ARLINGTON — There aren’t many men still around who can offer a first-hand account of what it was like to see the American flag raised at Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. On Saturday, the world said goodbye to one of the remaining few.
Gedeon A. Lacroix, 99, passed away at his West Arlington home this Saturday. Born and raised in Bennington, the Vermont native survived some of the bloodiest battles of World War II in the Pacific Theater.
LaCroix was a freshman at the University of Vermont when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. It was only a month later that he and his friend Bill Kearns, a freshman at St. Lawrence himself, hitchhiked their way to a recruiter’s office in Pittsfield, Mass. to join the Marine Corps.
What followed for LaCroix was over three years of service in the Pacific, first as an infantryman and then working in intelligence. As the U.S. island-hopped its way close enough to the Japanese mainland to drop the atomic bombs that would end the war, LaCroix saw some of the most important stops along the way, including Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Saipan, Tinian and Guam.
“Those battles were really some of the most vicious fighting of the war,” said close friend Don Keelan, a Marine veteran and Arlington resident like LaCroix.
One of the last crucial battles that would spell the end for Imperial Japan was for the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima, about 760 miles southeast of Tokyo. Its massive strategic importance meant that Japanese resistance was fierce. It took the Marines 36 days to control the entire island, costing 7,000 American lives and almost three times as many wounded.
LaCroix was among the first to land in the hellish scene. In a 2018 interview with the Manchester Journal, he estimated that his foxhole was only about 50 yards away from the iconic raising of the American flag at Mount Suribachi just four days after the battle began. He witnessed the first flag being raised, as well as the larger flag from Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.
“I told my buddy in the foxhole, ‘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 in the 2018 interview.
LaCroix, unfortunately, was correct. Due to the heavy casualties in the fighting to come, LaCroix received a battlefield promotion from private first class to corporal and became chief of his intelligence section. He also received a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds he sustained in his arm, despite never leaving the fight.
After all of the horrific things LaCroix witnessed on Iwo Jima and elsewhere, you would never know it from his demeanor, according to Keelan.
“He came back, and you never saw any reaction to what he had done, at least I didn’t,” Keelan said. “I think he was fortunate to have avoided (PTSD).”
“He was very humble,” Keelan continued. “But if you wanted to talk about what went on in the Pacific, he very willingly engaged and talked about what it was he experienced, and in great detail.”
LaCroix was a proud Marine in his 78 years after the war, and stayed involved in the veteran community. LaCroix ran the Marine Corps Birthday Luncheon in Manchester for years before he passed it on to Keelan.
“He epitomized what Tom Brokaw once said about ‘the greatest generation,’” Keelan said. “Gedeon set the bar quite high on loyalty to his country, and to the Corps, and what he would do for them.”