TRIBUTE TO LEON G. FELT
Tribute to Leon G. Felt
House Chambers, Washington, D.C.
October 23, 2019
I rise to tell a remarkable story of the unacknowledged patriotism and heroism of a 23-year old Army scout who, on December 3, 1944, was immersed in the horror and peril of some of the worst of the fighting in the bloody nightmare of the Philippine campaign. At Mt. Cabunganan, Technician 5th Class Leon G. Felt heroically engaged the enemy.
His family keeps the steel helmet he wore that day. The back half of the helmet is riddled with shrapnel holes – from the inside out. A grenade exploded beneath him, and the deadly shrapnel blew up his left side, blowing off his helmet from below with enough force to pierce it.
Leon never talked about what happened that day. The war ended, and he came home after months in Army hospitals dealing with his grave injuries. The only thing his family really knew years later was a brief entry in his journal that “Lt. Hanna told me he put me in for a Silver Star for what I did in the attack,” but nothing came of it. His wife told me the Army’s final orders to Leon and his comrades were: go home, get a job, look after your families. That’s exactly what Leon Felt did. He joined the Southern Pacific Railroad, ultimately retiring as a shop foreman. He became deeply involved with his church. He married Lois Wade, his wife of 32 years, until she died in 1976. He then married Nola Pulsipher, and they enjoyed 42 years of marriage. He raised eight children and today has 41 grandchildren, 110 great grandchildren (with three more on the way) and seven great-great-grandchildren.
The war never left him. He didn’t fear death in the Philippines, but Nola told me that he feared it for many years after because he worried God would not forgive him for the lives he had to take on the battlefield. Nola says she would often rescue him from his frequent nightmares and all he would say through tears is, “It’s either kill or be killed.” His children only knew that he was in the thick of it in the war, that he had come home wounded, and that those days in the Philippines still haunted him.
In recent years, Leon’s family began looking into his service record. Having read his journal, his daughter Lydean began searching for what he did that day that would have rated a recommendation for the Silver Star. They had ordered copies of his medals – but there was no mention of a Silver Star in them. He had received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, among other decorations. But Lydean remained curious about that entry in his diary, and what seemed to be a confusing note on one Army form that suggested there might be something more – though there was no official record of it. But Lydean, who has all the timidity of a heat-seeking missile, wouldn’t give up. She wrote the National Personnel and Records Center of the National Archives. The Archives could find no record of other medals, including the Silver Star. A fire in 1973, they feared, would have destroyed any record if he had. But Lydean persisted.
And the Archives kept digging. And then they stumbled upon a curious thing: a collection of citations of the most heroic deeds of World War II. And in it, they found the citation for Leon G. Felt, and what he did that December day in 1944. They were right about one thing: he was never awarded the Silver Star.
On February 12, 1945, as he lay recovering from his wounds in an Army hospital, Leon Felt had been awarded the nation’s second highest honor – the Distinguished Service Cross – revered more than any other medal but the Medal of Honor itself. But somewhere along the way, probably through a clerical error, his service record was never updated and word never reached him.
Here are the words that were supposed to have been spoken as he received our nation’s second highest military honor:
Technician Fifth Grade LEON G. Felt, (39902244), Cavalry, United
States Army. For extraordinary heroism against the enemy at Mt. Cabunganan,
Leyte, Philippine Islands, on 3 December 1944. Advancingthrough very rugged
terrain his troop encountered the enemy entrenched in a strong position
astride a narrow ridge. The enemy were well dug in, their rifle pits being concealed
with top coverings of brush and grass. During an attack by our troops, the advance
of the right platoon was temporarily diverted by heavy enemy fire, but upon
receiving reinforcing fire from the left platoon the intensity of the
enemy fire slackened. Seizing this opportunity Technician Felt, a
scout for his platoon, voluntarily rushed the nearest enemy rifle pit,
and grasping the top cover, stripped it off, exposing three occupants
whom he killed. Continuing his advance he reached and uncovered a
second pit and killed three more enemy. He then advanced toward a
third pit but, was struck and wounded by the fragments from an
exploding hand grenade. Despite his wound and the warning shouts of
his comrades, he continued to push his attack, and reaching the
foxhole killed its two occupants. Unable to advance farther because of
his wounds, he from his advanced position directed the attack of his
platoon upon remaining enemy within the position. This attack was
successful and the enemy were driven from the position with heavy
losses. Technician Felt’s prompt and heroic actions in voluntarily
attacking the enemy single-handed were an inspiration to his comrades
and reflect the highest traditions of the United States Army.
By command of General MacARTHUR.
Long ago, soldiers coined the term, “SNAFU,” to describe the military bureaucracy. It’s an acronym that roughly translated means, “Situation Normal – All Fouled Up.”
In a terrible SNAFU, the medal was never given to Technician Felt – he was never told of how grateful his country was for the sacrifices he made, for the bravery that saved the soldiers in his unit and the exemplary heroism and leadership that turned the tide of battle.
His family arranged to surprise him with the long overdue presentation on October 5th, the Saturday before his 98th birthday. They gathered from across the country. They had decorated the house and made a cake. I have never been more honored and more moved than to have been asked to fulfill that long-overdue presentation that General MacArthur had ordered so long ago.
On my way to meet this gentle giant, as his family called him, I received word that Leon Felt had passed away in the early hours of that morning, surrounded by his loving family. But they were still gathered there at the house – in grief as well as pride – and so I made the presentation posthumously to his widow – an extraordinary woman in her own right.
There’s some consolation in this story. As his health began slipping in the days before he died, his family told him that he had been awarded the nation’s second highest military honor and that he was about to receive it at his birthday celebration. Mrs. Felt told me his face brightened up and he said, “So, I REALLY AM your hero.” And his wife replied, “That’s what I’ve been telling you all these years.”
The tragedy is that this honor should have followed Leon Felt throughout his life – as Shakespeare said – to “remember, with advantage, what feats he did that day.” He should have been feasted and feted and thanked every day of his life as this honor bespoke of his courageous deeds. Instead of feeling guilt, he should have felt pride. For every nightmare he suffered alone, he should have enjoyed the gratitude of his fellow citizens. Instead, Technician Leon Felt, a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross that he never received, did what he was told – he quietly went home, got a job and looked after his family.
His service will be held in Dixon, California tomorrow, and he will be buried with full military honors at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery.
He will take to his grave pieces of shrapnel from the injuries he sustained at Mt. Cabunganan. And he will also take the Distinguished Service Cross he was supposed to have been awarded 74 years ago. I want to say to his family, on behalf of our country, that this long-missing medal now attests that the American people finally know what the Felt family has known all along – that he really was – and is -- our nation’s hero too.
Mr. Speaker, I wanted to tell this story tonight not for Leon Felt’s sake, but for our country’s sake: -- to remind us of what we owe heroes like him for the sacrifices, often unrecognized and unrequited, that they have made; to answer James Michener’s haunting question, “Where do we get such men?”; and also, to place on the record in these hallowed halls, well, an apology really, for a 74-year old clerical mistake – a SNAFU – that prevented him from knowing in life the gratitude and respect that our nation can now only express after his death.
Mr. Speaker, I ask that the House observe a moment of silence in honor and memory of Technician Fifth Grade Leon Gustave Felt, United States Army, recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross.