Larry St. Clair: 'I was there'

Updated: May 19

Emmet County man recalls his WWII mission on the island of Iwo Jima



Lawrence “Larry” St. Clair may be legally blind at 98 years old, but there is nothing wrong with his hearing. Having a strong sense of hearing at an early age is one of the factors that determined Larry’s direction in the military, and ultimately led to him serving in World War II on the island of Iwo Jima.


“I was in the Army, but they assigned me to the Air Force communications because my hearing was so good,” Larry said from his home in northern Emmet County.


Once he was in combat, he was working alongside Marines, he said laughing, remembering how mashed up the various arms of the Armed Forces were in the heat of battle.


Larry served in the Army for two years, 10 months and a couple of days, as a “Radioman,” he said. During that time he saw many scenes that stick with him; some beautiful scenery in Hawaii; some incredible destruction on Iwo Jima; and some terribly disturbing results of battle bombardment and endless shootings.


One memory that is permanently imprinted on Larry is what happened to him and other foxhole soldiers while serving on Iwo Jima.


“We would serve four hours on duty (listening to radio transmissions and sending Morse code messages) and four hours off,” Larry said.


When he and his comrades were off duty, they lived in foxholes to avoid debris from constant aerial bombardments. When they went to sleep, they would put their food rations under their feet. One morning when he woke up, he discovered that his food rations were missing. Japanese soldiers had snuck up to his foxhole and stolen his food.


“I was so grateful that they didn’t slit my throat,” Larry said. “That was the best thievery I ever had. I’d go hungry as long they left me alone.”

Mount Surabuchi
Aerial view of Mount Surabuchi on the Island of Iwo Jima, Japan. (Wikipedia)

Iwo Jima is a small island south of the Bonin Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Often described as being shaped like a pork chop, the island is mostly lowlands covered in lush, tropical forests, except for the southwestern end. On that section of the island is a dormant volcano that stands 554 feet tall. Mt. Suribachi would forever be known for the iconic photograph of U.S. Marines planting the American flag at the top of the mountain to mark the capture of the mountaintop from the Japanese during WWII.


The battle of Iwo Jima was from February 19 to March 26, 1945, five weeks of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the Pacific war. The U.S. military sought to capture the island because of the two airfields on it. The island was located strategically so that U.S. air forces could refuel on it after dropping their payloads on Japan, then return to their aircraft carriers further out in the ocean. Or as Larry describes, the military would use the island’s airfields “to salvage B29s from Guam to Tokyo, and to fuel up on their way back.”


The U.S. Marine Corps and Navy ultimately captured the island from the Imperial Japanese Army in “Operation Detachment,” a battle that had U.S. ground forces supported by naval artillery and complete air supremacy by U.S. Navy and Marine Corp aviators.


Before the 36-day battle was over, Iwo Jima resulted in three times more Japanese combat deaths than American deaths. The Japanese army lost 21,000 soldiers, with 216 taken prisoner. American troops suffered 27,071 injuries, and 6,821 deaths. For three months after the battle ended, nearly 3,000 Japanese soldiers resisted capture by hiding out in the underground tunnels they had dug before the battle began. Fifteen U.S. soldiers were killed and 144 wounded by these remaining Japanese resisters.


Larry St. Clair went down into one of the tunnels after the island was claimed by the U.S. He remembers how dark it was below ground.


“It scared the hell out of you,” Larry said. “It was wide enough to walk through, but you couldn’t stand up.”


There were three separate rooms in the tunnel he was in, and there was a well for water. Most of the tunnels were lined with boxes of supplies, he learned from other troops who had to flush out the resisters.


Larry arrived at Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, but didn’t go ashore for 10 days after the battle began.


“We got real lucky,” he said, “The flag ship sent a message to go on shore, but the radio operator didn’t get the message (right away).” Larry and the others on his ship were still waiting to go ashore until March 1 when they were ordered to go to the island.


