On this day in 1929, a hero is born in Eutaw, Alabama. Matthew Leonard grew up in the midst of the segregated South—but he rose above it. Perhaps you’d expect nothing less from a boy who was known for walking school hallways in his Boy Scout uniform?
Leonard met his future wife, Lois, when he was in 8th grade and she was in 6th. Lois knew immediately that she’d met her future husband. In fact, she went home and told her mother that she’d met the man she would marry. Unsurprisingly, Lois’s mom wasn’t too impressed. “She didn’t want to hear that,” Lois later joked.
But Lois’s gut instinct had been right. The two stuck together, ultimately getting married at about the time that Leonard joined the Army in 1947.
Leonard had every intention of making a difference. “If I go down [during war],” he told his family many years later, “I’m going to make history.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Leonard served in Korea, Germany, and Japan, earning his way up to Master Sergeant. Unfortunately, he landed in a fight when another soldier called him the n-word. Leonard was demoted. Despite his nearly 20 years of service, he “never got that stripe back,” Lois later told a reporter.
Soon, Leonard was training young soldiers to go to Vietnam. It wasn’t long before he came to a conclusion: He would volunteer to go to the front lines, although he was pretty sure he wouldn’t survive the experience. Lois thought he was crazy, but she later remembered his simple response: “[T]hey are killing them like flies and he could help.”
On February 28, 1967, Platoon Sergeant Matthew Leonard showed that he was, indeed, there to do all that he could. On that day, his unit came under attack near Suoi Da. The platoon’s commander was injured early on, but Leonard quickly stepped up. He organized a defensive perimeter. He redistributed ammunition. He came to the aid of a wounded soldier outside the perimeter. That last action left him with a shattered left hand: A sniper’s bullet had taken its toll.
Leonard could have stopped, and he could have accepted medical attention. But he couldn’t do that: He was there to help those boys. He kept moving among his men, directing their fire and keeping things organized.
Unfortunately, the enemy managed to get a machine gun into an elevated position where it could sweep the entire American perimeter. Simultaneously, the American machine gun in the area malfunctioned. An attempt to clear the malfunction failed, so Leonard sprang into action. He “charged the enemy gun,” his Medal of Honor citation reports, “and destroyed the hostile crew despite being hit several times by enemy fire. He moved to a tree, propped himself against it, and continued to engage the enemy until he succumbed to his many wounds.”
He’d saved many men. His unit would ultimately hold out until assistance arrived.
Lois Leonard later received a Medal of Honor on her husband’s behalf. She was a widow, left to raise five children alone. She never remarried, although she had a few suitors.
“I told them they had to go,” she said. “I was married to Uncle Sam.”
African American War Heroes (James B. Martin ed., 2014)
Jeremy Gray, “I have to die in Vietnam,” Alabama Medal of Honor soldier told childhood sweetheart (Birmingham News; Nov. 7, 2106)
Medal of Honor citation (Matthew Leonard; Vietnam)