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News From The Past


Spring, 2000

 

 

Medal of Honor Winner now in Fit Grave

Widow accompanies body of Vietnam Hero
from Unkempt site to Veterans Cemetery

By JEFF HANSEN
The Birmingham News

BIRMINGHAM - Lois Leonard made her final journey with her late husband Tuesday, accompanying the corpse of slain Medal of Honor recipient Matthew Leonard to a cemetery befitting a Vietnam War hero.

The 68-year-old Birmingham woman traveled with the remains of her husband of 17 years, the father of their five children, from a ramshackle Birmingham cemetery to a veteran's cemetery in Fort Mitchell.

Enemy bullets killed Leonard in Vietnam 33 years ago, taking his life as he was saving those of his soldiers and winning the Medal of Honor, America's highest military award.

"I have never forgotten him.  I never will," his widow said Monday.

"Leonard's platoon was suddenly attacked by a large enemy force employing small arms, automatic weapons, and hand grenades...Platoon Sgt. Leonard quickly rallied his men to throw back the initial enemy assaults...Noticing a wounded companion outside the perimeter, he dragged the man to safety but was struck by a sniper's bullet which shattered his left hand."  --  From the Medal of Honor citation for U.S. Army Platoon Sgt. Matthew Leonard, Company B, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, who died at age 37 near Suoi Da, Republic of Vietnam, Feb. 28, 1967.

Leonard had told his wife what it meant if two soldiers ever came to her door.  She remembers the two men in uniform walking up to her East Avondale home in March 1967.

She and Leonard had been married 17 years.  He had served in the Army nearly 20 years.  She buried his body in what was then a good Birmingham cemetery, Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens.

"Refusing medical attention and continuously exposing himself to the increasing fire as the enemy again assaulted the perimeter, P/Sgt. Leonard moved from position to position to direct the fire of his men against the well camouflaged foe.

"Under the cover of the main attack, the enemy moved a machinegun into a location where it could sweep the entire perimeter. This threat was magnified when the platoon machine gun in this area malfunctioned.  P/Sgt. Leonard quickly crawled to the gun position and was helping to clear the malfunction when the gunner and other men in the vicinity were wounded by fire from the enemy machine gun.  P/Sgt. Leonard rose to his feet, charged the enemy gun, 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."

Lois Leonard traveled in 1968 to the Pentagon to accept the Medal of Honor for her late husband.

"I was proud of him," she said.  "But I'd be more proud of him if he was here with us today."

As the years passed, Lois Leonard raised their children -- Lavon, Carl, Brenda, Wanda and Paula.

At Shadow Lawn, with no funds for the upkeep, the graveyard was beset by weeds, neglect, lawsuits and bankruptcy.  Lois Leonard contacted the Military Order of the Purple Heart, asking for financial help to move her late husband's body to a place of dignity.

Bobby Randle, senior vice commander of the Birmingham Purple Heart chapter, this summer sought and was promised $5,000 from the national convention to move Leonard's body.  "It was a terrible, unfit place," Randle said of Shadow Lawn.

Arrington Funeral Home dug up the casket Monday.  A caravan of family and service organization members made the three-hour drive Tuesday to Fort Mitchell for a reburial with military honors.

 

2000, by The Birmingham News
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