Matthew Leonard (born November 26, 1929 in Eutaw, Greene County; died February 28, 1967 near Suoi Da, South Vietnam) was a sergeant in the United States Army who was honored for bravery in defending his platoon from a Viet Cong assault.
Leonard attended Butler Elementary School and Ullman High School, and was known for proudly wearing his Boy Scout uniform in the halls. As a teenager he worked at a drug store to help his family, and he left school after completing 11th grade in 1947 to enlist in the army. He married his grade-school sweetheart Lois. The couple had five children: Lavon, Carl, Brenda, Wanda and Paula. The family rented a house in East Avondale.
Leonard served in the army in the Korean War and was later stationed in Germany. He was promoted to Master Sergeant, but lost his stripe when he fought with another soldier over a racial epithet. During early days of the Vietnam War he trained new soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Frustrated with the death toll in Vietnam, he volunteered for combat duty, thinking he could do a better job of keeping young soldiers safe in action. He began his final tour of combat on August 31, 1966. Sensing that he may not make it home, he told his family, "If I go down, I'm going to make history."
Leonard's platoon was part of Company B of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, participating in the Battle of Prek Klok as part of Operation Junction City. On February 28 the platoon was encamped near Suoi Da in the Tay Ninh province when it came under attack by a larger enemy force armed with automatic weapons and handgrenades. Leonard rallied his men to stave off the initial assault and directed the establishment of a defensive perimeter and the distribution of ammunition. He was struck in the hand by a sniper's bullet while pulling a wounded man to safety. As the enemy fire intensified, Leonard refused treatment and continued directing the counteroffensive, racing from position to position. When the platoon's heavy machine gun jammed, he moved forward to help clear it. When the gunner and his crew were injured he led a charge on the enemy's gun and dispatched it, but succumbed to his numerous wounds suffered during the charge.
After getting news of her husband's death, Lois Leonard struggled to maintain her composure for the sake of her five children. Sergeant Leonard was awarded the Medal of Honor "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk his life above and beyond the call of duty." The award was presented to his widow, Lois, at a Pentagon ceremony conducted by President Lyndon Johnson on December 19, 1968.
In 1970 a special ceremony was held in Birmingham to memorialize Leonard. Sergeant-Major Henry Cobb, one of six who survived the assault because of Leonard's bravery, lobbied for the service which was attended by the army's Chief of Staff, General William Westmoreland.
Leonard was buried at Shadow Lawn Cemetery in Birmingham. In 2000 Lois contacted Bobby Randle for the Military Order of the Purple Heart to see if the group could assist in moving him from Shadow Lawn, which at the time was notoriously unkempt. The MPOH provided $5,000 to pay Arrington Funeral Home to move Leonard's remains to a site at the Fort Mitchell National Cemetery in Russell County.
The Matthew Leonard Post 267 of the American Legion is named in his honor.
- "Birmingham Pays Tribute To Dead Black Viet Hero." (March 26, 1970) Jet magazine. Vol. 37, No. 26, p. 10
- Hansen, Jeff (2000) "Medal of Honor winner now in fit grave." The Birmingham News
- Noles, Jim (May 28, 2006) "Cemetery poignant reminder." The Birmingham News
- Gray, Jeremy (November 6, 2016) "'I have to die in Vietnam,' Alabama Medal of Honor soldier told childhood sweetheart." The Birmingham News