Leonard Funk: One of the Most Decorated Paratroopers of World War II

Photo Credit: 1. CORBIS / Getty Images (Colorized) 2. U.S. Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (Brightness Decreased, Contrast Increased)

On September 5, 1945, Leonard Funk Jr. was awarded the United States’ highest distinction: the Medal of Honor. He earned the award during action earlier that year, when he faced off against a large number of German troops and won.

In addition to this, the paratrooper also received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts throughout his service. This spectacular list of awards made Funk one of the most decorated American soldiers of the Second World War.

Leonard Funk’s entry into the US Army

Military portrait of Leonard Funk Jr.
Leonard Funk Jr. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Leonard Alfred Funk Jr. was born on August 27, 1916 in Braddock Township, Pennsylvania and raised near Pittsburgh. At the age of 21, he joined the US Army, a few months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the country into the war.

In 1942, Funk volunteered for the relatively new paratroopers and, after undergoing training, was assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Camp Blanding, Florida. He and the unit were relocated to England in 1943, in preparation for the D-Day landings, and merged with the 82nd Airborne Division.

As a paratrooper, he participated in some of the Allies’ most famous battles of the conflict.

Leonard Funk in action

Paratroopers landing in a field
Paratroopers and gliders taking part in Operation Market-Garden. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)

Leonard Funk’s first taste of combat came on June 6, 1944: D-Day. He was in command of a small unit that landed nearly 40 miles inland. After fighting for several days, he and his men managed to break through the German lines and link up with their fellow paratroopers. Miraculously, all of them survived. For his part, Funk received the Silver Star.

After D-Day, the paratrooper’s next major action was his involvement in Operation Market Garden, in September 1944. During the offensive, he led a three-man patrol against a battery of German anti-aircraft guns. He led the assault on the battery, killing 20 members of the gun crew and wounding a number of others.

It’s widely believed that Funk’s efforts during Operation Market Garden saved the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his “initiative, outstanding bravery, and strong personal leadership despite overwhelming enemy superiority in both numbers and firepower.”

After this came the Battle of the Bulge, for which he earned the Medal of Honor.

Bravery during the Battle of the Bulge

Soldiers walking through a snowy town
Soldiers move stealthily through the snow during the Battle of the Bulge. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)

By January 29, 1945, Leonard Funk and his unit had been locked in a bitter fight against the Germans for weeks. Despite this, they’d managed to advance 15 miles. The maneuver was made so they could mount an attack on the town of Holzheim, which was held by the German Army.

Funk became the company’s executive officer and knew he had too few men to successfully defeat the Germans. However, as he was now leading the unit, he bolstered their numbers with a platoon of usually-noncombatant clerks. The ragtag group attacked the town while under a savage wall of machine guns and artillery fire. Even still, they managed to clear 15 houses without any casualties. Another American then unit joined the fight, allowing them to bring the town under Allied control.

Eighty Germans were captured and placed under guard by four troops, while the rest of the US soldiers doubled back to ensure the town was completely empty of Germans. While this was happening, the four guards became overpowered by their prisoners, who immediately started making preparations to attack the Americans.

Funk returned around this time and walked straight into the group, who were no longer his prisoners of war. A German officer pointed a loaded weapon at the paratrooper and demanded he surrender. Pretending to obey, Funk lowered his submachine gun. However, in a flash, he pulled the trigger and mowed down the officer and a number of others.

He screamed for his unit to disarm the rest, leading to the deaths of 21 German soldiers, while the rest were captured in mere moments. On September 5, 1945, Funk was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman. With his assortment of wartime medals, he is one of the most decorated paratroopers of World War II.

Leonard Funk’s post-service life

Leonard Funk Jr.'s gravestone
Leonard Funk Jr.’s gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo Credit: Arlington National Cemetery / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

After leaving the Army, Leonard Funk continued working with soldiers, focusing his energy on the Veteran’s Administration in the Pittsburgh area before retiring in 1972. During this time, he and his wife, Gertrude, had two daughters.

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On November 20, 1992, the war hero passed away at the age of 76 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Three years later, a section of road where he lived was renamed in his honor. In 2008, he was inducted into the 82nd Airborne Division’s Hall of Fame.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE