I have not thought about Leo for a long time but the request took me back over twenty years ago when I first made contact with him for an article I wanted to write. I had come across the citation for his first award which stated that he had single-handedly liberated the town of Zwolle in the Netherlands. I naturally found this amazing. Leo replied to my requests readily in his characteristic enthusiastic manner, writing “anybody who is interested to talk about the Third Division is a friend of mine.” In the coming weeks, Leo wrote to me several times, elaborating on his remembrances of what he did in the Second World War and in Korea, and passing on to me some press clippings of his visits to Zwolle where he became an honoured visitor many times after 1960. This resulted in my article in Canadian Military History Journal in 1996, http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol5/iss1/11.
Leo’s story seems to have had some kind of revival in recent years, as shown by a Google search which comes up with a multitude of entries including some YouTube videos. Unfortunately, I found some of these exaggerated and inaccurate: one has called Leo “the real Rambo;” another said he was “the most badass war machine in World War 2;” or a Wikipedia entry which implies he held off two Chinese divisions totally 14,000 men in the Korean War! While I find these claims irritating, I have to admit that Leo’s record was outstanding and he deserves to be remembered.
Some of Leo’s exploits were so unusual that I regret to say that, as a chronic cynic, I had trouble believing him at first. His eyesight had been damaged in Normandy. With that, how was he was able to continue through the rest of the campaign? But even more so, how was he accepted into the Canadian Special Force for the Korean War - while receiving a 20% disability pension? But one of his officers in Korea confirmed this as true – he got through the enlistment medical with the influence of LCol Jacques Dextraze, wore a patch over his bad eye in Korea, and qualified as a sniper with this other eye!
Was he courageous? All his officers gave him credit for that. Platoon leader Charly Forbes described Leo as being “sloppy in his dress, perhaps the typical French Canadian voyageur ...generally very social, certainly not a parade sergeant. Very comfortable in his job - and fearless!” Company commander Armand Ross perhaps said it best by writing that “Leo possessed a high degree of the ideal qualities of a member of the scout platoon, i.e., bravery, initiative and dependable in combat. It would have been preferable if he had a greater sense of discipline outside the battlefield. However, too much discipline may come in conflict with personal initiative.” It is probably no surprise that, after having been promoted to corporal in England, Leo committed some disciplinary indiscretions and was demoted back to private. But on the battlefield, his commanding officers in both wars looked to him when a particularly difficult job had to be done.
Unfortunately, Leo passed away in 2008. I now wish I had dropped writing the article at that time and carried on to interview Leo in depth, to write a full book on his experiences. In any case, I am glad that at least the memory of this courageous Canadian is still alive.
T. Robert Fowler, author, Canadian military history