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Private First Class Leon L. O'Bryant

Rifleman

K Company, 143rd Infantry Regiment

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Leon O’Bryant was born in 1913 to a small family in the bustling town of Massilon, Ohio. Although born there, the family didn’t stay long before they decided to settle in the larger city of Canton. It was here that Leon grew up, attending high school and reaching maturity, eventually deciding to drop out from his studies a year from graduation in order to start working to support his family as a grocery store clerk at a store down the road from his home amidst the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. The work at the store ended up proving fairly lucrative for Leon and he ended up staying there well into his 20s as he reached independence. It was at the store that Leon watched more and more men walk by in the dull uniforms of GI olive drab as the Second World War began to make its way into Stark County. At first, he was able to avoid the draft as his job supplied essential materials to the civilian workforce but before long the war caught up to him and he received his draft notice in January of 1944, officially enlisting in the service the following month.

Upon completion of basic training, Leon began his journey overseas as a replacement rifleman in the Mediterranean theater. Landing in August, Leon ended up avoiding service on the Italian peninsula as he quickly got assigned to the 36th Infantry Division which was now in the process of invading Southern France. For the next month or so he ended up in Limbo as the 36th rushed upward through the country as German forces retreated towards their Vosges stronghold. It wasn’t until the end of this whirlwind in early October that Leon joined his combat unit, K Company of the 143rd Infantry Regiment.

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The 143rd had enjoyed several weeks of quick-paced movement through nearly half of the French countryside as German forces abandoned their plans to hold the coast. When Leon joined the regiment they had already become largely stagnant as the battle for the Vosges began. The countless forested mountain-hills of the Vosges marked the entrance into the Rhine River Valley and as a naturally strong defensive position, the Germans took full advantage. Fighting was tough as infantry slogged up and over the hills in the rain, wind, and snow only to encounter Germans entrenched on the other side. The fighting continued like this for around a month before Leon proved what kind of soldier he really was.

November opened to a two-week period of rain, snow, and sleet which caused all Allied air cover to become practically nonexistent. The 143rd, slugging it out with yet more fortified German lines, spent its days launching periodic artillery fire with constant patrols testing the enemy lines to figure troop positions and assess weaknesses. Captured enemy troops on the first of the month hinted at possible SS involvement and Colonel Lynch, commanding officer of the 143rd, decided it was time to test these speculations with a “Chinese Attack.” Using massed waves of artillery and small arms fire to simulate an impending infantry attack, this type of mock assault was used to draw out enemy forces for a devastating barrage in open ground. The practice was a common stratagem amongst 36th Division commanders and Lynch had found success with it before. This time, the targets were La Rosiere, La Chapelle, and two hills, 509 and 703, which harbored an unknown amount of German troops. Despite rain and fog, the assault began on 5 November as AAA half-tracks, Cannon Company howitzers, mortars, MGs, and AT guns of the 3rd Battalion opened up on the German positions. The enemy didn’t bite easily and spat back their own artillery, mortar, MG, rifle, and SPG fire into Leon’s company and their neighbors. The next day the regiment decided to send out several patrols to investigate the success of the attack following reported signs that the Germans were beginning to leave the area. It was on one of these patrols that Leon distinguished himself for exceptional gallantry.

Lieutenant O’Dean T. Cox of Waco, Texas was selected to lead the patrol from K Company with intentions to investigate the town of La Rosiere more fully. Leon and Cox along with 11 other GIs of his company set out on their mission in the morning hours by crossing heavily mined terrain to reach a suspected enemy post just inside the town limits. Effecting a “skillful maneuver” to surround the position, Leon and his compatriots surprised the sentry, killing him, and captured ten German troops who had been sleeping inside. Interrogation of the prisoners revealed that these were not the inexperienced reserve troops the regiment had thought occupied the area but instead were battle-hardened veterans of the Eastern Front. Once another platoon of men had arrived to hold the position, Leon and the patrol moved out once again to find more German strongpoints located in the southern part of the town as described by their initial prisoners. The assault went perfectly as Leon and the other soldiers poured well-coordinated and accurate fire into the hostile positions, killing four more Germans and capturing another ten. By the end of the firefight, Leon’s patrol had almost single-handedly taken the town from German hands and captured a grand total of 23 prisoners with five more dead in their wake. For Leon’s own personal bravery as a member of this highly aggressive and effective patrol, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor.

Rough movements of the platoon through La Rosiere
Rough movements of the platoon through La Rosiere

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The location of La Rosiere in the valley
The location of La Rosiere in the valley

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A 143rd patrol
A 143rd patrol

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Rough movements of the platoon through La Rosiere
Rough movements of the platoon through La Rosiere

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The massive success of Leon’s valiant patrol opened the road for the rest of the battalion to make serious headway into the targeted river valley, capturing several more towns and routing the German forces over the next several days. The rest of the month went more or less the same as some days gained ground was counted in feet and on others, miles. Just a few weeks later on 26 November, Leon was attacking east of battalion positions as he moved towards the town of Echerry. While resistance was light, the area proved heavily mined as one went off next to him, sending fragments into his foot and legs. Evacuated to the regimental hospital Leon spent the next few months recovering before rejoining his company in February 1945. In March Leon was part of yet another highly decorated action as his company assaulted the highly defended town of Bischoffen near the Franco-German border. The town was infamous for its formidable defenses and proved to be one of the 36th Division’s deadliest urban fights. K Company helped to spearhead the assault, crossing exposed and mined terrain under fire. Leon and the company attacked twice before the third assault finally broke the German defenses and the men rushed into the town, overwhelming its defenders and engaging the survivors in house-to-house fighting. By dawn the town had fallen and Leon’s company had claimed the fortress leaving 66 Germans captured and an unknown number dead. For this incredible feat which opened the only supply route to save two entire regiments of the division, Leon and K Company were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.