Memorial Day is an annual holiday where Americans take time to remember heroes who have defended American freedom.
The day was first observed in 1868, just after the Civil War. As America spread west, Dallas began to grow into the metropolis we live in today. Dallas provided tens of thousands of men and women who gave meaning to the words “home of the brave.”
One such brave man was Turney White Leonard. Born in Dallas in 1921, he graduated from Dallas Technical High School and enrolled in the ROTC program at Texas A&M University. General George S. Patton famously commended the fighting spirit of the Aggies, saying, “Give me an army of West Point graduates and I’ll win a battle. Give me a handful of Texas Aggies and I’ll win a war.” Turney Leonard would justify General Patton’s sentiment during a series of combat actions in the latter months of World War II.
Leonard’s unit, the 893rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, arrived in Liverpool, England, in 1944. The unit took part in Operation Overlord, liberating France before pushing into the infamous Siegfried Line that defended Nazi Germany. The Nazi regime, beaten on the battlefield, whipped the German people into a final fanatic act of resistance even as the Nazi defeat had become seemingly inevitable. Hitlerism and its adherents, unlike the tyrant himself, would not succumb without a cataclysmic final struggle. In fact, U.S. casualties in the European theater were never higher than when the American Army punched across the Rhine into Nazi Germany, shocking observers back home.
As Leonard’s tank destroyers pushed into Hüertgen Forest, it became clear that the American Army would pay dearly for every inch of territory it captured. Leonard’s squadron advanced on Kommerscheidt, Germany, in early November 1944. Here, Leonard would turn the tide of the battle in America’s favor.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, Leonard “repeatedly braved overwhelming enemy fire in advance of his platoon to direct the fire of his tank destroyer from exposed, dismounted positions.” He also set out on lone reconnaissance missions to identify German positions and single-handedly reorganized shattered American units whose leadership had been killed or wounded in firefights.
Leonard was wounded early in the battle but continued to direct fire on enemy tanks, destroying six of the German Wehrmacht’s infamous Panzer tanks. His arm was subsequently shattered by high explosive artillery, and he was last seen at a medical aid station before Nazis overran the position. Medics told Leonard that the aid station would be overrun and that his best hope was to receive medical care from the Germans who captured him. Leonard refused and ordered himself placed into a foxhole with a weapon, where Leonard made his final stand.
Leonard’s body was found in a shallow field grave dug by the German Army six months after the European war concluded in 1945. On September 1, 1945, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Today, Leonard rests in Grove Hill Memorial Park in Dallas near Tenison Park in East Dallas. His grave is simple, adorned only with his name, his rank, and a carved cross and Medal of Honor. In the finest of our country’s traditions, his memory is sustained not by great monuments of hubris but by the quiet prayer, grace, and deeply rooted gratitude of the American people.
Memorial Day 2023 offers another opportunity for Americans and Dallasites to renew that quiet tradition that men like Turney White Leonard bear the sacrifices that “true faith and allegiance” solemnly require.