Louisville man’s quiet courage during WWI revealed more than a century later in his diary

More than a century later, Charles Leonard’s diary, photos and story survive in the hands of his granddaughter, Judy Bruckner
More than a century later, Charles Leonard’s diary, photos and story survive in the hands of his granddaughter.
Published: Nov. 11, 2021 at 2:21 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - In 1917, Charles Leonard was just 19 when, at great personal risk and expense, he made a life-changing decision. He put his Ivy League education on hold and went to Europe to become an ambulance driver, volunteering to live on the Western Front of World War I.

He bought a camera, kept a diary and survived many close calls.

“Shells were flying very nearby,” reads one entry in his diary. “Then we dashed on into the town which was filled with gas.”

More than a century later, Leonard’s diary, photos and story survive in the hands of his granddaughter, Judy Bruckner.

“It is only later that I actually found these photographs,” Bruckner said, “and the reason was grandma wouldn’t let him pull them out.”

Like many who endure the hardships of war, Leonard came home and largely kept his stories to himself. No one knows what a burden the silence might have been for him.

In time, he returned to his studies, became an accountant and a lawyer, and settled in Louisville where he raised a family.

Leonard also became a businessman, one of the founders of a new company called WAVE Television. It is somewhat ironic, however, that while starting a business dedicated to telling the story of its community, Leonard’s own story remained, for all practical purposes, a secret. He began speaking publicly about some of his experiences late in life, but when he died in 1982, Leonard still left one big question unanswered, why did he volunteer before the United States joined the fighting?

“I really think he wanted to help people,” Bruckner said. “He saw the devastation that was going on.”

Although her grandfather’s eyesight was so poor that he wouldn’t have been allowed to become a soldier, he was able to view the war clearly through his camera, and he apparently wanted others to see it too.

”I went up to the entrance to pull down the blanket over the door, to prevent more gas from coming in,” Leonard wrote to his mother, “when a shell exploded near the entrance, blowing me back like a piece of paper.”

During the war, Leonard sold a few of his pictures to papers back home. Hundreds more pictures were found in an album deteriorating, but weren’t preserved until his granddaughter found, restored, and published them.

His family donated his uniform to the Filson Historical Society, which carefully preserves it as an artifact of bygone times. It is a silent tribute to the young man who wore it, who seldom talked of war, but whose message is still clear to his granddaughter.

”That (war is) unkind,” Bruckner said. “But be kind to people. Try to find a way to help, and this is exactly what he wanted to do.”

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