Meet the ‘Laughing Paratrooper’ of World War II

Army 1st Sgt. Leonard Funk, poses with Shorty, an 8-month-old puppy, attached to his parachute equipment, during World War II. The pup belonged to a fellow soldier and went with him - successfully - on the jump. (U.S. Army)

Small-unit combat is no laughing matter. This is, unless you’re Leonard Funk Jr. In that case, it’s essential.

In 1945, Funk chuckled his way out of a sticky situation involving 30 escaped German prisoners during the Battle of the Bulge -- and he did it with a handful of drafted clerks.

Funk served in World War II from start to finish. The Braddock Township, Pennsylvania, native was drafted before the war, entered the Army and eventually found himself in the 82d Airborne. He was sent to England but didn’t see combat until D-Day, June 6, 1944.

He would leave Europe as one of the most decorated paratroopers in Army history.

(U.S. Army)

He and members of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment landed 40 miles behind German lines and fought hard to link up with the oncoming Allies. He didn’t lose a single soldier under his command and earned a Silver Star for the effort.

Next, he jumped into Holland as part of Operation Market Garden and earned the Distinguished Service Cross for leading an assault that captured three Nazi antiaircraft positions and taking out 20 enemy troops. Though Market Garden was a strategic failure, Funk’s effort was anything but. In Holland, as in France, Funk didn’t lose a single soldier under his command.

Soon, in January 1945, Funk and the 508th found themselves in the Battle of the Bulge. He and his company were sent to help the Allies blunt the German offensive near Holzheim, Belgium. When the commander of the company became a casualty after an exhaustive 15-mile march in heavy snow, Funk took command.

Assigned to take an enemy strongpoint, Funk realized he didn’t have enough men to take their objective. He went to the company office and gathered 30 of the clerks positioned there. He led his motley crew through waist-deep snow under heavy fire, which included artillery shells. They cleared 15 houses -- again, without a single loss -- and linked up with another American unit, clearing the town.

Funk’s men captured 30 enemy troops and combined them with the 50 other prisoners captured by the other unit. Funk then left four men on guard to continue fighting.

But he soon got word that a German patrol had ambushed the four-man guard and freed the 50 prisoners. When Funk returned to the POW corral, he encountered men wearing American uniforms. As he walked into the yard of the house where the prisoners were kept, one of the “Americans” shoved a submachine gun into his stomach.

Most people in this situation would probably show a lot of concern for their health and immediate well-being. Funk laughed in their faces. Outnumbered by at least 80 enemy soldiers, 1st Sgt. Funk slowly unslung his submachine gun, as if he were giving up.

But the more he laughed, the angrier the Germans got. Especially the German holding a gun to his gut. He began to shout at Funk, but Funk spoke no German; he just kept laughing. As the German lost his composure, Funk suddenly unloaded his Thompson into the group of Germans, as the four captured Americans picked up the fallen Germans’ weapons.

Within seconds, 21 of the German lay dead, 24 wounded and the rest recaptured.

“That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” Funk reportedly said.

It wasn’t stupid to the Department of the Army, which realized the quick action of Funk and the newly freed American guards prevented the Germans from making an attack on the rear of the company; that would have endangered the entire plan of attack. For his quick action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman in September 1945.

President Harry S. Truman places the Medal of Honor around the neck of Army 1st Sgt. Leonard Funk, Sept. 5, 1945. (U.S. Army photo)

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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