One-eyed Québécois 'Rambo' captures imaginations in Canada
Posted May 27, 2018 6:09 p.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2018 6:42 p.m. EDT
MONTREAL — It is a plot worthy of Hollywood: A courageous, one-eyed soldier single-handedly liberates a Dutch city during World War II, tricking a German officer into believing the city is surrounded.
Just in case there are any doubters, he rampages through the streets throwing grenades, firing his rifle and — in a final act of defiance — lights the Gestapo headquarters on fire.
Now more than 70 years later, the soldier, Léo Major, a one-time farmer from Montreal, is getting wide recognition in Canada after an hourlong documentary about his life was shown in April on Radio-Canada, the national broadcaster. The news media dubbed him “Quebec’s Rambo.”
He is also the subject of a feature film and a biography set to be published in February.
“What Léo 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 DesRosiers, director of the documentary, “The One-Eyed Ghost.”
Why Major’s audacious wartime feats are only belatedly entering the popular imagination here, 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 Québécois 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 Éric Marmen, the director of Musée Le Régiment de la Chaudière in Lévis, Quebec, a museum devoted to the Canadian Army Reserve infantry unit to which Major belonged.
It also probably did not help that Major was a reluctant war hero and hothead who had recklessly disobeyed orders, according to Luc Lépine, a military historian who is writing Major’s biography, “Léo Major: A Resilient Hero.”
Major, the first born of 13 children, was a restless 19-year-old when he volunteered to join the Canadian army in the summer of 1940. It was a time when the economic prospects for a young, poor French Québécois 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, 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 ofCarpiquet in Normandy, France. He wore a patch for the remainder of the war, his son recalled.
Later, during a mission on the German-Dutch border to rescue missing British soldiers, his truck went over a land mine, launching him 50 feet in the air and breaking his arm, three vertebrae and two ankles. Undeterred, he rejoined his unit after escaping from a hospital in Belgium to visit his girlfriend.
“'I was a sniper. I still had one good eye and could still shoot,'” Denis Major recalled his father saying. Major’s daring wartime actions were corroborated by Lépine, his biographer, using Canadian army records, Major’s own accounts and interviews with former members of his unit and his family.
During the Battle of Scheldt in the Netherlands in October 1944, the First Canadian Army was assigned the treacherous task of clearing Nazi troops to allow Allied supplies to get to the port of Antwerp. Major swam through canals, undetected, before killing two sentinels at a German army camp.
“I was just like a water rat,” he told Robert Fowler, a military historian, in 1996.
He then ambushed the commanding officer, who was sleeping. Unsatisfied with that, he single-handedly captured 93 German soldiers, also slumbering in a nearby barracks. Faced with so many captives on his own, he called in two Canadian tanks, and marched the men toward Canadian forces, according to Lépine, the military historian.
The documentary recounts Major’s role in the liberation of Zwolle, a picturesque Dutch city with a population of about 50,000 at the time.
After sunset on April 13, 1945, Major and another soldier, Willie Arsenault, sneaked into the German-held town on a reconnaissance mission, according to military records. It was just weeks before the war was to end. The area was swarming with German soldiers, and Arsenault, Major’s close friend, was killed by the Nazis. Incensed, 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 immediately — or face being captured when the town fell. As a sign of good faith, he let the German keep his gun.
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. “Major was a loose cannon, a skinny kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wasn’t afraid of anything,” Lépine said, explaining his sometimes foolhardy bravery. “His father had been violent,” he added, noting the young Québécois wanted to prove that he could stand up to anything.
Major stayed in the Canadian army and was awarded a medal for bravery during the Korean War after capturing a strategic hill despite being vastly outnumbered by Chinese forces.
He returned to Montreal at age 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 — or what he had done, his son said.
Major said he remained haunted from having killed teenagers as a sniper, and he broke down while watching World War II dramas. He died in Montreal in 2008 at age 87. A Dutch colonel attended his funeral.
His story would still perhaps be unknown, Major said, 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 learned the truth about their father’s wartime actions. Today, there is a street named after Major in Zwolle and an annual ceremony to honor him. In late April, a group of Dutch soccer fans in Zwolle unfurled a banner showing him as a young soldier with an eye patch. Those who knew Major said he wouldn’t have liked all the fuss.
“If he were American, there would’ve been a dozen films about him by now,” Denis Major said, adding: “My father was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.”