Battle of Iwo Jima
37mm gun fires against cave positions in north face of volcano in support of RCT 28. These light but extremely accurate weapons did some of their best work in the southern part of the island. (Wikipedia)

But luck seemed to be on Larry’s side long before then. After his basic training in Kansas City, Missouri, he was sent to radio school in Japan, Missouri, in southwest Franklin County. From there, he was sent to an Air Force base in Tampa, Florida, and was assigned to the Air Force Communications (radio) to learn Morse code transmissions and receiving.


“I had to pass a test of being able to type 20 words a minute,” Larry recalls. “When we got into combat, did we ever work.”


From Florida, he was sent to Pearl Harbor. He arrived there after the December 7th attack and said the harbor had been all cleaned up and there were few signs of the destruction caused by the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Coincidentally, Dec. 7 is Larry’s birthday. He was born Dec. 7, 1922, in Holland, Michigan.


“Pearl Harbor was a beautiful area with lots of gardens and flowers,” Larry said.


While in Hawaii, Larry was in a staging area in a large Navy camp. He knew no one in the barracks he was in. He wrote to his mother back in Michigan. She wrote back to him that his cousin was in the barracks directly next to his barracks.


“We’d been eating in the same mess hall, going to see movies, all the while not knowing that each other was there,” Larry said. All the men wore fatigues, had their heads shaved, everyone looked alike, he said.


Until he shipped out, Larry sat in a booth with three other guys from the Navy all sending messages to someone else; either to ships or airplanes.


“We were there to do a job, to send communications in Morse code to someone else on a ship or an airplane,” Larry said. There wasn’t much time to get to know one another.


The job of a “radioman” was to send five-letter code groups that went through machines to a decoder who would read them. Even the radioman sending the messages didn’t know what they meant, Larry said.


“They were important messages and we ran messages 24 hours a day,” Larry said. “We didn’t know what they were sending, though.”


Larry and the other radiomen worked in four-hour shifts – four hours on the radio, four hours off – around the clock, in an effort to jam the radio waves and prevent the Japanese from sending their own messages.


“There was no time to sleep, write letters, or anything like that,” Larry said. He had to eat, do his laundry, crowd it all in and then get back to his next four-hour shift on the radio.


One time when Larry was working on the radio, a Japanese radioman was jamming Larry’s circuits. The radioman next to him listened to the transmissions, then asked Larry to move over and let him on Larry’s circuit. The other radioman communicated with the Japanese radio operator for about two to three minutes, then the Japanese radioman cleared off the circuit. Larry was astonished. It turned out that the other radioman and the Japanese operator had been HAM radio communicators before the war. They knew each other and recognized each other’s transmissions.


“Morse code is just like a voice,” Larry said. “No two voices are the same, and neither are Morse code communications.” Every person has their own style, timing, etc.

Luck showed up again for Larry when he was leaving Pearl Harbor in a convoy of ships headed for the south Pacific. The ship he was on lost a propeller and had to turn back to Hawaii for repairs. Larry and the other servicemen were loaded onto another ship and headed back out to the island of Iwo Jima. All day they passed ammunition ships. There was an escort ship in front of the ship he was on. It was a calm, sunny day. Larry was on the deck and watched the escort turn around and go full steam around their ship. That’s when Larry saw bubbles going by from below the water surface. It was a torpedo. The escort ship dropped depth charges and “took care of the problem,” Larry said. Once that scare was over, he said, they continued on their journey.


The ship he was on stopped in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and then on to the island of Tinian, before it joined the convoy and went north to invade the island of Iwo Jima.


Once his ship received the message to “go ashore,” he went over the side of the transport ship, climbed down a rope ladder, and got into a landing craft that took them to shore. The commander on shore sent a message that the front line was one-third to one-half the length of the island from Mt. Suribachi.


“I was not a combat vet,” Larry said, “but I was within 100 yards of the front line.”


Larry saw such destruction, so many dead soldiers, he will never forget it. The constant bombardments turned the lush green island into a “pile of dirt,” he said. At one point, two large trucks loaded with Japanese Prisoners of War (POWs) drove by him. A line of Marine soldiers were headed back from the front line for rest. They were sleep-walking, holding onto the shoulder of the Marine in front of them.


