Super Senior: Gedeon LaCroix

Published: Feb. 13, 2020 at 3:38 PM EST
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Gedeon LaCroix's World War II battles are seared into his memory.

"I saw people die right in front of me and just hoped I wouldn't be next," he said.

His photo album, with its faded pages, gives proof that it was long ago. But for the 96-year-old, the horrors of war remain.

"That speaks for itself," he said.

A New York Times photo shows an exhausted Gedeon who had seen battle on the Pacific island of Bougainville fighting the Japanese. The native of Bennington had just turned 20. It was a mission through the jungle and knee-deep mud to defeat the enemy.

"It was a terrible place. I didn't take my boots off for at least a month; I had jungle rot," Gedeon recalled. "You learn to dig holes to protect yourself."

Gedeon was part of the 3rd Marine Division. Their undertaking was to take islands away from the Japanese, eventually getting closer to their homeland. About a year after Bougainville, the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima was on the Americans' radar.

"Now, that small island was only four-miles long and two-miles wide, at its widest point," Gedeon said.

Just 760 miles away from Tokyo, the allies wanted it for landing bombers. The Japanese had already built two runways and were building a third. U.S. battleships pounded the island to try to soften up their defenses but the Japanese had built an extensive tunnel system for protection. Patiently, they waited for the Americans to come ashore.

The trenches that Gedeon had built for protection on previous battles were useless in the volcanic ash on Iwo Jima.

"Can you imagine digging a hole in that?" he asked.

Everywhere Gedeon looked, men were dying.

"I couldn't believe one time, he was just over here and he one minute and the next minute he was gone and I didn't even know it," he said.

The bodies became shields.

"Sometimes when the shells are falling, you stack them up... " he said.

Gedeon didn't speak of his experiences for decades.

Fellow Marine Don Keelan has written extensively on that battle.

"What I take away from the whole World War II and particularly Iwo Jima is that we never have to relive it again," Don said.

Gedeon witnessed the raising of the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi, perhaps the most iconic photo taken from the war, just four days into the fight.

"And I said the picture of that flag raising is back in the states; they'll have the battle won and we haven't begun to fight," Gedeon said.

It took over a month for the Americans to take the island.

"It was the most costly battle, they, I... we were ever in. We lost over 7,000 men," Gedeon said. "I continue to thank the good Lord that he spared me to live a good life."

A survivor and a story that he hopes will never be forgotten or repeated.