John Wallis Leonard was one of the top combat leaders in the 371st Fighter Group and the 405th Fighter Squadron, and flew and fought with the group from the early days of formation in the US all the way across Northwestern Europe from England, France and to Germany. However, it was in a dogfight with enemy fighters near Worms, Germany, on 5 January 1944, that this Lion of the skies met his fate.
Major John W. Leonard, Commanding Officer of the 405th Fighter Squadron, pictured here in 1944, was a well-regarded combat leader in the 371st Fighter Group and led missions to help the Lost Battalion. Unfortunately, he was fatally wounded in a dogfight with German fighters near Worms, Germany, in January, 1945. His older brother William was a distinguished Navy fighter pilot and ace in the Pacific.
Source: (Courtesy Mr. Jürg Herzig, Stand Where They Fought website, used with permission)
The US Military Academy at West Point has a great tribute page to John W. Leonard, so this web log will endeavor not repeat most of the import and interesting information available there.
He was an original member of the 405th Fighter Squadron and initially served as a flight commander. On the voyage from the US to Europe in early 1944, Captain Leonard (Regular Army) was the Flight Commander for Flight “A” and responsible for 60 enlisted men of the squadron on the transoceanic journey.
After many combat missions in the spring and summer of 1944, Capt. Leonard succeeded Major Harvey L. Case, the first commander of the 405th Fighter Squadron, as squadron commander on 12 September 1944. From the 405FS History of September 1944, the change was described as thus: “His loss (Case’s move to 371FG Deputy Group Commander) was greatly softened by the assignment of Captain John Leonard, “B” Flight commander as our new C.O. He spent very little time in the Operations tent as “Ops” officer, and hardly knew what the interior of it looked like. A fine officer, and everybody felt a better choice could not have been made.”
The 405FS S-2 War Diary also noted the change in command and echoed a similar sentiment in the 12 Sept 44 entry: “…”Captain John” was Operations Officer for one mission. He went by the operations step so fast he hardly (k)new what the tent looked like before he was CO. A fine officer who every one is glad to serve under.”
Captain Leonard was promoted to Major in early October 1944 when the squadron was in the process of moving from Perthes Airfield to Dole Airfield – the 405FS S-2 War Diary indicates that on 8 October 1944 “New received that Capt Leonard, CO, is now Major Leonard.”
Major Leonard played a key role in the relief of the Lost Battalion in the Vosges Mountains, as described in earlier postings.
His leadership was consistent, superb, from the front, and often led to outstanding mission accomplishment. Such was the case in a morning mission flown on 2 January 1945, when he “…led a flight of 12 Thunderbolts on a close support mission in the Waldfischbach area and front-line reconnaissance in the Zweibrucken area.
All bombs were dropped and numerous strafing passes on rolling stock were made both in M/Y’s and upon trains attempting concealment from Allied aircraft by hiding in R.R. tunnels. Results of bombing and strafing are as follows:
1 Tunnel Damaged
1 Locomotive Destroyed
1 Locomotive Damaged
5 R.R. Cars Destroyed
15 R.R. Cars Damaged
2 R.R. Cuts”
But even the skilled and brave are at risk to time and chance in war. Sadly, Major Leonard fell in battle on 5 January 1945, as recorded in the 371FG War Diary entry for that day: “Weather bad early and we were held up making repairs to the runway but flew 4 missions. Got into a bunch of enemy aircraft again destroying four and damaging 3 FW 190s, but we lost Major Leonard, 405th Squadron Commander, and F/O Marks. Three squadrons that could not land at their bases due to weather, landed here and we have a field full of aircraft.”
His loss was recorded in the squadron’s history for January 1945 as follows: “At 1415 hrs on 5 Jan 1945, Major Leonard, leading a flight of 12 P-47 type aircraft, took off on a fighter sweep to the Worms area.
The squadron bounced 15 plus FW-190’s going SW at 13000 feet approximately 15 miles NW of Worms. The enemy aircraft started climbing upon being attacked. The 404th Fighter Sqdn stayed up as top cover, while a “hairy” dog-fight ensued. Approximately 12 more FW-190’s joined the fight as Major Leonard called in the location of the aerial battle to the “Baggage” controller.
A Schwarm of FW-190’s in the skies over Europe during World War II. (Courtesy imgkid.com)
Major Leonard’s ship was seen to crash in the vicinity of M-3010, but not before he had destroyed one FW-190 and shared another FW190 with Lt. McGonigle.
Further claims were one FW-190 destroyed by Capt. Tait, one FW-190 damaged by Lt. Meyer, making a total of 3 FW-190’s destroyed and 2 damaged.
Also MIA after the encounter was F/O Marks.
The encounter lasted 5-10 minutes, and the flight landed at 1600 without further loss.”
