From UVM to Iwo Jima
Seventy-one years after he had gone ashore on the island of Iwo Jima, 92 year old Gedeon LaCroix of West Arlington, wakes up in the middle of the night, escaping from dreams of what had taken place on Feb. 19, 1945.
In a recent interview with LaCroix, who served with the U.S. Marine Corps, 3rd Division, he told me that a day doesn't go by that he doesn't think about what it was like on that volcanic island, 700 miles south of Japan and 8,000 miles from his boyhood home of Bennington, Vermont.
For Gedeon, his first trip away from home was in September 1941, when he and his best friend, Billy Kearns, left Bennington for college. Gedeon was enrolled as a freshman at UVM. Billy went on to St. Lawrence University. It would be the first time that the Bennington High School students were to go their separate ways.
Late into their first semester, news came that America had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. Christmas break and their first time to return home would be postponed – they had no idea how long a deferral it was to be.
Billy and Gedeon concluded that college would have to wait; their country needed them. In January 1942, they met in Burlington and hitched their way to Pittsfield, Mass., where they met a Marine recruiter. Within days, they were on their way to the Corps' boot camp, Parris Island, S.C.
The pair was once again separated. This time it was when they became Marines and Billy went off to Quantico and Gedeon to Camp Lejeune. But their time apart was not for long. On the Moore-McCormack "banana boat" that was transporting the newly-minted Marines to New Zealand, the two were reunited once again, as their ship zig-zagged on the long voyage across the Pacific.
In late 1942, Gedeon saw action on the island of Guadalcanal, the first offensive for the Marines in WWII. Months later on his 20th Birthday, Gedeon went ashore at Cape Torokina, on the island of Bougainville. After months of slogging through mud that was knee deep and jungles with visibility measured in feet, LaCroix felt he was ready to deal with anything the Marines would have him do. He was seriously mistaken.
LaCroix, a year later, went ashore at Iwo Jima with the second wave from the USS Wayne transport ship. On the morning of February 19, 1945, over the side he went into the Higgins boat. Chaos on the beaches was the order of the day. After 12 hours circulating the Wayne in the Higgins boat, his platoon, ravaging from sea sickness, was ordered to climb back up the ropes – their arrival on the shores of Iwo Jima would have to wait another day.
On D-Day plus two and out in front as a scout, LaCroix looked up to his left and saw the raising of the American flag on top of the 500-foot Mount Suribachi. Surely, he thought, that after 72 days of continuous aerial bombardment and four days of naval shelling, the island would soon be secured. That was not to be the case.
Thirty days later, he left Iwo Jima and had witnessed 25,000 Marines carried off on stretchers to awaiting hospital ships. They were the fortunate ones; 7,000 Marines were killed in the 34 days it took to secure the island for an air strip to land B-29 bombers.
Late in 1945, Gedeon and Billy (who saw action on the islands of Tarawa and Saipan) came home. Gedeon finished his college work at Middlebury College, where he met Jean, his bride to this day. Seven decades later, she too wakes up during the night; the horror of Iwo Jima is not far from her as well.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.
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