McMinnville honors Leonard DeWitt with sculpture

Leonard DeWitt single-handedly fought off about 100 Japanese soldiers in one night

Roughly 200 people gathered in McMinnville to see the unveiling of a bronze statue by artist Chad Caswell to honor war hero Leonard DeWitt Dec. 7, 2014 (Courtesy photo)
Roughly 200 people gathered in McMinnville to see the unveiling of a bronze statue by artist Chad Caswell to honor war hero Leonard DeWitt Dec. 7, 2014 (Courtesy photo)

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (KOIN 6) — Seventy-three years ago, the United States entered World War 2 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and about 18 months later, Leonard DeWitt’s life changed.

On July 28, 1943, DeWitt single-handedly turned back about 100 Japanese soldiers and saved countless of his fellow soldiers. For his actions, he was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945.

DeWitt, now 93, was honored Sunday with the unveiling of a bronze statue by sculptor Chad Caswell.

At the unveiling, attended by DeWitt’s family and roughly 200 people, he said he is honored, and very pleased with the statue. Onlookers relished DeWitt’s presence at the ceremony — noting most war heroes are not able to attend ceremonies honoring them.

DeWitt’s Congressional Medal of Honor languished on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s desk, and in 2013 Governor John Kitzhaber signed a bill to urge Congress and the Pentagon to re-open DeWitt’s previous nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“It suits me fine, I’m just so tickled at this,” DeWitt said. His son, Rob DeWitt, said, “it just encompasses everything he has meant for, everything that he has done, everything he has dedicated his life to.”

Sculptor Chad Caswell unveils a bronze statue of Leonard DeWitt, now 93, in McMinnville Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. (KOIN 6/ Matt Rashleigh)
Sculptor Chad Caswell unveils a bronze statue of Leonard DeWitt, now 93, in McMinnville Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. (KOIN 6/ Matt Rashleigh)

Caswell, 21, poured his efforts into making the statue realistic and evocative.

“It was an incredible honor to work on this project. I’m very excited to have it finally installed,” Caswell said in a statement. “I want to thank everyone involved for their support and work to honor Leonard DeWitt and all of the heroes who fought for our country.”

The sculpture is dedicated to all who served and sacrificed during World War 2.

That fateful night

Leonard DeWitt was in a group of soldiers called Jungleers. On that July night 71 years ago, he was defending a dark ridge — “Scout Ridge, I think it was” — and was only able to hear a sizable group of Japanese soldiers not far below.

“I’ve been in a lot of combat situations and you don’t have time to get scared,” he told KOIN 6 News in 2013.

“I walked along the ridge and let it fly. I could hear I was doing a lot of damage, guys yelling and I could hear bodies crashing down the hill but … I had a Thompson submachine gun and so I fired a couple clips of that into them and that seemed to have a very good effect,” he said.

Leonard DeWitt in an undated photo from World War 2 (Courtesy)
Leonard DeWitt in an undated photo from World War 2 (Courtesy)

“I threw a half-a-dozen grenades down there, and I tried to catch all these guys, you know, down there in the bottom.”

“You have to do what you have to do,” he said.

But it wasn’t over. He ducked a hand grenade, slipped down the hill and ended up side-by-side with enemy soldiers who wanted to kill him. He stabbed one with his bayonet and then looked at the other.

“He was looking horrified, you know. He was looking at me like, ‘What the devil?’ and so I grabbed my helmet and whammed him in the face with it and he went screaming down the hill.”

That was the last of them.

“I walked back and listened and no more Japanese imperial forces. I said, man, I did it. I did it. … So I realized that I’d run them off and (said) ‘Holy cow, I did it all by myself.’”

Historians said DeWitt probably turned back about 100 soldiers that night. They found evidence of 20 casualties.

Leonard DeWitt, 93, attends a ceremony unveiling a bronze statue honoring his heroic actions in World War II in McMinnville Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. (KOIN 6/ Matt Rashleigh)
Leonard DeWitt, 93, attends a ceremony unveiling a bronze statue honoring his heroic actions in World War II in McMinnville Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. (KOIN 6/ Matt Rashleigh)

Kitzhaber signed House Joint Memorial 17 on June 25, 2013, which recounts DeWitt’s bravery and heroism on July 28, 1943 during World War 2.

“…single-handedly attacking the Japanese troops before they could…sweep his company off the ridge, and whereas Leonard Dewitt  engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat to protect his fellow soldiers and maintain the American position…”

The McMinnville man was decorated in both World War 2 and the Korean War with a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Service Cross — the second-highest honor a soldier can receive.

When asked if he thinks he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, Leonard DeWitt paused before he answered with a small laugh in 2013.

“Yeah.”

KOIN 6 News reporter Tim Becker contributed to this report.

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