Only Canadian twice awarded Distinguished medal dies
The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, October 18, 2008 7:01PM EDT
MONTREAL - Family and friends of Leo Major describe him as a humble man who wore his battle scars with grace.
The residents of the Dutch city of Zwolle remember him as a hero.
Major is the only Canadian to have received two Distinguished Conduct Medals -- the second highest award for gallantry in action after the Victoria Cross -- for accomplishments in the Second World and Korean Wars.
He died in Montreal on Oct. 12 at age 87.
In 1940, at 19, the French-Canadian from one of Montreal's toughest working-class east end neighbourhoods joined the Regiment de la Chaudiere.
He distinguished himself early in his army career.
After losing an eye to a grenade on D-Day on the beach in Normandy, he refused a medical evacuation. He claimed he could still sight a rifle with one eye.
"He always said doctors were a bunch of fools," his son Denis said in an interview.
But it was his bravery on a cold, rainy April night in 1945 that won him his first medal and the lasting respect of the people of Zwolle.
On that night, Major single-handedly liberated the city.
It was April 13, 1945 when Pte. Major and another French-Canadian soldier, Willie Arsenault, were sent to scope out the German presence in the Dutch town, about 120 kilometres northeast of Amsterdam.
Arsenault was killed by German machine-gunners on the outskirts of the city.
But Major, using a combination of luck, cunning, and guts, was able to capture Zwolle from the Germans by killing them when he could and setting off enough grenades to create the impression a large Canadian force had entered the city.
By early morning, they had fled the town.
Since he died, the town hall flag has been flying at half-mast, a register has been opened so townspeople can record their condolences, and Lt.-Col. Henri J.L. Schevers from the Dutch embassy attended his Montreal funeral on Saturday.
Betty Redemeyer's stepfather, Hendrik van Gerner, met Major that night. It began a lifetime of friendship as Major, in his later years, frequently travelled back to Holland to speak to schoolchildren about his experiences.
"Because of Leo, (the Allies) knew they didn't need to bomb the city, the Germans were gone," she said.
Redemeyer recalled Major's visits back to Zwolle with fondness.
"He could have been my grandfather," she said.
"He was so sweet. I honoured him so much, just because he was so humble. We realized what he had done for our city was enormous."
Memories of the war haunted Major.
"At night he became quiet," Redemeyer said.
"In his memories he went back to the war. Sometimes I think it was difficult for him."
Major's son Denis said he rarely spoke of his exploits. In fact, he only told his family in the late 1960s about some of what he'd accomplished.
"Even my mother didn't know," Denis said.
"One of the most difficult memories came at the end of the war. He had killed two Germans, and when he approached the bodies he found they were adolescents of 13, 14 years old."
Major still answered the call of duty when in 1950, a Canadian general asked him to serve as a sniper in the Korean War. He left his civilian plumbing practice and went overseas once again, even with lingering injuries from his first tour of duty.
A severe back injury sustained during the Second World War would cause him pain his whole life.
It was in the Korean War that he won his second medal for bravery after leading a company to capture a key hill.
His family lost what Denis called "man of great courage, justice, a very humble man."
So did the people of Zwolle.
"I know that everyone, but everyone, will think of Leo as their liberator," Redemeyer said.
"He will never be forgotten. To us, he really is a hero."
Major is survived by his wife of 57 years, Pauline De Croiselle, his four children and five grand children.