Leo Major earned notoriety in World War II by liberating the town Zwolle all by himself. For many amazing heroes of the world’s most destructive and widespread war, that might have been where their story ends. Not so for Leo Major. Major remained in the service of the Canadian Forces and soon found himself in the Korean War.
The Korean War was not just the United States fighting North Korea. It was the first test of the United Nations and the body’s resolve to be a true force on the world stage, unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations. When North Korean tanks rolled across the 38th parallel in 1950, the entire world responded, not just the U.S. Along with American forces came Britain, Ethiopia, Thailand, France, Greece, Turkey, The Netherlands, South Africa, and more. Canada was right there with her North American neighbor.
But North Korea had allies too. The Soviet Union provided help, but it was the Chinese who made the biggest difference in the war. When China intervened on the North’s behalf, UN troops had already pushed their way to the Yalu River border with China. They took the UN forces completely by surprise and pushed them back to the 38th where the front largely stayed for the rest of the war. When 26,000 Canadian Forces arrived in 1951, that’s where the battle lines were drawn.
Hill 355, also known as “Little Gibraltar,” was hotly contested in the Korean War.
In spring 1951, the Canadian 25th Infantry Brigade moved to relieve the British at the southern bank of the Imjin River. To the East was Hill 355, right on the 38th parallel, manned by the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. Little did they know, the Chinese were preparing a massive assault on Hill 355 to secure a better bargaining position in the ongoing peace talks. They lit up the night of Nov. 23, 1951, with a huge artillery barrage and an attack from two Chinese divisions. The Americans were pushed off the hill, and a company of Canadians were surrounded by the Chinese.
Leo Major was tasked to relieve them.
Major gathered up a group of Canadians outfitted with Sten guns and sneakers, climbing the snowy hill under the cover of the next night’s darkness. They reached the top of the hill behind the Chinese defenders before opening up on them from behind their line. The Chinese panicked and fled. Hill 355 was theirs again. But the Chinese counterattacked.
New Zealand gunners attack Hill 355 during the First Battle of Maryang-san in 1951.
(Imperial War Museum)
That didn’t bother Major. He ignored an order to withdraw and took cover in a shell crater, calling for accurate mortar and machine gun fire on to the enemy, very close to his own position. His mortarmen fired until their tubes glowed red. Major ran from position to position, directing the gunners and the mortars, repelling four separate attacks. Major and his men held the hill for three more days, the Corporal fought off attack after repeated attack, holding his position until the line of demarcation was officially drawn in front of his position.
Leo Major’s effort to secure Hill 355 for the Allies earned him another Distinguished Conduct Medal, much like the one he earned capturing Zwolle in the Netherlands during his previous war.