I really love writing about things I care about. Leonard DeWitt’s upgrade of his Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor is something I feel is very important.
PORTLAND, OREGON- December 6, 2013-
I am at the annual Saint Barbara’s Day Ball, at the Heatherman Hotel downtown. The 2nd Battalion, 218th Field Artillery, Oregon Army National Guard hosted the gala event.
The ball commemorates the patron saint of the Field Artilleryman, Saint Barbara. The ball promotes camaraderie and recognizes outstanding artillerymen.
The battalion welcomed over 200 guests.
The ball had a social hour before the ceremony. During the ceremony, the guests stood for the presentation of colors and toasts from senior leaders in the battalion. It concludes with a tribute to the fallen.
The guest speaker was a local legend- Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Leonard DeWitt.
Leonard shuffled his way up to the podium. Leonard is 92 years old. His soft gray hair makes him look distinguished. He is wearing a black suit jacket, white shirt, red tie and gray slacks.
Leonard smiles at the crowd. Everything about him was old except his eyes, they were cheerful and undefeated. His grin made him look much younger. Leonard doesn’t use notes to make his speech, he is legally blind.
He looks out at the crowd with a big smile as he says, “Sorry, for the delay. I’m not as quick as I once was.” Everyone laughs.
“I heard you give a toast to the 2nd Battalion, 218th Field Artillery. I can tell you they did a great job during World War II,” Leonard says. “I know, because I was there. I am alive today because of those brave boys.” The room falls silent in respect and admiration.
The Fateful Night
Seventy-five years ago on December 7, 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, America entered World War II. Leonard joined the 41st Infantry Division- a group of National Guardsmen from Oregon, Washington and California.
NEW GUINEA- July 1943
Leonard’s unit was part of the Allied campaign to re-take New Guinea from the Japanese.
Emotions ran high and adrenaline flowed on a dark ridge in New Guinea. A company of American soldiers- many of them fellow Oregonians- braced for an all-out Japanese attack.
Leonard sank to the bottom of his foxhole and fired his weapon. Other American soldiers fled their positions on the defense perimeter.
Leonard could hear the loud calls of a Japanese commander. He saw the enemy massing at the bottom of the hill. They were going to try and pierce the American defensive ring. The attack could sweep the U.S. troops off the ridge.
Leonard told us his story, “I had to put a stop to it, if I could,” he remembered. “I found a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and a tommy gun (submachine gun). I walked over the to the edge, which was kind of stupid, but I didn’t care.”
He emptied the Browning into the darkness below. He did the same thing with the Tommy gun. He could still hear the Japanese commander yelling.
“I threw a half-a-dozen grenades down, and I tried to catch all these guys, you know, down at the bottom,” he continued, “You have to do what you have to do.”
But it wasn’t over. He ducked a hand grenade, slipped down the hill and ended up side-by-side with enemy soldiers who wanted to kill him. He stabbed one with his bayonet and then looked at the other one.
Wrestling with the other Japanese soldier, Leonard had nothing left to fight with, so he took off his helmet and “whapped that guy in the kisser with it.” That soldier too, screamed and fell.
Enraged, Leonard scrambled back to the ridge top. He flung his helmet down the hill. “They probably thought it was a satchel charge,” he said. The remaining Japanese fled.
Historians said DeWitt turned back over 100 enemy soldiers that night. They found evidence of 20 dead enemy soldiers.
Leonard saved his unit from being overrun.
We Go For Each Other
Later that night I was talking to Leonard and his lovely wife of 35 years Joanne. He told me something I will forget.
Sitting in his chair, he looked a little tired from speaking for almost an hour. I had to keep reminding myself he was 92 years old.
He winked at me and smiled. He said, “I really admire your generation.
I don’t know if I could keep going back over and over again.” This shocked me.
I said, “Sir, I don’t think I could have done what you did. New Guinea was a bad place and the Japanese were tough soldiers.” He waved his hand in the air dismissing what I said.
