By Gilles Bertrand
French-Canadian soldier Léo Major was a hero of World War II and the Korean War. He is a multi‑decorated soldier who is recognized in the Netherlands for single-handedly liberating the city of Zwolle from the Germans on April 14, 1945. He is the only Canadian to have received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) twice for his actions in two different wars.
Born on January 23, 1921, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Léo Major grew up in Montréal. His family moved to Canada a year after his birth.
In the late 1930s, after working in various construction fields, he was employed as an apprentice plumber. He became unemployed in 1940 and decided to enlist in the Canadian Army. From 1940 to 1944, he underwent an intensive period of military training, the first year in New Brunswick and then the next three years in Europe.
His first battle took place on June 6, 1944, when he arrived in Normandy on Juno Beach with Le Régiment de la Chaudière. That same day, Léo captured a German Hanomag half-tracked armoured personnel vehicle.
Two days later, during a reconnaissance mission, Léo and four other soldiers came across a patrol of five elite German soldiers. They engaged and won the battle, but Léo lost the use of his left eye when a mortally wounded enemy soldier threw a phosphorus grenade at him. This earned Léo the nickname “one-eyed ghost.” Despite his injury, he refused to return to England and continued to act as a scout and sniper using only his right eye.
During the Battle of the Scheldt in the fall of 1944, Léo set out to search for a group of soldiers who had been delayed in returning from a patrol in the southern Netherlands. On his way, he took 93 German prisoners alone.
He suffered serious back injuries in February 1945 when the truck taking him back to camp exploded on a mine, killing all the other passengers on board. He again refused to be evacuated and, after a month’s rest, he returned to the battlefield.
On April 13, 1945, Léo and his friend Corporal Willie Arseneault volunteered for a reconnaissance mission. In the middle of the night, they made their way to the outskirts of Zwolle, a Dutch city of 50,000 inhabitants that was occupied by German troops. Corporal Arseneault was killed by enemy fire.
Determined to avenge his friend, Léo continued on, alone, with grenades and machine guns to attack the Nazi-occupied city. He spotted a bar with German officers inside and entered. He disarmed a French‑speaking, high-ranking officer and convinced him to leave the city with his men, claiming that Zwolle was surrounded by Canadian troops.
He raced through the city, firing everywhere to make it look like a Canadian offensive, and even set fire to the Gestapo headquarters. The Germans withdrew.
On the morning of April 14, 1945, thanks to Léo Major, the city of Zwolle was liberated from German troops and saved from the destructive artillery division attack that was to take place later that day. For this feat and for his bravery, Léo Major was awarded the DCM and received recognition from the people of Zwolle.
Returning to civilian life after the war, Léo worked as a plumber. Against all odds, despite his injuries and loss of vision in one eye, Léo volunteered for the Korean War in August 1950 and enlisted with the 2e Bataillon, Royal 22e Régiment.
In November 1951, Canadian troops from the Royal Canadian Regiment, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal 22e Régiment were sent to a new area occupied by the Americans at that time, on the front line along Hills 355 and 227. Hill 355 was an important strategic position because of its ideal vantage point over the area. Nicknamed “Little Gibraltar,” it was highly coveted by both sides in the battle and changed hands several times.
The Canadian troops faced a strong attack by the Chinese forces, who had retaken the hill. Léo Major was ordered to attack Hill 355 to relieve the pressure on the Canadian troops, who were almost surrounded by the Chinese 64th Army. With a group of 18 scouts, Léo set out in the middle of the night and managed to surprise the Chinese behind their own lines. He regained control of Hill 355 and its neighbour, Hill 227. He himself directed the mortar batteries by radio to the Chinese attackers who tried to retake the hill the next day. Despite being outnumbered, the Canadian soldiers withstood the onslaught of the Chinese troops and held their position for three days before being replaced by American troops. For taking and defending this strategic position, Léo Major was awarded the DCM a second time.
Léo Major was a man of action and great courage who did not shrink from obstacles. He had a strong head and sometimes challenged orders (for example, refusing to return to England after suffering serious injuries or to abandon his position on Hill 355) because he cared about the freedom of the people. He was only doing his duty, he would say, but in an exemplary way, we might add. This hero, who died on October 12, 2008, in Montréal, will never be forgotten.
- [French only] Lépine, Luc, Léo Major, un héros résilient : l’homme qui libéra une ville à lui seul, Montréal, Hurtubise, 2019. OCLC 1107492622
- [French only] Un héros de guerre québécois enfin honoré – Journal de Québec
- Léo Major, 87: Decorated hero – Toronto Star
- Stamps honour bravery on the battlefield and support on the home front
- Documentary [French only]: Léo Major : le fantôme borgne, Radio-Canada, 2018.
Gilles Bertrand is an archivist in the Reference Services Division of Library and Archives Canada.