlands during World War 2

Leo Major on leave in the Netherlands during World War 2

The City of Zwolle Awaits Destruction

Just after midnight on April 14, 1945, a solitary figure slipped into the outskirts of Zwolle, a city roughly in the middle of the Netherlands. Private Leo Major, a French Canadian soldier in the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, an eye-patch over his damaged left eye and wearing sneakers, sprinted quickly and quietly along the dark, empty streets. He carried a submachine gun and a bag full of grenades; two more submachine guns were slung over his back. He'd been sent to reconnoiter Zwolle, which was occupied by the Germans, and possibly link up with the Dutch Resistance, while Allied tanks and heavy artillery gathered to bombard the city and drive the Germans out. But Leo had decided to liberate the city and save it from destruction all by himself.

Location of the City of Zwolle

Major Loses an Eye on D-Day

Private Major's decision to save Zwolle was not an isolated impulse of suicidal bravado. He'd pretty much been a thorn in the side of the Germans since landing on Juno Beach on D-Day the year before with the rest of the Canadian Army. On that first day he captured a German armored half-track by himself. A few days later, he tangled with SS troops and killed four even though, during the fight, a phosphorus grenade blinded him in his left eye. He refused to be evacuated, stating that he only needed his right eye to aim. Besides, with his new eye-patch he fancied he rather looked like a pirate.

Major Captures 93 Germans

In late Autumn of 1944, as the Canadians advanced toward Antwerp, Belgium, Private Major encountered two Germans, killing one and capturing the other. Instead of returning with his prisoner, the lone Major forced the soldier to take him to to his commanding officer. In the ensuing firefight, he killed three more before the garrison of roughly 100 surrendered. As he escorted them back to Allied lines, SS troops spotted the prisoners, hands on heads, and began firing on their own troops. Major respected regular German Army soldiers as fellow combatants, but after seeing the SS kill several of their own men, he would in future give no quarter when it came to members of the SS. Major kept his prisoners moving and by the time they were safely behind Canadian lines, he had single-handedly captured and delivered 93 German soldiers.

DCM Refused

For this extraordinary feat, Major was told that British General Montgomery would present him with the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), second only to the Victoria Cross for enlisted men. This Private Major refused because he said Monty was too incompetent to be handing out medals.

Major Enters Zwolle

By April 13, 1945, the 3rd Canadian Division had approached the Dutch city of Zwolle from the south and needed to determine the extent and location of the occupying German forces. Private Major and his friend Corporal Arsenault volunteered to scout the enemy positions, contact Dutch resistance and return before 6:00 am when the division's artillery would start shelling the city. The two slipped into the city's outskirts after dark, but had already decided to try to save the city from being destroyed. Unfortunately, Arsenault soon ran afoul of an enemy machine gun emplacement and was killed. Enraged, Major picked up his friend's weapon and killed two of the crew while the rest ran off. He helped himself to a third submachine gun, plenty of ammunition and filled a bag with grenades before heading further into the city.

Honorary Citizen of Zwolle

Medal awarded to Leo Major making him an honorary citizen of Zwolle April 14, 2005 (exactly 60 years after he liberated the city).

Medal awarded to Leo Major making him an honorary citizen of Zwolle April 14, 2005 (exactly 60 years after he liberated the city).

Major Spreads the Word: The Canadians Are Here

As he approached the town center he spied a soldier in the driver's seat of a German staff car outside a tavern. Major surprised him and forced him inside the pub where he found a German officer conversing with the barkeep. After disarming his new captive, Major, who spoke no German, discovered that the officer spoke fluent French. He told the German that Zwolle was nearly surrounded by an overwhelming force and he was a member of the Canadian advance party that had infiltrated the city with orders to withdraw by 6:00 am when the city would be subjected to a horrific bombardment followed by a massed attack. The officer seemed to understand the situation-- as well as the fact that the war in Europe was in its last weeks-- so Major took a calculated risk and let the men go, hoping they would spread the news of their hopeless position instead of rallying the troops.

Major Wreaks Havoc

For the next several hours, Major prowled the city, firing his weapons and throwing grenades, indeed sounding like an advance party instead of a lone private. On occasion, he got into actual firefights with groups of German soldiers and killed and wounded some. He preferred scaring them off when possible, but several times he escorted groups of eight to ten captives back to the Allied lines before heading back into the city center.

At some point he found the Gestapo headquarters and set fire to it. Later still, he came across Zwolle's SS headquarters which he entered. Inside were eight SS officers who put up a fight. He killed four, but the other four escaped. Major regretted he wasn't able to kill them all.

The DCM

The Distinguished Conduct Medal, King George VI version

The Distinguished Conduct Medal, King George VI version

Zwolle Is Saved and Major Accepts His DCM

By 4:00 am, he was not able to find anymore Germans; the enemy garrison had fled westward. Slowly, timidly, some of the city's inhabitants were coaxed outside and Major was able to meet with the resistance, who had to overcome their suspicion of this lone, one-eyed apparition bedecked with three submachine guns. The evidence of the now-quiet city convinced them and they helped Major retrieve his friend's body and return to his regiment by 5:00 am. The artillery barrage was called off and, instead of bombarding and assaulting the city, the Canadians were able to march into Zwolle to the cheers of its inhabitants. Private Leo Major had single-handedly liberated the Dutch city.

This time when awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, he accepted, though he still groused about the Americans (specifically General Patton) for grabbing all the credit and glory for the Allied advances.

Leo Major in Korea

Leo Major in Korea shortly after the action on Hill 227 (his damaged left eye now healed but still blind)

Leo Major in Korea shortly after the action on Hill 227 (his damaged left eye now healed but still blind)

Not Done... Major Wreaks Havoc in Korea

After the war ended, Major returned to civilian life in Canada and resumed his job as a pipe fitter. However, when the North Koreans invaded South Korea, he rejoined the army. In November 1951, the 64th Chinese army launched a massive attack and parts of Major's regiment were nearly surrounded. The Lieutenant-Colonel ordered Major and his eighteen scouts to relieve the pressure by counter-attacking the Chinese occupying Hill 227. Equipped with submachine guns and wearing sneakers, they infiltrated the defenders until they were behind them and launched their attack. Taken completely by surprise, the Chinese panicked and the hill was retaken. An hour later, the Chinese counter-attacked and Major was ordered to withdraw. This he refused to do and called in regimental mortar fire almost on his own position. The firing was so intense that the mortar tubes glowed red hot and ultimately became useless, but the hill was held. For three days, hundreds of Chinese tried to dislodge the Canadians, but Majors' scouts repeatedly threw them back until the Canadians were relieved.

Major Accepts His Second DCM

For his actions on Hill 227, Major was awarded his second Distinguished Conduct Medal. He summed his exploits up by saying, “I fought... with only one eye and I did pretty good”. If he had a complaint this time, he kept it to himself.

Leo Major Street

Leo Major Street sign in Zwolle, Netherlands. Reads: "Canadian first liberator of Zwolle (1921–2008)". Major used this route when he invaded the city.

Leo Major Street sign in Zwolle, Netherlands. Reads: "Canadian first liberator of Zwolle (1921–2008)". Major used this route when he invaded the city.

Zwolle Never Forgot

The Dutch citizens of of Zwolle never forgot him. Starting in the 1970s and until his death in 2008, Major periodically returned to Zwolle and was given a hero's welcome each time, cheered by its citizens. The children are taught in school about the one-eyed liberator who saved their city from destruction. He became an honorary citizen of the city in 2005 and has been the subject of news articles and documentaries. When Leo Major died in 2008 at the age of 87 in Montreal, the town hall flag of Zwolle flew at half-mast and townspeople recorded their condolences in a special register. Later that year, the city renamed a street in his honor, Leo Majorlaan (Leo Major Street).

Leo Major's Tombstone

Leo Major's tombstone in the National Field of Honor in Quebec, Canada. "Léo Major, Distinguished Conduct Medal; 1921-2008; Régiment de la Chaudière, WWII; Royal 22e Regiment, Task Force, Korea"

Leo Major's tombstone in the National Field of Honor in Quebec, Canada. "Léo Major, Distinguished Conduct Medal; 1921-2008; Régiment de la Chaudière, WWII; Royal 22e Regiment, Task Force, Korea"

Questions & Answers

Question: Indomitable soldier, worthy of the Victoria Cross, obviously. Why didn’t he get it?

Answer: I'm sorry I don't know the answer to this. Apparently the DCM was known as the "Near-Miss Victoria Cross" to Canadian soldiers. The fact that Major was awarded the DCM twice begs the question why he wasn't awarded the VC. This is conjecture, but perhaps the powers that be remembered his disdain for Monty -- never rule out politics.

Question: How did Leo major die?

Answer: Even Leo Major's full obituary doesn't list his actual cause of death, but it would seem he simply died of old age. He died in Montreal on October 12, 2008, at 87. He was survived by his wife of 57 years, four children and five grandchildren.

© 2015 David Hunt

Comments

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 16, 2019:

A story of brevity and boldness pertaining to WW2. Good reading. Thanks.

Henry on November 08, 2017:

Hi David, thank you for this very good ovation.

