A nearly 35-year-old U.S. Army private with severe foot problems, who was originally classified as not fit for combat, makes about as unlikely a Medal of Honor recipient as you are going to find. But thanks to his actions on Feb. 3, 1944 on Hill 175 as part of the Battle of Monte Cassino, Pfc. Leo J. Powers is just that.
According to the World-Herald article, “he told officials he wanted action, and finally wheedled his officers into a reclassification.”
Powers was born in the tiny Nebraska farm town of Anselmo on April 5, 1909. The 1910 U.S. Census lists the population of Anselmo at 351. An Omaha World-Herald article written about Powers at the time of his Medal of Honor presentation contains few details about Powers’ early life. It does mention that his parents died at a young age and that Powers only had eight years of formal schooling at a local district school, not unusual for that time. When Powers was drafted into the Army in September 1942 at Alder Gulch, Mont., he was originally classified as not being physically fit for combat due to his dentures. According to the World-Herald, “he told officials he wanted action, and finally wheedled his officers into a reclassification.”
Considering that the average age of an Army soldier in World War II was 26, it is not surprising that the older-by-comparison and denture-wearing Powers was given the nickname “Pop.” Despite his foot problems and his training as a mechanic, Powers was sent to the front lines with the 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division. This may have been due to the fierce fighting that saw the three battalions of the 133rd suffer over 50 percent casualties while engaged in the Battle of Monte Cassino from Jan. 24 to Feb. 21, 1944. Considering the cold wet winter weather of Italy at that time of year, it seems likely that Powers had trench foot, which was a common ailment during the Italian campaign.
In his Medal of Honor citation, Powers is credited with having, “single-handedly broken the backbone of this heavily defended and strategic enemy position.”
No matter his background or training, Feb. 3, 1944 found Powers in the right place at the right time to make a difference. On that day, Powers’ company was assigned to seize the heavily defended Hill 175. Belying its tactical importance in defending Monte Cassino, the Germans had emplaced around 50 troops, supported by pillbox emplaced machine guns. The German were supported by mortar fire that was able to suppress Powers and his fellow soldiers. Unable to move forward and with casualties mounting, Powers crawled toward the pillboxes. Using hand grenades and in full view of the enemy, Powers managed to destroy all three enemy pillboxes single-handedly. After destroying the last of the pillboxes, Powers took the surrender of four wounded Germans while unarmed. This solo mission took Powers along the length of the company front. In his Medal of Honor citation, Powers is credited with having, “single-handedly broken the backbone of this heavily defended and strategic enemy position.”
Powers was presented his Medal of Honor almost a year later by President Franklin D. Roosevelt Washington, D.C., on on Jan. 10, 1945. The Medal of Honor ceremony, which was preceded by two days of sightseeing in D.C. with his family, was quoted by Powers as being, “the biggest three day thrill of my life.” According to a Stars and Stripes dispatch, Powers received his Medal of Honor alongside six other Medal of Honor recipients. One of the soldiers with Powers at the ceremony, 1st Lt. Berlyl R. Newman, also received his Medal of Honor for actions while in combat with the 133rd Infantry in Italy.
The Medal of Honor ceremony, which was preceded by two days of sightseeing in D.C. with his family, was quoted by Powers as being, “the biggest three day thrill of my life.”
By the end of World War II, Powers had reached the rank of sergeant and appeared on the Columbia Broadcasting System radio program, Report to the Nation. Like so many other World War II service members, Powers returned home and resumed his life, in this case sheep farming. He died on July 14, 1967 and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Butte, Mont. His heroism during the Battle of Monte Cassino is largely forgotten, though a since torn down welcome center at Fort Eustis, Va. bore his name.
Powers’ Medal of Honor citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. On 3 February 1944, this soldier’s company was assigned the mission of capturing Hill 175, the key enemy strong point northwest of Cassino, Italy. The enemy, estimated to be at least 50 in strength, supported by machine guns emplaced in 3 pillboxes and mortar fire from behind the hill, was able to pin the attackers down and inflict 8 casualties. The company was unable to advance, but Pfc. Powers, a rifleman in 1 of the assault platoons, on his own initiative and in the face of the terrific fire, crawled forward to assault 1 of the enemy pillboxes which he had spotted. Armed with 2 hand grenades and well aware that if the enemy should see him it would mean almost certain death, Pfc. Powers crawled up the hill to within 15 yards of the enemy pillbox. Then standing upright in full view of the enemy gunners in order to throw his grenade into the small opening in the roof, he tossed a grenade into the pillbox. At this close, the grenade entered the pillbox, killed 2 of the occupants and 3 or 4 more fled the position, probably wounded. This enemy gun silenced, the center of the line was able to move forward again, but almost immediately came under machine gun fire from a second enemy pillbox on the left flank. Pfc. Powers, however, had located this pillbox, and crawled toward it with absolutely no cover if the enemy should see him. Raising himself in full view of the enemy gunners about 15 feet from the pillbox, Pfc. Powers threw his grenade into the pillbox, silencing this gun, killing another German and probably wounding 3 or 4 more who fled. Pfc. Powers, still acting on his own initiative, commenced crawling toward the third enemy pillbox in the face of heavy machine-pistol and machine gun fire. Skillfully availing himself of the meager cover and concealment, Pfc. Powers crawled up to within 10 yards of this pillbox fully exposed himself to the enemy gunners, stood upright and tossed the 2 grenades into the small opening in the roof of the pillbox. His grenades killed 2 of the enemy and 4 more, all wounded, came out and surrendered to Pfc. Powers, who was now unarmed. Pfc. Powers had worked his way over the entire company front, and against tremendous odds had single-handedly broken the backbone of this heavily defended and strategic enemy position, and enabled his regiment to advance into the city of Cassino. Pfc. Powers’ fighting determination and intrepidity in battle exemplify the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces.