Monday, February 03, 2014

TFH 2/3: Private First Class Leo J. Powers, USA

Leo J. Powers was born on April 5, 1909 in Anselmo, Nebraska. At some point in his life he resettled in Montana, and it was from there that he left his life as a farmer to enter the United States Army for World War II service on September 17, 1942 when he was 33 years old. His enlistment record indicates he was drafted, and due to problems with his feet, was placed in the Transportation Corps and trained as a mechanic.

Powers was assigned to the 34th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit from the upper midwest United States federalized for war service. However, with the division's 133rd Infantry Regiment, he served as a rifleman, not a mechanic. It's not known how he wound up assigned to a combat role. As he was significantly older than most of the other soldiers, he was nicknamed "Pops" by his comrades.

The 34th Infantry Division motto is simply, "Attack! Attack! Attack!" On February 3, 1944 during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, then Private First Class Powers did exactly that, thrice attacking solo against enemy positions while completely lacking cover or protection for himself. His actions paved the way for the entire 133rd regiment to advance, and later saw him decorated with the Medal of Honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (M-S):

Photo from Military Times' Hall of Valor

Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, 133d Infantry, 34th Infantry Division
Place and date: Northwest of Cassino, Italy, 3 February 1944
Entered service at: Alder Gulch, Mont.
G.O. No.: 5, 15 January 1945

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. On 3 February 1944, this soldier's company was assigned the mission of capturing Hill 175, the key enemy strong point northwest of Cassino, Italy. The enemy, estimated to be at least 50 in strength, supported by machine guns emplaced in 3 pillboxes and mortar fire from behind the hill, was able to pin the attackers down and inflict 8 casualties. The company was unable to advance, but Pfc. Powers, a rifleman in 1 of the assault platoons, on his own initiative and in the face of the terrific fire, crawled forward to assault 1 of the enemy pillboxes which he had spotted. Armed with 2 hand grenades and well aware that if the enemy should see him it would mean almost certain death, Pfc. Powers crawled up the hill to within 15 yards of the enemy pillbox. Then standing upright in full view of the enemy gunners in order to throw his grenade into the small opening in the roof, he tossed a grenade into the pillbox. At this close, the grenade entered the pillbox, killed 2 of the occupants and 3 or 4 more fled the position, probably wounded. This enemy gun silenced, the center of the line was able to move forward again, but almost immediately came under machine gun fire from a second enemy pillbox on the left flank. Pfc. Powers, however, had located this pillbox, and crawled toward it with absolutely no cover if the enemy should see him. Raising himself in full view of the enemy gunners about 15 feet from the pillbox, Pfc. Powers threw his grenade into the pillbox, silencing this gun, killing another German and probably wounding 3 or 4 more who fled. Pfc. Powers, still acting on his own initiative, commenced crawling toward the third enemy pillbox in the face of heavy machine-pistol and machinegun fire. Skillfully availing himself of the meager cover and concealment, Pfc. Powers crawled up to within 10 yards of this pillbox fully exposed himself to the enemy gunners, stood upright and tossed the 2 grenades into the small opening in the roof of the pillbox. His grenades killed 2 of the enemy and 4 more, all wounded, came out and surrendered to Pfc. Powers, who was now unarmed. Pfc. Powers had worked his way over the entire company front, and against tremendous odds had single-handedly broken the backbone of this heavily defended and strategic enemy position, and enabled his regiment to advance into the city of Cassino. Pfc. Powers' fighting determination and intrepidity in battle exemplify the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Powers survived the war and attained the rank of Sergeant before his discharge. He passed away at age 58 on July 14, 1967 and was buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Butte, Montana.

The 34th Infantry Division is still a constituent of the National Guard in state service and the Army when federalized. The division is headquartered in Rosemount, Minnesota and is made up of Guardsmen primarily from Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska.

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