“Dom, what I am saying is when we over there we knew we were going to stay until the end of the war. There was no coming back and forth,” he said.
“I don’t know if I would have gone back again, if I’d come home. I am amazed your generation does it over and over again,” he said.
He smiled and pointed at me and said, “I think your generation is the ‘next greatest generation.'”
Leonard said, “What really matters is that you volunteer. By stepping forward, you say you will do whatever it takes.”
He laughed and said, “I had no idea what would happen over there. I didn’t know if I would survive the war. It really doesn’t matter what happens or why we go. We go for each other.”
He said, “The uniforms change. The equipment gets better. The soldier’s heart stays the same.”
Deep wisdom of a simple man.
Medal of Honor Nomination
Leonard was nominated for the Medal of Honor. It sat on General Douglas MacArthur’s desk for two years. Leonard later was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s second award for valor.
Over the years, several attempts were made to upgrade his DSC to the Medal of Honor. His current nomination is still pending.
After World War II, he went to Korea. He was wounded and received the Purple Heart.
Medal of Honor Controversy
It’s almost impossible to recount all of the gallantry that went on during World War II. Very few Medals of Honor were given out in the Southwest Pacific Theater in World War II.
The 32nd Infantry Division, the unit that Leonard fought in after he was given a battlefield commission, 11 were awarded. Nine of the recipients received them posthumously. None were given out in Leonard’s original unit of the 41st Infantry Division, although a handful of men were nominated including Leonard.
Leonard died on June 21, 2016, he was ninety-five years old. He was my friend.
The affection that Leonard generated from other people was almost physical. He was a natural leader who could generate great affection in others, even in his 90s.
His smile and simple demeanor made you forget he was a war hero.
Everyone that knew Leonard had a story about him. People would talk about underneath his humble exterior lay a heart of gold. A generous heart that allowed a man in his mid-90s to attend a dozen Oregon Army
National Guard events every year.
To a large extent, armies exist on the myths and deeds of heroes. Woven tightly into the army’s image of itself is the actions of humble heroes that transcend time and even death.
Leonard was a living embodiment of the heroism of the Oregon Guard.
On a small ridge in a land far from home a young man found incredible courage. He single-handedly warded off a column of attacking Japanese soldiers.
He fought in two wars and served his country for over twenty-eight years. The heroism of Leonard’s deeds are immortal, even if Leonard isn’t.
Leonard was a thin man of medium height, a tough man. When I met him five years ago, he still had a steel grip of a handshake.
He was a brave man, physically and mentally. He was a leader who was honest with himself and others. He was a man who loved others more than he loved himself.
He loved soldiers. He went to every event he was invited to. He loved talking to and meeting young soldiers. They loved him back.
Leonard was from a generation of men that didn’t like talking about themselves, but he loved helping other people.
His amazing wife Joanne did the same thing. She would drive him to all these events. She stood quietly to the side while soldiers waited in-line to meet her famous husband.
Leonard was one the good guys. Joanne loved him and he loved her back.
There was nothing she neglected to tell him and nothing he neglected to tell her.
People live, and then they die, as long as they do both things properly, there’s nothing much to regret.
Leonard is an inspiration to those who knew and loved him. He is the hero of the Oregon Army National Guard. His bravery, kindness and generosity will always be remembered. His memory will be a rallying point for generations of Oregon soldiers to come.
Medal of Honor Upgrade
The Commanding General of the 6th Army approved Leonard’s Medal of Honor nomination for gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. Sadly, the paperwork never made it past General MacArthur’s Desk.
Leonard has passed on, but I believe it’s fitting to see his courage and sacrifice is remembered. What it will take is a Presidential action to see that DeWitt receives his Medal of Honor.
Joanne, his wife, started a change.org page to ask Oregon Congressman Greg Walden to carry this request to President Donald Trump and so honor the memory of Leonard DeWitt.
Here is the page: