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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 22, 2001

How one executed soldier finally arrived at Plot 9

 •  Mysterious Schofield plot filled with untold stories

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

In Australia in May of 1942, even as Japanese war forces were threatening the continent, a serial killer stalked Melbourne, attacking and slaying women.

Edward J. Leonski was executed in Australia in 1942.
The assailant was dubbed "The Brownout Strangler" because he struck during a less-severe version of a government-imposed blackout, known as a brownout.

As fear and panic spread, a nationwide manhunt was launched that ultimately led to the capture of one of the thousands of American GIs stationed in Australia to help fend off attacking Japanese.

The suspect's name was Pvt. Edward "Eddie" J. Leonski, an affable, powerfully built 25-year-old clerk from New York City who had the habit of walking on his hands in bars whenever he got drunk, which was just about every night.

As murderers went, Eddie Leonski was in a league all his own. At his general court-martial he remained cheerful — grinning, joking and taking shorthand notes throughout. Although he confessed to strangling three women and attacking numerous others who, through luck and happenstance, had escaped his clutches, his lawyers argued that Leonski was not responsible for his actions.

There is little doubt that Leonski, who had a fixation on his unstable mother, hated his alcoholic father and never had a girlfriend in his life, was unbalanced. He had a brother who spent half his life in a mental institution. Before he struck, Leonski told his victims, "I want your voice."

The question was whether or not he was legally insane.

Leonski's case made legal history. He was the first person tried in Australia by laws applying to another nation. The U.S. military demanded it, and considering the Army was there to help defend the country, Australia reluctantly acquiesced. The citizenry was outraged. The Army was under pressure to resolve the Leonski issue as expeditiously as possible.

Leonski was found guilty and, under questionable "Special War Time Powers," his death warrant was signed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the man in charge of U.S. forces in Australia.

Jovial to the end, before he was hanged at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne on Nov. 9, 1942, Leonski attempted to cheer up his jailers. He expressed regret for his deeds and did not flinch when the noose was placed around his neck, reportedly by Albert Pierrepoint, the famed executioner who put dozens of Nazi war criminals to death.

"He died like a soldier," said one of two attending priests.

Leonski was the second American soldier executed in World War II, and the first executed on foreign soil. Even in death Leonski was incredible. Because of wrangling about where and how he should be placed, Leonski was buried three times in two segregated sites in Australia's Springvale Cemetery.

Then, in May 1945, Leonski was moved to an American war cemetery in Ipswich, south of Brisbane. In 1947, when it was decided that America would not have a permanent cemetery in Australia, Leonski was again unearthed, hauled across the Pacific Ocean, placed in an Army mausoleum for six months and then transferred to a distribution center for another nine months.

While the Leonski case caused major sensation in Australia (the subject of a book by the late Ivan Chapman, and a movie, "Death of A Soldier," starring James Coburn), his case was hushed in America. The U.S. military was loath to discuss it. Following the war, Leonski was practically forgotten altogether.

On April 14, 1949, Eddie Leonski reached his final destination: Plot 9, Row B, Grave 8 of the segregated section of the Schofield Barracks Post Cemetery. As far as is known, no friend or relative has ever visited his grave.