“Shells went over my head many times,” Larry said.


He and the other soldiers dug their own foxholes to get below ground level. Debris flew all over them, Larry said.


“Our job was to run a radio,” he said. A large bomb crater was used as the radio center, with a radio put down in it. “When you weren’t working, you were in a hole in the ground. Home was a hole in the ground.”

The volcanic ash-like sand around the island’s rugged shoreline made it extremely difficult for landing crafts and military vehicles to climb the black sand dunes. The initial waves of the invasion saw many casualties due to the challenges presented by the natural landscape. Climbing the volcanic ash sand was like two steps forward, one step back, Larry said. There was a beautiful beach on one part of the island, he said. On the beach was a concrete bunker the Japanese had built. The bunker was shaped like a pill box with one little slit in it where guns could be aimed at anyone coming up the beach.


Larry remembers being on a ship offshore the day the Marines planted the American flag at the top of Mt. Suribachi.


“The noise that came off that island was huge,” Larry remembers. “The roar was bigger than the noise at the Big House at University of Michigan’s football stadium.”

Having the American flag flying from the top of the mountain was a huge morale booster to the troops, Larry said. While the battle was won by the U.S. Navy and Marines, 3,000 Japanese soldiers living in the underground tunnels were determined to never give up. The war was not over on Iwo Jima.


One morning when he got off watch, Larry wanted to go see the flag on the mountain. When relief came to take over his radio duties, Larry borrowed a Jeep and drove up a road the Seabees had built that led to the flag. He was within 15-20 feet of the flag when he turned off the engine. That’s when he heard footsteps behind him.


“I stepped on the gas and got out of there without looking back,” Larry said.

One night when he got off guard duty, he and another off-duty soldier walked down past an ammunition dump with a berm that had been built below them. They walked along a path that went past a brush pile. Larry heard a distinctive “click” of a firearm being cocked, being prepared to be fired. Larry hesitated for a split second. The soldier with him put his hand on Larry’s shoulder, as if to say, “Just keep walking.” They kept walking without any harm to them. No shot was fired.


Another night, Larry and his buddy, Kenny Irwin, who was from Wisconsin, were in a foxhole when a flare shot over the ammunition dump caught fire on the other side of a berm. The two of them ran for their lives as debris and metal rained down on them. They made a mad dash for a truck and shimmied under it for protection. Ammunition was bouncing off the truck all night, with the two of them underneath it. In the morning, when they crawled out from under the truck, they saw that the truck was heavily damaged, and the windshield was gone. Just then, a stray ammunition exploded nearby. The concussion was so great that his buddy, Kenny, flew on top of Larry, knocking them both to the ground. When they came to, Larry said, “Get off me!” They were grateful to be alive.


There were cemeteries on Iwo Jima for all those 21,000 Japanese soldiers who died in combat, as well as the 6,800 U.S. soldiers. Bulldozers dug trenches where the bodies were layered, he remembers. Soil would be pushed on top of the bodies, then another layer of bodies would be laid in the trench, topped by more soil. The only marker would be for the last body that was on top. It was an awful sight, he said.


Not all of his memories of the war were scary or ugly. He tells of how there was no fresh water on the island. The water they had for bathing was sulfur water. The military had brought in nurses to help with the casualties. A fence was built around the nurses’ tents. When the monsoon season hit, the rain brought the first bit of fresh water the men had experienced in months. All the men ran outside to get a fresh shower, stripping off their clothing. Larry muses that those nurses must have seen quite a sight.


There was a horseshoe ridge where they saw movies at night. When the lights were off except for the projector, he would look out into the hillside and see the reflection from the glasses of the Japanese soldiers who were watching the movies from a safe distance.


One time Larry watched two Japanese bombers flying over the island. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors to “drop their eggs,” as he called it. Several ships fired at the bombers. All of a sudden the two planes dropped out of the sky into the ocean. The next day each ship had taken credit for their part in defending the island by painting two planes on their guns.


