In 1951, 20-year-old Army Private 1st Class Leonard Kravitz gave his life so his fellow soldiers wouldn’t be overwhelmed on a Korean hillside. He initially earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, but thanks to decades of work from a childhood friend, the award was recently upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Kravitz was born Aug. 8, 1930, and grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. His older brother, Seymour, served as a Marine during World War II, which may have been what inspired the younger Kravitz to enlist as war was breaking out once again during the summer of 1950.
After a few months of service, Kravitz was sent to Korea as part of Company M of the 5th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division.
On March 6, 1951, Kravitz’s company was pinned down by Chinese troops on a hillside near Yangpyong, south of Seoul. Friendly forces were initially able to push back two probing attacks, but eventually, the enemy launched into what Kravitz’s citation called a “fanatical banzai charge.” Enemy fighters charged forward with heavy gunfire supporting them from behind.
Kravitz, who was an assistant machine gunner, watched as his lead machine gunner went down, so he quickly took charge of their weapon and raked the fighters rushing toward them.
Unfortunately, the Chinese fighters were able to breach a left flank, which left the friendly fighters no longer able to help Kravitz’s men fight them off. The unit soon received orders to withdraw.
Kravitz volunteered to stay behind to cover the backs of the retreating men, even though he knew his chances of surviving weren’t good. As more enemy soldiers pushed toward friendly positions, he blasted them all with heavy fire, killing the entire group. That led to the enemies directing all their fire at him, but it gave his comrades a chance to escape.
The next day, after friendly troops had retaken the area, Kravitz’s body was found behind his gun, surrounded by enemy dead.
Kravitz’s body was returned to the U.S. and he was buried in Knollwood Park Cemetery in Glendale, New York. Soon after, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor, which his brother accepted on his behalf.
Righting a Wrong
While the Distinguished Service Cross is a big honor, it didn’t sit well with Kravitz’s childhood friend, Mitchel Libman, who was drafted into the Army in 1953 and arrived in Korea just as the ceasefire was signed. Libman thought Kravitz, who was Jewish, should have earned the Medal of Honor. Through research, he discovered that several minorities earned the Distinguished Service Cross when similar actions earned other men the nation’s highest honor.
Concerned that Kravitz was a victim of institutional bias, Libman spent the next half-century campaigning to get his friend’s medal upgraded. Eventually, he got help from a Florida congressman, who convinced Congress to consider a bill called the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act in 2001. It urged the Pentagon to review the Distinguished Service Cross awards previously given to Jewish Americans, as well as those who were Black and Hispanic.
The review was eventually set in motion. After a decade of investigating more than 6,000 cases from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, DOD officials concluded that 24 Jewish, Hispanic and Black men — including Kravitz — had been overlooked for the Medal of Honor.
On March 18, 2014 — more than 63 years after Kravitz’s death — President Barack Obama held a White House ceremony honoring him and 23 other service members whose awards were upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Unfortunately, Kravtiz’s older brother, Seymour, didn’t live to see it. He died in 2005. Instead, Seymour’s daughter, Laurie Wenger, received the award on her uncle’s behalf. Kravitz’s famous nephew and namesake, rock musician Lenny Kravitz, also attended the ceremony. Beforehand, he talked about the honor of being named for a Medal of Honor recipient.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be here today to be a part of this and to see him get his honor,” the Grammy-award-winning Kravitz said. “It’s part of who I am. I am Lenny Kravitz. I’m very proud to be named after him and carry his name forward.”
While most people know the younger Lenny Kravitz for obvious reasons, his family likes to remind people that there’s another Lenny who also deserves remembrance.
“People say, ‘Too bad your uncle never got to meet his famous nephew'” Wenger said in a 2014 article in the Vancouver Sun. “I tell them, ‘No, it’s too bad he never got to meet our uncle.'”
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense