The Story of William (Bill) Matthew Leonard,
Veteran of Korea and Vietnam:
Bill Leonard was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 29, 1929. He joined the Army in 1947 at the age of 18 and became a career military man. During his service he was married and had five children. The family of seven had an opportunity to travel extensively all over the world. His wife Lois recalls that during their stay in Germany she would invite everyone in the community to join them for the big Sunday dinner she prepared every week, just as she had done back home in Alabama. Their German neighbors stopped by often to enjoy some down-home Southern cooking, including cornbread. To them it was a novelty but to the Leonards it was a taste of home.
Other recollections, however, are not so pleasant. When the Army sent Bill to the battle fields of Korea, he was thrust into a volatile situation that the government deemed a mere “conflict.” But, like so many others, Bill Leonard quickly surmised that it was no conflict – it was a full-blown war. In Korea, he fought valiantly, earning accolades for his courage. And, after Korea, the Leonards resumed the rituals of peace-time Army life. Bill served as a drill sergeant and trained young recruits. Times, for the moment, were happier.
Leonard’s retirement year was approaching and he was looking forward to a well-deserved retirement and some good Alabama fishing with Lois, his wife of twenty years. He and Lois talked of starting a little business, too, but fishing would be their first priority. As Bill neared retirement from an impressive twenty-year career, the Leonards eagerly awaited this leisure time. But it was not to be. As the US became increasingly involved in the conflict in Vietnam, so did Bill Leonard.
By the mid-1960’s the United States had increased the number of soldiers serving in Vietnam from hundreds to thousands. Many of the younger, inexperienced soldiers did not fare well against the Vietcong. Bill Leonard saw the body bags piling up daily. He felt the flag-draped caskets deserved a response, and he responded with all of his years of training. Lois remembers the day that her husband phoned her. “I had to do it,” he assured his wife. “They need experienced soldiers over there.” With only a short time before retirement, Bill Leonard had volunteered for Vietnam. He felt that his expertise could make a difference and for the soldiers whose lives he saved, it did indeed.
Months later, back in Alabama, someone knocked on the door of the Leonard home. Two soldiers asked to speak with Lois. Her daughter summoned her, but Lois felt sure that there was some mistake. She understood the purpose of their visit, but the circumstances were blurry and unreal. They told her the facts, but she remembers feeling that it was all just a bad dream.
Her husband’s platoon had come under fire by a sizable Vietcong force. Several young soldiers in his squad had been pinned down and he came to their aid. He distributed ammunition and encouraged them to keep fighting. Even though he had been hit several times and even though his left hand had been shattered, Sergeant Leonard propped himself against a tree and fought to save the lives of others. Bill Leonard died on February 28, 1967, in the Province of Tay Ninh, Vietnam at the age of 38. His name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington – Panel 15E, Row 119. He is also listed on the Hall of Honor Walls (Vietnam War - Jefferson County) at the Alabama Veterans Memorial Park. He died as he lived, in service to his country.