Don Keelan: The 75th anniversary of the landing on Iwo Jima
In 1958, when I was a young Marine stationed in Washington, Tuesday afternoons were special for my Ceremonial Guard platoon. From May to September, we would be part of a ceremony at the Marine Corps Memorial (the former Iwo Jima Memorial). My role, if not to be part of the parade detail, was to walk the Measured Post in front of the memorial along with a fellow Marine.
Up until about 25 years ago, I was quite impressed with the assignment. Then I met a fellow Arlington resident and native of Bennington, Gedeon LaCroix.
Gedeon, who is 96 years old, left the University of Vermont in January 1942 and, along with his best friend Billy Kearns, a freshman at St. Lawrence University, hitchhiked to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and joined the Marines. The pair stayed together for basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, but soon were separated, only to be reunited in the summer of 1942, on a transport ship that took them to New Zealand.
Soon after, they were separated once again. Gedeon went on to participate in what were, at the time, some of fiercest engagements the Marines had ever seen — the battle for Guadalcanal and, a year later, invading the Japanese-held island of Bougainville. Gedeon thought he had seen the worst. Not quite.
On Feb. 19, 1945, Gedeon went over the side of his transport ship, the USS Wayne, onto a Higgins boat just off the beaches of Iwo Jima. He and his fellow boatmates thought they were going ashore, but instead circled the Wayne for 12 hours — there was pure chaos on the beaches.
The disembarkation was repeated the following day and Gedeon was finally on the beach, as part of a 70,000-Marine landing force. Two days after landing, while working his way inland, he looked up at a 500-foot-high ridge, Mount Suribachi, and saw a small American flag being raised. Shortly thereafter, he witnessed a much larger flag go up. He thought the battle for the island was over — how wrong he was.
It took 34 days to secure the island of Iwo Jima at a cost of approximately 7,000 American lives and almost three times as many wounded. Gedeon was not one them. He, along with his friend Billy Kearns (who saw action on the islands of Tarawa and Saipan), made it back to Bennington in the fall of 1945, and Gedeon enrolled at Middlebury College.
Seventy-five years after his experience on Iwo Jima, Gedeon still wakes up in the middle of the night. What occurred back then is still not far from him. And to this day, to listen to him talk about his experience, his recall is as if he were on the USS Wayne last month.
For decades, most of the survivors of Iwo Jima could recite by memory the names of the five Marines and one Navy Corpsman who were memorialized in Associated Press' photographer Joe Rosenthal's photo of the flag-raising. Just show Gedeon a photo of the flag-raising and he, too, would identify the six. But that, too, has changed, and Gedeon was not too pleased when he was told about it.
As recently as November 2019, a special appointed Marine Corps commission working closely with the FBI's forensics personnel finally positively identified the six flag raisers depicted in Joe Rosenthal's photo. Two of the original names were changed.
Even the photo itself raised a great deal of controversy until it was cleared up in 1955. It was then that Dorset war correspondent and author W.C. "Bill" Heinz interviewed Joe Rosenthal for an article in Collier's Magazine. According to Rosenthal, his famous photo was not a posed shot, but taken at random.
Rosenthal said it best in 1955 — he took the photo, but the Marines took Iwo Jima. When you are with Gedeon LaCroix and listen to his story, it is a most humbling experience.
Don Keelan writes a regular column for the Banner.
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