Leonard A. Funk Jr.
Medal of Honor
January 29, 1945
Leonard Funk, a 5-foot-5-inch, 140-pound western Pennsylvania native, was the most highly decorated American paratrooper of World War II and one of the most highly decorated soldiers ever to serve in the U.S. Army. He was also the main player in one of the most bizarre and heroic stories to come out of the war.
It happened the day he laughed.
Funk enlisted in June 1941, volunteered for airborne school and ultimately joined Company C, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. The war broke out shortly after he enlisted, but—although he was stationed in England—it wasn’t until June 1944 that Funk first saw action. On D-Day he jumped into Normandy with units that landed nearly 40 miles inland and fought for 10 days before breaking through to rejoin their regiments. Not one member of the small unit he commanded was lost, and Funk earned a Silver Star.
That September he jumped into Holland during Operation Market Garden as part of an unsuccessful attempt to secure bridges over the Rhine into Germany. Funk led a three-man patrol that assaulted three German 20mm antiaircraft guns firing on American gliders. Funk and his men overran the guns and killed 20 German soldiers—again without losing a man. Funk received a Distinguished Service Cross for this action, and his men began calling the diminutive first sergeant “Napoléon.”
But his greatest moment was yet to come.
In January 1945 Funk’s company was deployed to Belgium to help prevent a German breakout during the Battle of the Bulge. After a 15-mile march in heavy snow, the company lost its executive officer, and Funk took command. Failing to gather enough infantrymen to take out a German strongpoint, he recruited men from the company office. Funk led this makeshift platoon of 30 clerks through waist-deep snow, under artillery shelling and harassing fire, overran the strongpoint and captured 30 Germans. Another unit had captured 50 enemy troops, and U.S. forces corralled the two groups of prisoners in the yard of a house, leaving four men to guard them. Funk returned to the fight.
Later that day, after running into heavy resistance, Funk and another soldier returned to warn the four-man guard and check on the prisoners. In the interim a patrol of Germans, wearing white camouflage capes similar to those worn by American troops, had surprised the guards and freed the prisoners. Also mistaking the Germans for U.S. troops, Funk walked straight into the yard, where an enemy officer shoved a machine pistol into his gut.
Perhaps as a ruse, perhaps from stress or perhaps simply because he was struck by the absurdity of the situation, Funk —who spoke no German—began to laugh. The more he laughed, so the story goes, the angrier the German officer got. The angrier he got, the more he shouted, the less Funk understood and the more the young American laughed.
Finally seeming to regain his composure, Funk moved to unsling his Thompson submachine gun as if to surrender it. But instead of giving up the weapon, he emptied a full magazine into the red-faced officer. The other Germans quickly returned fire, while Funk yelled at the other GIs to pick up dropped German weapons and join the fight. In less than a minute his ragtag force killed 21 of the enemy, wounded 24 more and recaptured the remainder.
“That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” Funk reportedly cracked in the aftermath of the firefight.
By war’s end Funk had received, among other awards, the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters, the Dutch Militaire WillemsOrde (knight 4th class)—said to be the equivalent of the British Victoria Cross—and the Medal of Honor, presented to Funk at the White House by President Harry Truman.
Leonard Funk left the Army after the war and ultimately became Pittsburgh regional chief of the Veterans Administration. He died in 1992 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.