by Jim Boyle
If you called Wesley H. Claire a hero for his efforts on the island of Iwo Jima in World War II, the Otsego man of 35-plus years would have called you a liar back when he was alive.
The heroes were the men whose faces he saw in his nightmares, the hellish dreams where he would fight with his blankets that became a parachute that wouldn’t open for this former paratrooper and sharpshooter.
“I can still see all of their faces, just like it was yesterday,” he said in 2002. “The real heroes of Iwo Jima did not come home. I know who they really are. I knew them.”
He carried one of two flags that were ceremoniously erected on the top of Mount Suribachi, according to Robert Allen, the author of “The First Battallion of the 28th Marines on Iwo Jima.”
And when controversy swooned over the images taken at the top of Surabachi, he knew what had happened. He could even point to where he was standing guard just outside the frame of the famous picture that was snapped as the smaller of the two flags went up.
Claire’s skills had put him on the front lines of the United States Marine Corps’ deadliest battle to date.
It is only in death, however, that these war stories of Wesley have began to widely circulate. Like a lot of the surviving soldiers, Claire made his way home after the war and shut his mouth.
He found work in auto body shops and on the railroad. He also went on the rodeo circuit and even owned his own airplane. He never hunted, though, and the sum of his fishing was a fish that he caught and placed in a fish tank.
He settled down with Elaine, his partner of more than 50 years and they raised a family of three.
He also cared for horses — his own and others, and he rescued animals. One of his horses, he named Pima Joe after his Indian friend Ira Hayes, who became the subject of a Johnny Cash ballad.
Over the years members of his family were able to glean bits of information from him. The only others who could draw out stories from his troubled mind were fellow Marines he encountered.
Marie Chandler, one of Claire’s three children and two daughters, eventually pieced together enough of the glass-like shards of memories to paint a picture of her father’s experiences. “I realized I knew these stories (that were being broadcast on documentaries),” she said.
Chandler and her sister, Rita Poff, sat down with the Star News recently to share what she learned and put together in a treasured scrapbook.
“He was important to us, and he was important to every citizen in the United States,” Chandler said. “They just don’t know it.”
Chandler tried to connect her father with Marshall Harris, a fellow survivor of Iwo Jima who lived but a few miles from him in Otsego. Claire became aware of Harris and his talks on Iwo. As fate would have it, they never formally met.
Efforts to connect the comrades in arms fell short, as Claire became ill. was placed in a nursing home and died at the age of 89 on Dec. 2. Harris did, however, provide some perspective at Claire’s funeral on Dec. 9 at Dare’s Funeral Home in Elk River. “I tried to say what Wes maybe would have said,” Harris said.
He read from a text that he has prepared and read for a number of audiences while speaking about the hellish battles for Iwo Jima. Included in that text is a commentary on the flag-raising.
He said: “Ship whistles sounded all around the island, thousands cheered with joy, but at battle’s end thousands of Marines lie in body bags sealed in shiny pine boxes waiting for temporary burial before being brought home after the war.
“They were the real heroes of Iwo Jima. They all cheered when the flag went up, but never to see another American flag.
“They would not know that their supreme sacrifice shortened the war and they would not know that their contribution in taking Iwo Jima cleared the skies of enemy aircraft so that the Enola Gay and the Boxcar, the two B29s that dropped the two nuclear bombs, successfully ended the war.
“They would not know that invading Japan with millions of our military would not now be necessary.
“They would never know that they fought to their death securing an island that was the last step in bringing about a surrender.
“But, ladies and gentlemen, we know. Yes, we know what they did for our nation, for the preservation of America’s heritage, our freedoms.”
For guys like Claire and Harris, they would battle for decades the dreadful memories of how that was done.
On the first day of the battle alone, Marines suffered 2,420 casualties, including more than 500 men killed. Before the campaign was over, 13 of the 24 battalion commanders fell, while 15 doctors were killed along with 195 Navy corpsmen who were medics on the battlefields. In all, there were 28,000 Marines and soldiers — American and Japanese — killed and another 16,000 wounded.
Pearl Harbor triggered Wesley Claire’s action
Fueled by the events of Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, Pfc. Wesley H. Claire of St. James was one of thousands of Americans who rushed to the aid of their beloved America. They were ready to sacrifice their lives if necessary, to preserve the freedom of our country.
Claire completed boot camp at San Diego, Calif. He left boot camp with his sharpshooter. Following boot camp, it was on to Camp Gillespie to parachute school, where he earned his paratrooper wings and left with the rank of private first class.
From there, it was on to Camp Elliot with the Marine paratroopers.
Being a paratrooper was the closest assignment he could get to his love of aviation, Claire reasoned.
Iwo Jima would become Claire’s fourth island battle. This light machine gunner and parachutist would make dangerous jumps to reach vulnerable points.
The first was Guadalcanal, where he was assigned jungle patrol. Their mission was to protect the Seabees who were falling victim to enemy sniper attacks while building an airstrip there.
Vella Le Vella followed Guadalcanal and also was a combat zone. With military hammocks for sleep, they were ordered to dig a foxhole to put them in for their own safety. One of the duties of the paratroopers on this tour was to unload 55-gallon barrels of aviation fuel.
Battle hardened by this time, they were easily bored with such mundane tasks and were relieved of such duties when they started “dropping” the barrels over the side instead.
