Canada’s “One-Eyed Ghost” had a truly remarkable story, often told by others. Léo Major wasn’t one of life’s self-promoters and talked little of his incredible exploits, incredible though they were.
Born on February 23, 1921 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Major grew up in a working-class area of Montreal with his Canadian parents. Relations with his father were difficult; Major was eventually sent to live with his aunt. In 1940, he joined the Canadian Army, wanting to do something to make his father proud.
Léo Major served as a scout and sniper in World War II and Korea. He would kill dozens of men, lose an eye, suffer other crippling injuries and yet still insist on frontline service. He also won multiple Distinguished Conduct Medals.
The DCM (discontinued in 1993) was Britain’s second-highest gallantry award for enlisted men. Where officers would receive the Distinguished Service Order, enlisted men earned the DCM for acts falling just short of the Victoria Cross. Major’s Distinguished Conduct Medals were genuine rarities. Only three percent of all British medals and awards earned in World War II were DCMs. Only eight went to Canadians serving in Korea.
Two of those eight went to Major. If he hadn’t refused the first, the soldier could have had three Distinguished Conduct Medals.
Losing an eye soon after D-Day, Major refused repatriation. He only needed one eye, he said, to aim his rifle. During the Battle of the Scheldt in occupied Holland, he was recommended for a DCM for a solo recon mission, from which he returned with 93 German prisoners. Major refused it because the medal would be awarded by Field Marshal Montgomery, whom he despised.
His reason was simple: Arnhem. Major felt Monty’s ill-fated airborne assault stopped Allied forces attacking on a broad front, delaying the liberation of Holland. Major believed Monty to be responsible for the deaths of some 20,000 Dutch citizens during 1944’s “hunger winter”. To quote Major exactly, “He had made an awful mistake. I didn’t like him at all.”
Strong words, especially regarding a military megastar like Monty. This might also explain Major never being promoted above Corporal.
Disaster struck in February 1945. While helping a Chaplain load corpses into a Bren gun carrier Major was seriously injured. A landmine destroyed the carrier and the Chaplain. Already minus an eye Major suffered two broken ankles, four broken ribs and a spine broken in three places. As he was rushed to the nearest field hospital, medics had to stop every 15 minutes to administer more morphine to the soldier.
Major spent a month recovering with a Dutch family. His stay with them could have seen him charged with going AWOL, but he was never disciplined. As recovered as he could be, he reunited with the Régiment de la Chaudière’s Scout and Sniper Platoon in March 1945.
The war was nearly finished, but the “One-Eyed Ghost” wasn’t.
Many generals have liberated many towns, even countries, at the head of an army. Very few privates have liberated an entire town single-handed, but Léo Major did. Sent to the town of Zwolle with Corporal Willy Arsenault, the pair had volunteered to assess German troop numbers and contact the Dutch Resistance. Early on, Arsenault slipped up, revealed his position, and was promptly killed.
Major continued alone, first by overtaking a German soldier and his vehicle. His captive led him to the quarters of a German officer, one who happened to speak French. Taking a risk, Major warned the officer of an impending artillery barrage. Defeat was imminent, and casualties, Major warned, would be high. Major then let the officer go—he even let the officer keep his weapon. His hope? The officer would spread word of the impending assault, stoking fear and confusion among the occupiers and possibly triggering a retreat.
Major's gamble paid off—big time. As doubt spread among the German soldiers, Major became a one-man army and simulated the barrage. He burned the local Gestapo headquarters and attacked the SS headquarters, killing several SS officers and discovering more SS men disguised as Dutch resisters. He repeatedly returned to Allied lines with German prisoners, eight to ten men at a time. By morning, he’d wreaked so much havoc that the Germans abandoned Zwolle, leaving him its sole liberator.
It was an incredible feat. The Army once again nominated Major for the DCM, which, this time, he accepted. The people of Zwolle remembered him as a hero. They still do.
With the war over, Major returned to Montreal and his job as a pipefitter. World War II may have been done, but war wasn’t done with Léo Major. Despite his injuries, he re-entered frontline service in 1951, joining the Scout and Sniper Platoon, Royal 22nd Regiment in Korea. At the first battle of Maryang San on November 22, 1951, another remarkable feat beckoned. So did his second DCM.
The US 3rd Infantry Division had lost Hill 355 and been repulsed trying to retake it. With only 18 men, Major infiltrated the Chinese positions, attacking from inside their perimeter. It caused chaos and, within hours, Hill 355 was retaken by Major’s regiment. Heavily outnumbered, Major was ordered to withdraw his unit and flatly refused. The Chinese counter-attacked in huge numbers, but Major’s men somehow held them off until reinforcements arrived.
Mortar platoon commander Captain Forbes described the intensity of the fighting, saying that Major was “not satisfied with the proximity of my barrage and [asked] to bring it in closer… In effect my barrage [fell] so close that I [heard] my bombs explode when he [spoke] to me on the radio.”
When the Korean War ended, so too did Major’s service. Again returning to Montreal he married, living peacefully. On October 12, 2008 Léo Major, DCM and Bar, died, leaving behind his wife Pauline, four children, and five grandchildren. He rests in peace at the Last Post Fund National Field of Honour at Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Yet Major's story lives on. A documentary entitled Léo Major: The One-Eyed Ghost recently aired in Canada, and the New York Times reports that a biography of Major is set to be published in the near future.
All photos via HG Distribution / Les films Sighter inc.