The squadron history provided additional context for the daunting period of Leonard’s loss in January 1945: “The first week in January was the hardest week for the 405th, in its history. The resurgence of the Luftwaffe and its willingness to do battle exacted a high toll from us in the loss of pilots, All MIA. On the 1st we lost Lt. Schleppegrell, followed on the 2nd by the loss of Lts Martin, Gamble, and Holm. Our heaviest loss came on the 5th when the 1st mission of the day returned without our CO, Major Leonard and without his wing man, F/O Marks. In the short time that he was CO, Major Leonard set a high operational record. It was sincerely regretted that he was not present to receive the Oak Leaf Cluster to his DFC or to receive his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.”
The Missing Air Crew Report (MACR #11603) reported the time of loss on 5 Jan 45 as 1545 hours, with Leonard flying P-47D 44-20078, a Block 28 Republic (RE)-built ship. The report included a statement from 1st Lt. Curtis L. McGonigle, who witnessed the following: “I, Lt. C. L. McGonigle, was flying on Discharge Leader’s wing when a large number of FW 190’s were sighted south-east of Worms at about 15,000) feet. Major Leonard attacked the last flight of FW 190’s in a shallow dive from about seven o’clock to the enemy. The Major shot down the last plane in the enemy’s flight. This FW- 190 exploded in a mass of flames. I was flying on the Major’s left wing at this time and stayed there while we closed on the next plane in the enemy flight. The Major got hits on this one then the 190 broke left, giving me a shot. The 190’s belly tank flew off and the airplane almost fell into me. I had to cut my throttle and dive to keep from running into the 190.
The 190 pilot bailed out. In the meantime, the Major got about half a mile away from me. Before I could catch him, two FW 190’s made a pass at the Major and broke off. The Major said he was hit and asked if I was with him, over the RT. I replied, “Roger”, and stayed with him; his engine was dead but he did not say so, he glided down to about five thousand (5,000) feet and said he was going to bail out. I saw him jettison his canopy and then turned into two 190’s coming in at six o’clock. The 190’s broke off immediately and I looked for the Major’s ‘chute, but couldn’t find it. I did see his airplane glide into an open field and burst into flames on contact with the ground. I circled looking for the ‘chute on the ground, but did not find one. I then returned to base alone.”
According to a German civilian witness of the dogfight, Major Leonard did bail out of his stricken aircraft, but his parachute failed to open and he was killed. German citizens of the nearby village of Hertlinghausen, SW of Worms, buried him respectfully with a soldier’s burial in their cemetery.
But John Leonard’s status was not immediately known in the 371FG. The wheels of administration churned on in the Group on 5 January 1945, when Col Kleine endorsed a letter of appreciation received from the French Army’s 3eme Division d’Infanterie Algérienne, 3e DIA (3rd Division D’Infanterie Algerienne = 3rd Algerian Infantry Division)dated 25 December 1944 for a close support mission performed by the 405th Fighter Squadron.
Insignia of the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division of World War II. Division Commander General Guillaume commended the 371FG, and the 405FS, for close support missions performed for his division in December 1944. (Courtesy Wikipedia)
The letter, received at XII TAC HQ was recognized with some laudatory comments by the Commanding General, Brig. Gen. Gordon P. Saville (the father of postwar American air defense), then in turn endorsed by Brig. Gen Glen O. Barcus, CG of the 64th Fighter Wing (and later commander of Fifth Air Force in the Korean War) and lastly endorsed by Col. Bingham T. Kleine, who wrote to Major Leonard the following:
“1. Commendations extended to this group are always a result of squadron efforts. In this instance, it is your squadron that performed the mission so outstandingly.
2. Please accept my sincere thanks and heartiest congratulations for an outstanding performance of duties.
3. This commendation and the indorsements thereto will be made a part of your 201 file.”
For a period after Major Leonard was shot down the Group carried him as MIA. The 405FS S-2 War Diary entry for 24 Jan 45 stated “Orders received promoting Maj Leonard (MIA) to Lt Col. Order also received awarding him the OLC to his DFC.”
But his status was eventually determined, initially from the International Red Cross which indicated he had died of wounds on 15 January 1945. This was eventually corrected to Killed in Action on 5 January 1945. US Army Graves Registration personnel located his body in the cemetery at Hertlinghausen, and in the spring of 1946, his remains were transferred to the American Cemetery at St. Avold, France.
Major Leonard’s remains were ultimately returned to the US and interred in Arlington National Cemetery on 4 August 1948. The location is in Section 1, at Grave 304-C-D-E, where he was joined in the 1950’s by his mother and father.
Lt. Col. John W. Leonard is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. There he rests with his parents in Section 1, at Grave 304-C-D-E (Courtesy Arlington National Cemetery)
Lt. Col. John W. Leonard was a lion in the skies of Europe, and his loss was keenly felt by family, squadron and group. For his service and sacrifice in the Second World War, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Medal with 21 Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Purple Heart. The French Government awarded him with the Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de Vermeil. On this 70th anniversary of his untimely loss in the skies over war-torn Europe, we remember and salute him.
West Point memorial page for John W. Leonard, Class of 1942, at: http://apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/12717/
FW-190 artwork from: http://imgkid.com/fw-190-art.shtml
Hertlinghausen, at: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hertlingshausen
Arlington National Cemetery, at: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/
3rd Algerian Infantry Division, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3rd_Algerian_Infantry_Division