No One Made Short-Man Jokes Around Leonard Funk, Jr.
The paratrooper had giant-sized reputation for bravery and the decorations to prove it
Many veterans say combat will make men do things that they would never dream of doing in normal life. That saying goes double for a five-foot, three-inch, 140-pound U.S. Army soldier from Pennsylvania who was World War II’s most decorated paratrooper.
The exploits of 1st Sgt. Leonard Funk, Jr. read like fiction. Funk’s jaw-dropping actions repeatedly saved fellow soldiers from certain death on D-Day and during the Battle of the Bulge while he served with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.
The list of his decorations is astounding — three Purple Hearts. Bronze Star. Silver Star. The Distinguished Service Cross. The Medal of Honor. And Funk earned foreign decorations from Belgium, France and the Netherlands as well as his American campaign medals and combat honors.
“Hotter than a two-dollar pistol,” wrote the anonymous G.I. author of his unit’s wartime history. “C Company’s top non-com has come as close as any individual to convincing Jerry he should have stayed in bed — or something to that effect.”
Needless to say, you made “short man” jokes about Funk at your own peril. But the man who his fellow soldiers puckishly nicknamed “Napoleon” was known for his humor and decency.
“My name is not important,” an anonymous soldier told a reporter during Funk’s 1992 burial service at Arlington National Cemetery. “What is important is the final good-bye to a man who loved soldiers, privates, NCOs and yes, even officers. He loved people. He treated every soldier from private on up as if they were a four-star general.”
Despite his heroism, information on Funk’s life is scanty. In 2005, Sgt. Maj. Thomas Coleman prepared a biographical sketch of the paratrooper for the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy – perhaps the most complete account of Funk’s life.
Above — Leonard Funk, Jr. at left, the 82nd Airborne Division over Holland in 1944. At top — Funk receives the Medal of Honor from Pres. Harry Truman. Public domain photos
Like so many others from the World War II generation, Funk’s roots are in small-town America. Born in 1916, he grew up in Braddock Township, Pennsylvania, where he learned responsibility at an early age.
His mother died when Funk was still a child, so he learned how to care for a younger brother — an experience that later shaped his behavior as a non-commissioned officer. He lived through the Great Depression, working as a store clerk at a time when most people were happy simply to have a job.
In June 1941, Funk received his draft notice. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt had asked Congress a year earlier to approve a selective service bill as a prudent step to train American men for military service as war loomed.
During basic training he volunteered for the airborne infantry, earning his jump wings and an assignment to C Company, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He received additional training at Camp Mackall, North Carolina, and was eventually promoted to first sergeant before his unit was transferred to the United Kingdom and became part of the 82nd Airborne.
On D-Day, Funk and his unit were part of airborne operations during the Normandy invasion. He jumped along with 15,000 other paratroopers. Like many of them, Funk and his group were scattered across the French countryside.
Making matters worse, Funk suffered a sprained ankle. Still, he gathered 18 men and led them 20 miles through enemy territory, evading capture and acting as lead scout to protect his men. Eventually, he led the men through the German main line of resistance and back to friendly forces.
He returned to the fight, where he repeatedly distinguished himself during the Normandy campaign. Funk’s actions there eventually earned him the Bronze Star, Silver Star and his first Purple Heart.
During Operation Market Garden – the “Bridge Too Far” – Funk led a three-man patrol against a German battery of three 20-millimeter anti-aircraft guns that were targeting incoming Allied gliders. He attacked the German soldiers providing security for the battery, then led the assault that killed 20 members of the gun crew and wounded many others as he and his team silenced the guns.
The gliders landed — and Funk’s assault possibly saved hundreds of lives. For that astounding feat of heroism, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for “initiative, outstanding bravery, and strong personal leadership despite overwhelming enemy superiority in both numbers and firepower,” according to his citation.
But the episode that led to Funk earning the Medal of Honor is nothing short of astounding. On Jan. 29, 1945, Funk faced a determined German SS officer who shoved a submachine gun into his belly and demanded he surrender.
It was the last mistake that officer would ever make in his life.
Armed with a Thompson M1A1 submachine gun, Funk had just led an assault against 15 enemy-occupied houses in Holzheim, Belgium, part of an operation by the 82nd Airborne to prevent a German breakout during the Battle of the Bulge.
Funk had gathered a makeshift headquarters platoon of clerks for the mission, which resulted in his unit capturing 30 German prisoners. He left them under a four-man guard before he returned to the fight. But soon another, a superior force of German soldiers overpowered the guards and rearmed the prisoners.
When Funk returned to seek more men for the battle, the SS officer saw the first sergeant stripes on the paratrooper and advanced toward him, weapon in hand. Screaming in German, the officer ordered Funk to surrender. Facing not only the officer but also at least 100 German soldiers, Funk pretended to give up.
Slowly, he began to remove the Thompson from his shoulder – then he whipped his gun into firing position and emptied the full 30-round magazine into the officer.
The German sank to the ground, mortally wounded. Funk then had the presence of mind to reload, scream orders to his fellow G.I.s, and continue to spray lead at German soldiers while the American troops grabbed what weapons they could.
When it was all over, Funk and his men killed 21 Germans and wounded 24 more.
Funk later said he would not surrender as long as he was able to stay in the fight – and recent events were on his mind.
Not long before his encounter, members of the 1st SS-Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler committed the Malmedy Massacre, the murder of 84 American prisoners of war at the Baugnez Crossroads near Malmedy, Belgium. The perpetrators were later tried for war crimes.
The massacre of U.S. soldiers who had surrendered to the SS was enough to convince Funk that it was better to strike back and perhaps die fighting rather than give up his men and himself to the Germans.
At the end of the war in Europe, the Army assigned Funk’s regiment to guard duty at Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters. Funk received his discharge from the Army in June 1945, although he was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve five years later at the outbreak of the Korean War.
However, he was not called back to duty. He spent the rest of his working life as an employee of the Veterans Administration, retiring in 1972.