Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Leonard had completed nearly 20 years of service when he died in a firefight in the jungle of Vietnam. He sacrificed his life to save his platoon, and for that he earned the Medal of Honor.
Leonard was born Nov. 26, 1929, in Eutaw, Alabama. Not a lot has been published about his family or childhood, but Leonard was a Boy Scout who went to the segregated Ullman High School in Birmingham. His wife told a newspaper that as a teen, he worked at a drugstore for $15 a week to help his mother pay the bills.
Leonard enlisted in the Army in 1947 when he was in 11th grade. Shortly after that, he married his grade-school sweetheart, Lois. Over the next few years, they had five children, three girls and two boys.
Leonard served in Korea early in his career, and his family got to live with him in Germany for a stint. His wife told the Birmingham Real-Time News that he had been promoted to master sergeant at that time but was demoted after getting into a fight with someone who called him the N-word. Lois Leonard said her husband never got that stripe back.
Back in the U.S., Leonard served as a drill sergeant and trained young recruits at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. But as the war in Vietnam broke out, Leonard’s wife said he struggled to watch those young recruits, who weren’t much older than his sons, go to war and die. So, even though he was close to retirement, he volunteered to deploy in the hope of making a difference.
On Feb. 28, 1967, Leonard was serving as platoon sergeant for Company B of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. They were near Suoi Da when the platoon was suddenly fired on with small arms, automatic weapons and hand grenades by a much larger enemy force. The platoon’s commander and several other key leaders were among some of the first wounded, so Leonard quickly stepped up to lead the response.
He rallied the platoon to push back the initial assault, then organized a defensive perimeter, redistributed ammunition and encouraged the men to hold their ground. As he grabbed a wounded soldier who was outside the perimeter and dragged him to safety, a sniper hit Leonard and shattered his hand.
The well-hidden enemy’s assault was picking up, so Leonard refused medical attention and kept fighting. He moved from position to position to direct counterfire against the enemy, which had moved a machine gun into place that could sweep the entire perimeter.
Just as that was happening, Leonard’s own platoon’s machine gun malfunctioned, magnifying the threat. So, Leonard crawled to the gun. He was working to help get it functioning again when his gunner and other nearby soldiers were hit by the enemy machine gun’s strafing.
Leonard got to his feet and charged the enemy gun. Despite being hit several times, he still managed to take out the enemy machine gun’s crew. Leonard — struggling to continue — then propped himself up on a tree and kept shooting until he finally succumbed to his wounds.
Leonard died just six months short of his retirement. However, his intense bravery, leadership and fighting spirit inspired his platoon to hold the enemy back until help arrived, and his actions posthumously earned him the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 19, 1968, the medal was presented to his family at a Pentagon ceremony by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Army Secretary Stanley R. Resor.
Leonard was initially buried at Shadow Lawn Cemetery in Birmingham. When the cemetery fell into disrepair, he was reinterred at Fort Mitchell National Cemetery on Fort Mitchell, Alabama, in November 2000.
A road on Fort Riley, Kansas, was scheduled to be renamed for Leonard in February 2021.
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