By Michael Canfield email@example.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — When Lockport resident Pat Kennedy received a call in early February from a woman in the Army telling her that her father was chosen to be a Medal of Honor recipient, she thought it was a scam. After all, her father, Bill Leonard, died almost 30 years ago.
“I expected her to say, ‘If you give me your credit card number, I’ll send you the medal,’” Kennedy said, adding that the woman said she would have a colonel call the next day to confirm the story. “I found it very hard to believe.”
A colonel from the Pentagon did call the next day, and the story was true. Leonard, a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second highest honor while he was alive, was posthumously chosen for the military’s highest honor. Kennedy will receive the Medal of Honor for her father from President Barack Obama at the White House on March 18 with her two sisters.
“We’re very excited to be going to Washington,” she said. “We’re all very proud of him.”
Kennedy, her sister Rosemary McQueen and another sister living in Louisiana are being flown to Washington, D.C., for four days, beginning March 16. Along with receiving the medal from the president, there will be a ceremony at the Pentagon, Kennedy said.
“Even though we were so proud of him before, it’s nice for the country to know,” McQueen said.
Twenty-four veterans, including three who are still living, will be receiving medals on March 18. Leonard was discovered during a 2002 Congressional review of Jewish and Hispanic soldiers whose actions made them eligible for the medal, but did not receive it due to discrimination.
According to a White House press release on Feb. 21, the review looked at soldiers who had received the Distinguished Service Cross but not the Medal of Honor. During the review, several soldiers were found who were not Jewish or Hispanic, but met the criteria to receive the Medal of Honor. Leonard was chosen through this process.
Congress called for the review through the Defense Authorization Act. Musician and actor Lenny Kravitz’s uncle, Leonard M. Kravitz, is receiving a Medal of Honor for his service in the Korean War as well.
Leonard was born in the north end of Lockport, the “Irish section,” in 1913, Kennedy said. He loved playing baseball and worked as a butcher before being drafted into the Army during World War II. Leonard rose through the ranks, from private to staff sergeant by the time he was discharged, and saw time in Italy and France. Leonard served in Company C, 30th Infantry in the Third Infantry Division. Although a private at the time, his actions near St. Die, France, on the morning of Nov. 7, 1944, are the reason he is receiving the Medal of Honor.
With his platoon being decimated by German artillery, machine guns, mortars and rifle fire, Leonard led the eight remaining men in the platoon over a hill covered in trees and shrubs while automatic gunfire raked the area. Killing two snipers at ranges of 50 and 75 yards, Leonard advanced while bullets pierced the pack he was wearing. He killed a two-man machine gun crew with rifle grenades before being stunned by a bazooka shell. Despite the setback, he continued to advance, knocking out another machine gun post and securing the platoon’s objective, a roadblock.
“His good buddy was killed next to him,” McQueen said. “I could just see him saying, ‘You’re not going to get away with this.’”
After the war, Leonard returned to Lockport and worked again as a butcher before retiring from Harrison Radiator. He never drove a car, and walked everywhere, despite pain and a slight limp due to shrapnel he took in his ankles during the war, Kennedy said. He loved the Yankees, she said, and passed away at the age of 71, five days before his birthday.
“He dropped off his chair listening to the Yankees game in the backyard,” she said. “He was doing what he loved.”
Leonard never talked about the war, Kennedy said, unless he was asked about it. He downplayed his heroics in France and never sought attention for them.
“He said he was just doing his job,” she said.
There are now three Medal of Honor recipients from Lockport, Niagara County Historian Catherine Emerson said. Leonard is the only World War II-era recipient.
The first was Michael Huskey, an Irish immigrant who settled in Lockport with his family before enlisting in the Navy during the Civil War. Huskey served as a Fireman aboard the U.S.S. Carondelet. During the Steele’s Bayou/Deer Creek Expedition in March 1863, Huskey helped rescue the U.S.S. Ivy, a tugboat under enemy fire. He died in October 1864 in Memphis, Tenn.
Frank Gaffney, who served during World War I, was the second recipient. His heroism along the St. Quentin Canal Tunnel in France on Sept. 29, 1918, led to his medal, Emerson said. After the other members of his squad were killed, Gaffney proceeded alone toward enemy positions and found several German soldiers setting up a machine gun post. Gaffney killed the gun crew, captured the gun, killed four German soldiers with his pistol and bombed a number of enemy positions in the trenches nearby. He died in May 1948.
Out of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients nationwide, 15 are from Niagara County, Emerson said.
“That says something about the people living in Niagara County,” she said.
Aside from the Distinguished Service Cross, Leonard also received the Bronze Star Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one Bronze Service Star, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Honorable Service Lapel Button-World War II and a Purple Heart.
For Kennedy and McQueen, the extra attention their father is getting gives them a chance to think about the man they lost nearly 30 years ago.
“We miss him all over again,” Kennedy said.
If Leonard were alive today to receive the medal, he would “fall over,” she said. “He would not believe that this was happening to him.”Contact reporter Michael Canfield at 439-9222, ext. 6246, or follow him on Twitter @MikeCanfield36.