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A Marine’s life on Ulithi Atoll—WWII in the South Pacific

by David Fleet

October 09, 2013

The Marine motto "Semper Fi" adorns the cap of Don LaCross as the 85-year old Goodrich resident sorts through an aged scrapbook of a war on an isolated atoll in the South Pacific.

The scrapbook contains photos of shot down Japanese 'Zeros' (planes), South Pacific natives, and young Marines—many LaCross still knows by name.

"That's Father Norton," said LaCross, gesturing toward a black and white photo of a chaplain standing with group of white T-shirt clad Marines under a canopy of coconut trees.

"Norton was a tough boxer, he was from Notre Dame. Heck of a nice guy, but when he came in the room, men shut up."

The LaCross memorabilia collection includes Japanese yen and maps of flight patterns used by WWII American pilots printed in ink on silk fabric, the creases made by the airman that once used them.

"I know these routes, the tiny islands, too, they are just a pile of coral in the Pacific," said LaCross, tracing the lines on the map. "I also knew many of the pilots that flew there. Good men, all of them."

Like millons of young men growing up in the 1940s, LaCross volunteered for duty.

He was born in 1925, at St. Joseph's Hospital in Flint to Anna and Donia LaCross. One of four children, Don was of French descent and attended Flint's Longfellow High School until the family moved to Davison in 1941.

"I was attending Davison High School," he said. "I did not want to join the Army and with World War II raging, it was a real possibility. So I had been talking to the Marine recruiters and at 17 I quit high school and signed up. My mom and dad had to sign off on me, that was the rule then. Dad just came to the office and signed it, then left. He really did not say much, just walked out the door."

LaCross traveled by train to San Diego Marine Camp for training.

"I was trained to be an aerial gunner and sailed to the south Pacific on the USS Dashing Wave troop ship," he said. "We stopped in Hawaii on the way to the Ulithi Atoll in the South Pacific."

In late September 1944, LaCross and Marine Air Group 45 (MAG-45), of which he was a part of, were sent to the island of Ulithi Atoll, a staging area for the U.S. Navy's western Pacific operations.

The atoll, a ring-shaped coral reef including a coral rim that encircles a lagoon partially or completely, is in the westernmost area of the Caroline Islands, 360 miles southwest of Guam, 850 miles east of the Philippines and 1,300 miles south of Tokyo.

The Ulithi Atoll was 10 degrees north of the Equator.

The small atoll of Ulithi, was captured by the Americans unopposed and on Oct. 8 the 51st Naval Construction Battalion began to improve the abandoned Japanese airfield on Falalop creating a coral-surfaced 3,500 feet by 150 feet runway, six taxiways, hardstands, lighting, a traffic-control tower, operations buildings, tank farm and a seaplane ramp. The airfield was fully operational by Dec 1,1944.

Under the command of Colonel Frank June, around the island were as many as 500 ships at one time. The planes that landed were needed to protect the fleet. MAG-45 operated the airbase.

MAG-45 saw little of the enemy at Ulithi as its function was to help maintain the vital aerial guard duty.

"We called Ulithi 'the coconut farm,'" said LaCross, who served 14 months on Ulithi. "We did not have tents when we first went ashore, we just slept on the ground and rolled up in tarps. It rained every day and it was very hot near the Equator, much of the time you could only work at night due to the sun. The moon was very big in the horizon—it took up most of the night sky. Every time there was a storm and the waves would be high the place would flood—we were only about 4 feet above sea level."

Wild pigs were all over the place, he added.

"We shot them and ate pretty well," he said. "Fresh meat was pretty welcome.

"We never were under much of an attacked on Ulithi from the Japs," he said. "However, I remember the manned suicide submarines near our position on the shore."

According to news reports, on Nov. 20, 1944 the Ulithi harbor was attacked by Japanese Kaiten-manned torpedoes launched from nearby submarines. Two did make it into the lagoon, one of which sank the USS Mississinewa.

"I recall that event," he said. "The Japs were trying to sink some of our ships in the lagoons. There were just so many ships out there all coming in to refuel or getting repaired. The engineers making up the Seabees did one hell of a job working on all those ships out there. Navy ships would come in all shot up and they would fix the ships near the atoll."

According to news sources, in March 1945 there were more than 700 Navy ships at Ulithi. The amphibious forces staging at Ulithi were necessary for the invasion of Okinawa and possibly mainland Japan.

"The fact I could type made a big difference," he said. "So I spent a lot of time in a Quonset hut typing reports and letters for the brass that would come in from the ships. We also would get mail for all the guys in the South Pacific," he said. "Tons and tons would be flown in and dropped off there, then taken out to the ships anchored around the South Pacific."

LaCross made the rank of staff sergeant and was given the opportunity for leave.

"A good friend of mine from Flint—Dick Coats, an airman, was on Saipan, which was taken by the Marines in July 1944," he said. "So I got leave and flew up there. I remember I had to turn my sergeant strips 'down' so if the Japs saw me I would not be such a target. They (Japanese) would shoot officers first if they could."

LaCross encountered two Marine lieutenants when he arrived in Saipan.

"I did not take my rifle with me, but I did put my .38 caliber pistol in my backpack," he said. "These two lieutenants did not realize I was a sergeant and I was supposed to be armed. They told me to keep my head down, the Japs were still in the area."

The Ulithi Atoll was also the location of several high level military meetings.

"One day in August 1945 an old seaplane landed—I remember it because I'd never seen anything like that before," he said. "It was raining very hard that day and I was in a Jeep in front of one of the Quonset huts when I saw an admiral outside. I asked him if he needed a ride in my covered Jeep out of the rain—he said no, but thanks. I also asked if he wanted dry clothes. He also politely said no. A few days later I found out that was Admiral Nimitz, Commander of the Pacific Fleet. Just a day later the Untied States dropped the atomic bombs on Japan and the war ended. I'm only speculating, but I think the Navy 'brass' was together in a meeting to make plans to invade mainland Japan if they did not surrender."

After about 14 months on Ulithi, LaCross returned to the United States.

"We all wanted milk," laughed LaCross. "That's one of the things we missed in the service. We drank some after we landed in San Francisco. We went to San Diego, but I didn't get a train out to Michigan due to a strike by the railroad. After all I went through a labor strike kept me from coming home—it's kind of funny now."

After he returned home, he began LaCross Construction Co., in 1946. After more than 50 years of building, he retired in the early 1990s.

On July 24, 1948, Don LaCross married Mary (Miller). The couple just celebrated 65 years of marriage. They have five children, Linda, Randall, Patricia, John and Nanett.