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This Day in History: Leroy Mendonca's bravery in Korea

On this day in 1952, a hero receives the Medal of Honor. Sergeant Leroy Mendonca had ignored an order to withdraw. Instead, he threw himself in harm’s way to protect his fellow soldiers.

Did his heroism take his family by surprise?

The Hawaii native was the youngest of six and the baby of the family. His mother would describe him as a “sweet boy” with a “heart of gold . . . everybody called him Smiling Roy.” But she also thought him “my one child who needed to be looked after.” As a 9-year-old, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had scared him so badly, she explained, “that he hid under my neighbor’s couch for hours and had to be dragged out.”

Hmm. How unexpected when he volunteered to be in the Army.

“He wouldn’t even wait to be drafted,” Mrs. Mendonca described. “He volunteered.” His family talked him into at least finishing school before he left for Korea.

It wasn’t too long before he was a squad leader, despite his young age. Indeed, he was just a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday when he leapt into action during the early morning hours of July 4, 1951.

His platoon was then near Chich-on, Korea, on newly captured Hill 586. Suddenly the enemy attacked. It was the middle of the night, and our boys were outnumbered. Nevertheless, they fought gallantly for two hours before being ordered to fall back and establish a secondary line of defense.

Mendonca was among those ordered to withdraw, but he knew that it would be difficult. The enemy was too close. He decided to stay and singlehandedly cover the retreat.

“With a drastically low supply of ammunition,” eyewitness Corporal Harold Sokolsky described, “Sgt. Mendonca fired at the Communists with deliberation, making each round count. When his supply of ammunition was exhausted, the sergeant resorted to throwing hand grenades into the path of the enemy. After his own supply of hand grenades had been expended, he used captured enemy hand grenades and fought off the Chinese.”

Mendonca’s Medal citation would later describe the “murderous enemy fire” that he endured and the “onrushing enemy” that he faced.

By the time he ran out of ammunition, Mendonca was surrounded. He was soon fighting the Chinese, clubbing them with his rifle. He would not survive the encounter, but he is credited with taking down at least 37 of the enemy. Because of Mendonca, his platoon was able to withdraw and establish a new defensive position.

The young sergeant would be nominated for a Medal of Honor. Just over a year later, his parents went to Washington, D.C., where they received the honor on his behalf.

“I’ll never forget it,” Mendonca’s mother said of the ceremony, “and I know Leroy would be as justly proud of the honor as we are.”

Enjoyed this post? More Medal of Honor

stories can be found on my website, HERE.

Primary Sources:

  • Jim McCoy, Isles to Host Largest Meeting of Medal of Honor Winners (Honolulu Star-Bulletin; Oct. 30, 1981) (p. A3)

  • Honor Medals Given for Three Heroes (Montana Standard; Aug. 15, 1952) (p. 1)

  • Medal of Honor Awarded to Second Hawaii Soldier (Honolulu Star-Bulletin; July 19, 1952) (p. 1)

  • Medal of Honor citation (Leroy A. Mendonca; Korea)

  • Medal of Honor presented parents of youth who killed 37 Chinese (Hawaii Tribune-Herald; Aug. 15, 1952) (p. 2)

  • Mendoncas return from Washington (Honolulu Star-Bulletin; Aug. 23, 1952) (p. 2)

  • Posthumous Award to Leroy Mendonca (Honolulu Advertiser; July 20, 1952) (p. 1)



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