Quebec's Rambo was a reluctant war hero

Mr Leo Major (second from left), with officials and children the morning after the liberation of Zwolle, the Netherlands. Mr Major lost sight in his left eye after a German threw a grenade at him.
Mr Leo Major (second from left), with officials and children the morning after the liberation of Zwolle, the Netherlands. Mr Major lost sight in his left eye after a German threw a grenade at him.PHOTO: HISTORISCH CENTRUM OVERIJSSEL

Mr Leo Major gets posthumous recognition in Canada after a documentary reveals his role in liberating a Dutch city from the Nazis in 1945

MONTREAL • It does sound like a Rambo plot. A one-eyed soldier single-handedly liberates a Dutch city in World War II, tricking a German officer into believing the city is surrounded.

Now more than 70 years later, the soldier, Mr Leo Major, a one-time farmer from Montreal, is getting wide recognition in Canada after a documentary about his life was shown last month on Radio-Canada, the national broadcaster.

He died in Montreal in 2008 at age 87.

The news media dubbed him "Quebec's Rambo". He is also the subject of a feature film and a biography to be published in February.

"What Leo did is larger-than-life and sounds like something even greater than an action movie. But until now, few Canadians knew who he was," said Bruno Des Rosiers, director of the documentary, The One-Eyed Ghost.

Why Mr Major's audacious wartime feats are only entering the popular imagination in Canada, historians say, partly reflects Quebec nationalism and a lingering discomfort with French-speaking citizens fighting for the British Crown.

During the war, conscription spawned loud opposition in Quebec and returning servicemen did not always receive their due.

"Joining the army was seen as a taboo by many and so men like Mr Major didn't like to talk about the past," said Mr Eric Marmen, director of Musee Le Regiment de la Chaudiere in Quebec, a museum devoted to the Canadian Army Reserve infantry unit to which Mr Major belonged.

It also probably did not help that Mr Major was a reluctant war hero and hothead who had disobeyed orders, according to Luc Lepine, a military historian who is writing Major's biography.

Mr Major was a restless 19-year-old when he volunteered to join the Canadian army in 1940. It was a time when economic prospects for a young, poor French Quebecois in Anglo-dominated Canada were severely circumscribed.

One of his sons, Denis, said his father, a skinny and scrappy boxer and aspiring plumber, was drawn by the prospect of liberating Europe from fascism as well as a quest for adventure.

In June 1944, after training in reconnaissance, Mr Major, by then a sniper in the army, lost sight in his left eye. A German had thrown a grenade at him a few weeks after D-Day while his unit was helping to liberate the town of Carpiquet in France.

Later, during a mission on the German-Dutch border to rescue missing British soldiers, his truck went over a land mine. The explosion broke his arm, three vertebrae and two ankles. Undeterred, he rejoined his unit after escaping from a hospital in Belgium to visit his girlfriend.

The documentary recounts his role in the liberation of Zwolle, a picturesque Dutch city with a population of about 50,000 then.

After sunset on April 13, 1945, he and another soldier, Mr Willie Arsenault, sneaked into the German-held town on a reconnaissance mission. It was just weeks before the war was to end. The area was swarming with German soldiers, and Mr Arsenault was killed by the Nazis.

Incensed, Mr Major gunned down the two Germans who had killed his friend. He then walked into the German officer quarters where he persuaded a senior officer, who spoke French, that the village was surrounded by Canadian soldiers.

He told him to tell his fellow officers to evacuate - or face being captured when the town fell. As a sign of good faith, he let the German keep his gun.

Mr Major then proceeded to charge through the town to simulate a siege from an encroaching army. With the aide of Dutch resistance officers, he captured more than 50 German soldiers.

Other Germans fled and the town was liberated.

He returned to Montreal at 33, hampered by so many painful war injuries that he could not work.

He lived off a veteran's pension.

He passed his time listening to James Brown, sewing clothes and seldom talking about the past.

Mr Major was haunted from having killed teenagers as a sniper and broke down while watching World War II dramas.

His story would still perhaps be unknown, were it not for several residents of Zwolle who knocked on his door in Montreal in 1969 to ask him to participate in a ceremony commemorating the town's liberation from the Nazis.

It was only then that his wife and four children learnt the truth about their father's wartime heroics.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2018, with the headline 'Quebec's Rambo was a reluctant war hero'. Print Edition | Subscribe