Arlington veteran watched raising of flag on Iwo Jima

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ARLINGTON — Gedeon LaCroix was sitting in a foxhole with a fellow soldier when one of the most popular photos taken during World War II was captured.

LaCroix, 95, of West Arlington, estimated his foxhole was about 50 yards away when the famous flag raising took place on Mount Suribachi following the invasion of Iwo Jima.

The moment was immortalized by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and became one of the most iconic photos taken during World War II. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was later used by the sculptor who created the Marine Corps War Memorial that can be found in Arlington, Va.

But that famous moment was the second LaCroix saw that day. A few hours earlier he watched as the first flag was planted on top of the old volcano.

After the first flag was raised, a second, larger flag was taken up the mountain and that was the flag raising that was captured by Rosenthal and his Speed Graphic camera and became famous.

"I saw both of them raised," LaCroix said, adding that it was synchronized. "One flag came down and the other went up."

LaCroix may not have known how popular that image would become, but he knew it was destined for newspapers back in the United States.

"I told my buddy in the foxhole, I said, 'When they see that flag going up in the papers, they'll have us securing the island and we haven't even begun the fight,'" LaCroix said. He was right as the battle raged for nearly a month before the island was secured.

LaCroix, a Bennington native, graduated from Bennington High School in 1941 and had enrolled at Middlebury College when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

LaCroix has patriotism running through his veins and a family history in the Marine Corp. So after the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, LaCroix and his friend Bill Kearns from Bennington hitchhiked to Pittsfield, Mass., to a Marine recruiter's office.

Not long after, the pair were at Parris Island. Kearns was then sent to Quantico, Va., for training, while LaCroix was off to Camp Lejeune, N.C.

LaCroix was assigned to the 1st Battalion Intelligence Section, 21st Regiment, 3rd Marine Division.

By sheer coincidence, the pair were reunited when they shipped out from the West Coast to the Pacific and ended up on the same boat.

"It wasn't much of a boat," LaCroix remembered with a laugh. It was a former banana boat and because it was unescorted, they made a circuitous journey across the Pacific that eventually landed them in New Zealand.

It didn't take long for LaCroix to board another boat that sent him into action launching three years of combat including some of the most famous battles against the Japanese.

His first stop was Guadalcanal, in the British Solomon Islands, where he was part of a "mopping up" operation.

He then made landings as part of the initial invasion of Bougainville on Nov. 1, 1943.

He was also part of the invasion of the Mariana Islands, including Saipan, Tinian and Guam.

But the most famous invasion LaCroix was involved in came when the Americans took Iwo Jima.

The "porkchop-shaped" island was strategic because Japanese soldiers could warn mainland Japan when American bombers flew by on their way from Guam to Tokyo.

Once the Americans took Iwo Jima they built a landing strip so bombers damaged during their missions could land on the island for repairs.

Iwo Jima is also where LaCroix picked up his Purple Heart medal. He was wounded when a bomb exploded nearby shooting shrapnel into his arm and hand. But, there was no going to the hospital to get well.

"As soon as the medics took care of you, you kept going," LaCroix said

Once on the beach of the heavily fortified Iwo Jima, the Japanese unleashed on the Americans.

LaCroix said American casualties were so great he was made chief of the intelligence section and given a battlefield promotion from private first class to corporal.

"I had to take over because of the heavy casualties," LaCroix said.

He said the death on Iwo Jima was staggering. The Japanese refused to be taken prisoner and would take their own lives before allowing themselves to fall into the hands of the enemy. But usually, they would fight until the very end.

"They were totally loyal to their country," LaCroix said. "They absolutely refused to surrender."

He said he remembers how fearless they were during firefights.

"We knew they were willing to die," he said. "When we were in a battle, they'd get drunk and charge us. They weren't afraid to die and they took a lot of Americans with them."

LaCroix soon found himself back in Guam with a highly classified job creating maps for the impending invasion of the Japanese mainland.

"I was sworn to secrecy," LaCroix said. "Our units were going to be in the first wave."

LaCroix said he spent his days drilling and preparing and nights working on maps and overlays to help lead the American forces into Japan.

LaCroix said he was working on those maps when the first nuclear weapon was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and the United States demanded the unconditional surrender. Japan refused. Three days later another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Six days later, Japan announced its surrender.

A points-based system was designed to send troops home and LaCroix easily had accumulated enough points in his three years in the south Pacific to be in the first wave of soldiers to return home.

He said he was asked to stay by a colonel and go on into Japan.

"I said, 'Colonel, there's only one place I wanna go and that's home,'" LaCroix said.

LaCroix tells the stories as he remembers them, the names sometimes come haltingly and dates occasionally get confused. He relies on the images burned into his memory and on a tattered scrapbook with news clippings spilling from it. The book was kept by his mother-in-law, Margaret Griswold, who was a teacher and principal in Bennington at Cora B. Whitney School.

Many of the clippings are generic from the war — big battles, stories from the front, photos of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. They come from the Bennington Banner, The New York Times and other papers, which along with radio, were the only ways people got their news in those days.

But a few of the clippings feature LaCroix.

One is a photo taken of him after a multi-week battle to take Bougainville. It features the unshaven face of a tired Marine and was featured in The New York Times magazine section.

There is a letter on U.S. Marine Corp letterhead addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. LaCroix" dated April 3, 1945, that reads, "A report has just been received that your son was wounded in action against the enemy on 8 March 1945 at Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands." No other details about his condition were available.

And another worn piece of paper, a dispatch from Iwo Jima written by Sgt. Dick Dashiell, a Marine Corp Combat Correspondent, details how LeCroix, then a 21-year-old corporal, had been credited as being "the first Third Marine Division Leatherneck to capture a prisoner on this island."

There is a photo of LaCroix sitting on a rock with a smile.

Looking back, LaCroix said the one thing that stands out from all that he experienced, after being part of all the beach landings, battles and seeing some of the most fierce action World War II dealt, is that he managed to live through it.

"I survived all the battles," he said. "It's a miracle. I was lucky."

Today, LaCroix said that despite everything he experienced fighting the Japanese in World War II, he doesn't hold grudges against the Japanese. There is respect in his voice.

"I bear no ill will against the Japanese now and haven't for a long time," he said.

LaCroix returned to the states, re-enrolled at Middlebury College and then earned a master's degree at Wayne University in Detroit.

He spent 30 years working for a family-owned company that dealt in iron and steel. During those years, he bought a vacation home in Sandgate where vacations and holidays were spent. He owns the home to this day, but when he retired in 1985 at the age of 62, he moved back to Vermont and bought the house he still lives in on Route 313 in West Arlington.

He married Jean Griswold, his high school sweetheart from Bennington in 1947. They would be married for 69 years until her death in March 2016.

He pulls a photo from its perch and studies it. It's an image of the pair of them taken when he returned. She's in a pretty dress and he's wearing his Marine uniform. Two fresh-faced kids with their life ahead of them. He holds it and stares at it like it was yesterday before setting it back on the shelf.


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