In April 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the White House and brought an oak sapling to plant on the lawn. It came from a place called Belleau Wood. A hundred years ago, a handful of Amherst alumni fought in a pivotal battle there at the Belgian border.
Leonard was one of them. He’d grown up in Newton, Mass., and at Amherst had been managing editor of The Student and captain of the gymnastics team. In his senior year, his classmates chose him to give the prestigious “Grove Oration” speech. (Calvin Coolidge had been so honored in his own class.)
First Lt. Leonard married Dorothy MacLure in 1917, just before shipping out with the U.S. Marines. He would become the most decorated Amherst man to die in World War I, receiving the rare Distinguished Service Cross for heroism, as well as the French Croix de Guerre.
This was because of what happened on June 6, 1918. On a day of fierce fighting, Leonard was ordered to lead his 43 men to attack a nest of German machine guns in a town near Belleau Wood. They crawled through a thousand yards of open field under unremitting enemy fire. By the time they reached the gun emplacement, on a rooftop, Leonard’s uniform was pierced by bullets in three places but, incredibly, he was unharmed.
After rushing up the stairs, the men—only five now left—killed the German gunners and captured seven enemy machine guns. “I don’t recall much that happened,” Leonard told a friend. “We spent most of our time hanging onto Mother Earth.”
In the Frost archives, you can read his charismatic letters home, including one to a Quaker childhood friend who asked what he thinks of pacifism. Leonard heatedly describes German atrocities against civilians and long lines of war refugees, and says this: “No sane man could possibly be a pacifist having seen what I have seen.”
Following the battle, Leonard was sent to train soldiers at Ohio’s Camp Sherman. Six months after miraculously surviving Belleau Wood, he died there of pneumonia.
It was “a kind of ironic blow not uncommon during the Great War,” to quote a recollection written about Leonard. Indeed, upwards of a third of Amherst alumni who died in World War I succumbed to germs, not bullets, mostly because of the flu pandemic of 1918.
Eight months after Leonard’s death, his wife gave birth to their daughter.