100th birthday celebration surprises Brentwood veteran and Camp Fire survivor with POW medal

Red, white and blue party decorations brought a festive air to the Brentwood Veterans Hall Tuesday evening, while the guest of honor, Oscar Leonard, sat with a military hat covered in pins, telling the crowd that he wasn't exactly convinced he was deserving of all the attention.

"I think people are going too far. I'm not that important," said Leonard, a World War II veteran who served in the Philippines.

Leonard is tremendously important to the dozens of people who came to honor him.

Leonard is one of the few surviving members of what's often referred to as the Greatest Generation, troops who served during World War II. He survived 42 months as a prisoner of war, and never got any medals.

On Tuesday, his fellow brothers-in-arms from the VFW post in Brentwood gave him a surprise.

"To present you with your Prisoner of War medal," said California VFW Sergeant-at-Arms Tom Karas, pulling out the medal and pinning it to Leonard's shirt in honor of his sacrifice.

The ceremony was also held to celebrate Leonard's 100th birthday.

Leonard was born April 25, 1919. He joined the Idaho National Guard's 116th Cavalry regiment just before World War II began.

He later went to the Philippines in the Counter Intelligence Corps.

"I was a secret service. I had a lot of privileges that a lot of other fellas didn't have," said Leonard.

"He went from Clark Air Force Base...fell back to Bataan," said George Gonzalez, Leonard's son-in-law who has helped draw out the long-buried stories, which Leonard had never shared for decades.

Leonard says but he escaped the Bataan Death March by sheer luck. He says he couldn't swim, but was able to float down a river.

"Was pretty rough water. Lot of people didn't make that trip because it was so many undercurrents and all. We were just lucky," said Leonard.

He survived by clinging to a log for 10 hours.

"Scared is a word that doesn't fit in my vocabulary," said Leonard, "I guess I was too dumb to be afraid. I did the things regardless."

Later he was captured and moved between Japanese POW camps before being taken to Japan.

"Did six different POW camps. And one of the last things he had to do was clean up after Nagasaki," said Gonzalez.

Surviving the POW camps and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Leonard made it home and became a pharmacist.

He fell in love with Mary another pharmacist, and the two have been together now for 66 years.

Their anniversary this summer will be all the sweeter, because they both cheated death.

Several years ago, they had relocated from their home in Paradise to live with their daughter Ida Leonard-Gonzalez in Antioch. When the massive camp fire burned Paradise to the ground last year, the flames destroyed the Leonard's lifelong home and all their possessions inside.

"He's just one of the luckiest men alive I know," said Ida, "There is no way they could have been mobile enough to get out."

Lost in the fire, was a bullet that Leonard had managed to keep with him through all the POW camps, along with many family treasures.

For his children and grandchildren, however, those things aren't important.

"I'm just happy that he's still able to get up and around and be alert for all of this and have happy memories," said Randolph Fernandez-Gonzalez, Leonard's grandson.

For Oscar Leonard, 100, these well-deserved happy memories come after a century of hard-fought battles, close calls and service to the country.

His family says they are working with some veterans and hoping now to also get Leonard a purple heart award for his sacrifices.