It goes without saying that many gallant actions of war are often never recorded and lost to the passage of time as they are treated as simply what is required of men in combat. But if you are among the ranks men like First Sergeant Leonard A. Funk, who had already picked up a Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross by 1945, you tend to stand out above the crowd.
Which is not an easy feat for the paratrooper of the 82nd Airborne who stood barely 5’5” tall, but had a tendency to fight as if he were a giant among men. Despite his prior gallantry, Funk wasn’t done yet. In 1945, he would find himself with a German pistol to his head and over 80 disgruntled Germans with plenty of fight left in them.
And when it was done, first Sgt. Funk had shot half of them and captured the rest along with the Medal of Honor and the gratitude of a grateful nation.
Short Stature, Big Fight
Leonard Funk was born in 1916 in the small town of Braddock Township, Pennsylvania. And while he didn’t initially set out for service in the Army, as the clouds of war began to gather over America, the short but feisty Leonard Funk joined the United States Army in 1941. Immediately, he volunteered for the airborne and easily passed jump training.
He was assigned to Company C of the 508th Parachute Infantry which went on to and England became part of the 82nd Airborne Division. Funk was a few years older than the average new enlistee and this translated to a little bit of natural maturity and leadership that would pay huge dividends when the bullets started to fly.
The fighting that laid in store for the 82nd Airborne would put them in just about every major engagement for the remainder of the war starting with D-Day. Parachuting over Normandy the night before the invasion, various elements from the 82nd Airborne would find themselves scattered over the French countryside and slightly if not significantly off course from the original plan.
It is in the midst of uncertain and chaotic circumstances that leadership matters most, and Funk had an ample amount to give his men. Despite having a badly sprained ankle, funk would gather up to 18 of the scattered men and navigate them over 20 miles in the middle the night through enemy territory to rendezvous with Allied forces. Insisting on serving as the lead Scout, he put the welfare of his men first and picked up the first in his litany of awards earning the Silver Star for his actions on the day.
The next major engagement for the 82nd Airborne would see them take part in the largest airborne assault in history. Parachuting in the fields of Holland during the early stages of Operation Market Garden, Funk’s leadership and tenacity in a fight would be on full display yet again.
After seizing his company’s objective, funk took notice of a German battery of 3 20-mm flak guns which were pouring fire into the American gliders attempting to land in the designated zones. Heavily outnumbered and out armed, Funk led a three-man patrol against the three flak guns manned by up to 20 Germans and silenced every last one of them. For his actions on September 18, 1944, in Holland, 1st Sgt. Funk had just added the Distinguished Service Cross to his resume.
Don’t Mess With the Funk
The Germans apparently didn’t get the message to avoid at all cost the short paratrooper wreaking havoc on their forces in Europe. Just as the Battle of the Bulge was wrapping up, Funk would be thrown once more into the fray. But this time, his actions were so inexplicable that no award short of the Medal of Honor could do it justice. The 82nd Airborne were working to clear out small villages still occupied by the German forces in Belgium.
On January 29th, 1945, the company executive officer became a casualty and 1st Sgt. Funk put his leadership on display once again. Short on men, Funk went to the company headquarters and organized a group of clerks and supply men into a makeshift unit to join 3rd platoon to clear a Belgian village of Holzheim.
Marching the men over 15 miles in a driving snowstorm, funk and this makeshift unit assaulted through waist deep snowdrifts and cleared 15 houses without suffering a single casualty.
By the time it was over, company C would quickly overrun the whole town and gather over 80 prisoners. Unable to spare many men as the assault continued forward, a four-man guard was placed in charge of the German prisoners while the rest of the company continue to mop up resistance.
However, an enemy patrol sneaked in through the woods and overwhelmed the American guards to free the prisoners. The Germans were quickly organizing to attack company C from the rear when around the corner should walk none other than First Sergeant Leonard Funk.
With only one other man by his side and the American guards subdued, Funk would find himself with a German officer pointing a pistol right to his head backed by over 80 Germans.
What happened next could be described as either brilliant or absolutely mad, but it would go down as one the most remarkable feats of the war. Initially pretending to comply with the order to surrender, Funk slowly unslung his submachine gun and acted if he was ready to give up. Then in an instant, he swung the machine-gun up and unleashed a hail of bullets on the German force.
Within seconds, over 20 Germans were killed and up to 20 more wounded as Funk yelled for the American guards with their hands up to join in the fight. It is reported to have taken about 60 seconds but in that one fateful minute 1st Sgt. Funk would personally devastate the resurgent German force and despite still outnumbering the Americans approximately 40 to 4, the remaining Germans simply threw up their hands and wanted it all to be over.
Always Looking After the Men
If you are keeping score, that is a Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, and Silver Star for the short but powerful Leonard Funk of the mighty 82nd. I thought about mentioning his Bronze Star, three Purple hearts, Croix de Guerre with palm but it seems that most got the point by now.
Some men thrive on the chaos of combat both through leadership and bravery. Leonard Funk had all of that and ability to fight rivaled by few and far surpassing his short stature.
He would end the war as one the most highly decorated paratroopers in World War II and leave the Army in 1945. He spent his postwar career working at the Veterans Administration where he would continue to look after his fellow soldiers long after the war.
He passed away in 1992 having lived a full life, which probably should’ve ended the moment he was outnumbered 80 to 6 on that cold winters day in Belgium. But Leonard Funk had other plans and if his history tells us anything, you simply can’t stop the Funk when the Funk is ready to roll.