Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Here the invader was stopped"

A lieutenant -- a lawyer from Los Angeles before being drafted -- was hastily given what seemed like a suicide assignment: to stop a column of German tanks with an artillery piece that was intended to shoot down airplanes, soldiers who weren't trained for the job and a firing position that provided no protection.

"If they got one shot at us, we were dead," Leon Kent said. "I remember thinking: Do the shells go through you, or do you just go up in pieces?"

But what Kent and three enlisted soldiers under his command accomplished soon became symbolic of the Allies' determination to blunt the German offensive.

With two "miracle" shots, soldiers of 143rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion disabled the two lead German tanks, blocking the rest of the column from advancing along the narrow road outside Stoumont Station in Belgium.

"We stopped them cold," Kent said.

In the four hours it took the German tank commanders to resume their advance, the U.S. soldiers were able to establish a blocking position several miles away. After the war, the locals put up a plaque that, in French, reads: "Here the invader was stopped."

The three enlisted soldiers who fired the 90mm gun were given the Silver Star for bravery. Kent was meritoriously promoted to captain.

As an officer, he should have taken up a safe position away from the gun. Instead he had stayed on the platform beside his men.

Now 96 and living in retirement in Beverly Hills after resuming his law career, Kent eschews any suggestion of courage on his part. He felt obligated to stay with his men.

"I think it was more guilt than bravery," he said.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Crowe sees it somewhat differently. He'll be at the ceremony at the December 1944 Historical Museum in La Gleize, Belgium.

"What Capt. Kent showed was extraordinary leadership," said Crowe, now retired in Visalia. "He wouldn't ask his troops to do anything he wouldn't do himself. That's the kind of leadership that inspires troops."

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