Each month, the military would give each serviceman two cans of beer. Larry was never much of a drinker, so he would give his cans to other men. Temperatures on the island of Iwo Jima were warm to hot. There was no way to cool the beer down to a drinkable temperature. The men devised a way, though. They loaded all the beer into a plane to “go upstairs,” where the pilot would fly at a high altitude until the beer got cold. And that’s how to cool off beer in the tropics during a war.


While he wasn’t trained for combat, Larry received the Bronze Medal Star for serving in battle. He stayed on Iwo Jima until the war ended, he said. A ship took him from Iwo Jima to Guam, where he got on another ship that took him to California. He boarded a train and rode it across the country to his home in Flint, where his wife, Wilma, “Willie,” was waiting for him. He arrived home the day after Thanksgiving, 1946.


Larry grew up in Holland, Michigan. When he was 13 years old, his family moved to Flint. He graduated from high school in 1941. Six months later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Larry was drafted into the Army. “I went from high school to the Army,” Larry said.


Larry and Willie met while roller skating. Her family was from Sturgis, and had moved to Flint so her father could work in the auto plants. They got married June 19, 1943 in Flint, before Larry went off to war.


Larry and Willie St. Clair

After the war, Larry went to work for Buick. He and Willie had five children; two daughters, Sandy and Shari; three sons: Keith, who served in Viet Nam; Terry, who has passed away; and Mark. Larry and Willie lived in the same house in Flint for 68 years. Eventually, Larry went to work for Goodwill Industries as the Sales Director helping to run their 10 small resale stores. By the time he left the organization 15 years later, he was in charge of five (5) stores that were each the size of a supermarket, he said.


While in Flint, Larry was elected as a commissioner for the region, representing the water department. There were state conventions that he would attend. Over the years, Larry traveled to all but six states in the United States. The national convention was held in Washington, D.C., where Larry saw the statue of the flag being planted on Mt. Suribachi. He’s proud to have been in the Senate chambers; up in the arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and many other historic and well-known landmarks.


Willie was a charming lady, Larry said. Retirement brought them to northern Michigan where two of their children live. He jokes that he got all of his children out of Flint before him, as he saw their neighborhood decline over the many years they lived there. They were married 72 years before Willie passed away March 8, 2016, at the age of 92.


Today, with his eyesight failing, Larry relies on his daughter, Shari Averill, and son, Mark, for cooking and cleaning, but he still lives alone in the home he and Willie moved to before she passed away.


His children gave him a baseball cap with the shape of Iwo Jima stitched on it. An airplane is flying over the island with the words “Sun Setters” on the wings. A ribbon is pinned to the cap indicating that he served in the Pacific. A small bronze star is in the middle of the ribbon, recognizing the Bronze Star medal he received for his service.


Larry is modest about his contributions to the war effort.


“An army is a lot of men,” Larry said. “Only a few do the fighting. The rest do the cooking, transportation, communications, ordering supplies, carpenters are needed, everything else is done by other men.”


 


Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima is an iconic photograph of six United States Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the final stages of the Pacific War. The photograph, taken by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press on February 23, 1945, was first published in Sunday newspapers two days later and reprinted in thousands of publications. It was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and was later used for the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1954, which was dedicated to honor all Marines who died in service since 1775. The memorial, sculpted by Felix de Weldon, is located in Arlington Ridge Park, near the Ord-Weitzel Gate to Arlington National Cemetery and the Netherlands Carillon. The photograph has come to be regarded in the United States as one of the most significant and recognizable images of World War II.


The flag raising occurred in the early afternoon, after the mountaintop was captured and a smaller flag was raised on top that morning. Three of the six Marines in the photograph—Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley—were killed in action during the battle; Block was identified as Sergeant Hank Hansen until January 1947 and Sousley was identified as PhM2c. John Bradley, USN, until June 2016. The other three Marines in the photograph were Corporals (then Privates First Class) Ira Hayes, Harold Schultz, and Harold Keller; Schultz was identified as Sousley until June 2016[2] and Keller was identified as Rene Gagnon until October 2019, All of the men served in the 5th Marine Division on Iwo Jima. The Associated Press has relinquished its copyright to the photograph, placing it in the public domain. (Wikipedia)


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