I really appreciate the fact that you keep his memory alive even if he is French Canadian. After all he is born American. A war hero is a war hero. I'm saying this because our Canadian loyalist counterpart will never cheers a French Canadian hero or promote him. His actions are more impressive knowing that we have to fight in an army who bow to the brit queen and of course we will never do it. It explain and worsen why he refused his first medal from his general, the incompetent Montgomery. You need balls of steel as a private to vomit on your general. The 22 Canadian regiment is a French Canadian regiment and a very independent one.

If I may suggest, you should elaborate more on the Korean war. Not few hundreds of Chinese but two divisions for a total of 14000 men... a ratio of 700/1. It's OK not mention if you want to bring more fellow Americans to his glories, that 20 French Canadian replaced an American division who had previously retreated...No offense...You know us we are always a bit arrogant... ;) On the other hand, if we can beat and save the mighty American we have to mention it, and it proves that we should always be brother in arms!

We will have an Hollywood movie only if USA accept him as one of their war hero. You take Denis Villeneuve (Blade runner 2049) as producer and you will have a hell of an epic movie!

Michael B on February 22, 2017:

In Israel we studied about Mr Major's actions and later on in 1973 war two of the officers used the same tactic he used in Zwolle in two separate incidents both cited for the medals and one medal later named after one of them (Kahalani, OZ77).

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 11, 2016:

Darci, after reading your comment, I tweeted CBC.CA with a link to this article. Thanks for the flattering comment.

Darci McLashen on November 11, 2016:

I googled Leo Major's name after seeing a brief story on his courageous acts today on CTV (Remembrance Day) . My search led me to your article. This story needs to be shared!! Could you please do so with CBC or McLeans, or another Canadian media outlet ? Thanks!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on February 05, 2016:

I can't imagine why this hasn't been snapped up to make a feature movie (or two). Imagine if a movie had been made of Leo Major's exploits 20 years ago. It could have starred Lee Majors from The 6 Million Dollar Man." How appropriate.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 05, 2016:

Geri, Alicia and Jodah, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. One of the reasons I write is to introduce events and people that perhaps have slipped through the cracks of history. Personally, I don't understand how Leo Major's story has not been made into a Hollywood movie.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on February 04, 2016:

This is a wonderful hub David. Thank you for introducing us to Leo Major, a true hero. This was a wonderful read and thoroughly deserves a Hub of the Day accolade.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 04, 2016:

What a fascinating story and a fascinating man! I've never heard of Leo Major before. He sounds like an amazing soldier. Congratulations on Hub of the Day!

RTalloni on February 04, 2016:

Real people doing heroic things are the best heroes a person can ever come across. Thank you for letting them be real without making much of faults. Wouldn't we appreciate that if we were privileged to be remembered as heroes?!

Geri McClymont on February 04, 2016:

Leo Major clearly had a lot of guts and believed strongly in the cause he was fighting for. I'm glad he accepted his second DCM, and also that a street in Zwolle was renamed in his honor. Congratulations on HOTD - a very interesting article.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 04, 2016:

Thank you, RTalloni. I am mindful that our "heroes" are rarely saints, but real people who have done heroic things. I try to weave the facts into a readable narrative without taking liberties with the truth. Thanks again.

RTalloni on February 04, 2016:

What a great read. With engaging straightforwardness you have written about a significant personality caught up in complex circumstances.

It is a wonderful thing that children are taught of his heroism. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis' quote: Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.

Thank you for this introduction to such a lion-hearted man and congrats on your Hub of the Day award.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 04, 2016:

Thank you Alan, Paula, Chantelle and Kristen for your kind comments. I also had not heard of Leo Major's exploits before and, quite frankly, when I first heard of him I was quite skeptical. But after further research, I knew I had another Hub (and that he was also a hero in the Korean War). Thanks again for reading and commenting.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on February 04, 2016:

David, this was another fascinating story of war heroes. I never heard of Leo Major. But his story on how he saved cities like Zwolle during the war, even with one eye, was amazing to hear about this feat and how she was honored after his death almost a decade ago. Thanks for sharing and congrats on HOTD!

Chantelle Porter from Chicago on February 04, 2016:

An amazing story and an amazing man. Congrats on HOTD. Shared to history board.

Suzie from Carson City on February 04, 2016:

David....What a story. What a soldier! Major was the classic "one-man army!" Amazing. He certainly deserved the awards & the least they could do was dedicate a street in his name.

I respect his attitude and his actions were beyond heroic.

jonnycomelately on February 04, 2016:

Most inspiring, thank you for this hub, David. A good read and worth remembering when I ever get into difficulties.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on December 01, 2015:

Much appreciated, Larry.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on December 01, 2015:

Just wonderful historical writing, as always.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on December 01, 2015:

Thanks for reading and commenting, emge. I don't know why Hollywood hasn't jumped on this long ago.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 01, 2015:

Excellent hub about a man I never knew much. Yes such men should be eulogised for all time to come

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