Next it was on to Bougainville for even heavier combat. This is where Claire had his first aid pack shot right off him, back pocket and all. At one point comrades on both sides of him were killed as he remained pinned down by enemy fire. He succeeded in penetrating 1,200 yards behind enemy lines and remained there for several days with only the rations he had on him. This battle earned them the Presidential Unit Citation.
They returned to Guadalcanal following the Bougainville run.
The next “leg” was stateside. The paratroopers returned to Camp Pendleton where the paratroopers, along with the Marine Raiders, were formally disbanded in order to form the Marine Corps 5th Division.
The expertise and combat experience of these two special forces were vital to the new 5th Division and the impending missions.
Claire arrived next in Camp Tarawa, Hawaii and as part of the 28th Marines, they trained extensively on the tropical beaches for their next mission. Their ultimate destination remained unknown to them.
It was only after Claire’s ship set sail for the island of Iwo Jima that they were told. They were served steak and eggs on Feb. 19, 1945, before going ashore.
Here’s Claire’s account, according to Chandler after she interviewed him.
“Wes stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima as part of the 1st Battalion of the 28th Marines B Co. under the leadership of Lt. Frank Wright.
“The flag wavers,” he smiles as he refers to his outfit. Aboard the amphibious tank that would carry him to the shore, he was handed a leather case and told that it was to go to Col. Johnson and that he would be met on the beach.
“Just like he was told, his name was being called as he waded in and he turned the case over. Its contents: an American flag.
“A rifleman and sometimes runner, it was “up close and personal” and mostly up front. Men and leaders died around him, and others succumbed to battle fatigue through no fault of their own. With no formal training, he found himself in the position of squad leader of what was left of his group.
“So many had died that at one point they sent him an airplane mechanic to take charge just because he was a sergeant.
“The reluctant airplane mechanic explained to him that he hadn’t fired a weapon since boot camp and left, leaving Wes in charge again.
“At the end of the battle on the last hill, they sent up a bugler to replace him and he, along with Les Adams, was sent down to the command post hospital tent for rest from battle fatigue.
“The two sat there only a couple of hours and rejoined their comrades for the final battle for control of Iwo Jima. After two weeks of leading his men to the final hours of the battle, being replaced by the bugler was something that was not well taken.
“For his actions on Iwo Jima, Wes was recommended for the Bronze Star. Like many on Iwo Jima, this medal was never awarded.
“On March 26, after a visit and a service at the 5th Division Cemetery, Wes boarded the U.S.S. Zeilin bound for Camp Tarawa in Hawaii. This battle also earned them the Presidential Unit Citation.
“Back in Hawaii, the 28th Marines trained for the attack on the Japanese mainland. “My mission for that was to take out a power plant. We were told to expect a 90 percent casualty rate.
“That meant that only 10 percent of us would ever return.”
Before this would take place, America received Japan’s surrender. Though the war was “over,” Wes along with his fellow Marines boarded ship and landed in Japan as occupying forces. They went ashore armed and ready, as they didn’t know how they’d be received by the Japanese people. Though they saw kamikaze boats with charges still attached and the like, the Japanese people treated them well.
Claire did not harbor ill feelings toward the Japanese soldiers he fought against. He recognized they, too, were doing the job asked of them.
He even admired some of their soldiers, including a combat pilot who flew many missions with one of his eyes shot out.
He learned of the soldiers watching television documentaries. Chandler shared her curiosity with her father and over time he helped fill in the blanks of what she didn’t know. Eventually, she realized that she could find some of the American comrades he fought alongside.
One of these was Pfc. Lee H. Zuck. She contacted him, asking for a Lt. Zuck. He promptly corrected her to say “Pfc. Zuck,” and she turned the phone over to her father.
“It was first time I saw him cry,” Chandler said. “I think it was the emotion of the war coming back to him and the relief that his buddy was alive.”
The last time he had seen his comrade he had been dragged to shore so he could get placed on a hospital ship. He had been shot in the back and was hanging on the back of a tank being dragged to a window of safety.
Harris waited 65 years to talk
It took Harris 65 years before he would openly share his experiences in the battle of Iwo Jima. He says he has tried to analyze why he and others didn’t talk about it, and he’s reached a few conclusions. For starters, it didn’t make good conversation, Harris said.
“We conducted ourselves in a manner (during the war) that was out of the norm for rational human behavior,” he said.
But Harris says there were many reasons.
“Anything we said might sound self-serving or braggadocious,” he said.
That was certainly one of Claire’s concerns. That he carried the American flag from the LST No. 1033 didn’t matter. That he was recommended for a Bronze Star for actions during combat at Iwo Jima didn’t matter. That he had battle scars didn’t matter. Nor did the fact that most of his acts of heroism went unrecognized.
“He never wanted to partake in anything that would place him above the men that didn’t come home,” Chandler said.
To talk about those things when his memories included seeing men vaporized, having to perform mop-up duties and being splattered with remains would not have been right. One of the violent mortar blasts broke his eardrum.
“If you want to hear it, I can tell you but you won’t be able to print it,” he told one television newscaster. “Why does anybody want to know, anyway?”
Harris, who described himself at the funeral as a comrade in arms, told the Star News that when soldiers from World War II came home they started families, went to work and buried much of their past. He said they joined American Legions and V.F.W. posts, but not chambers and civic clubs.
“We didn’t think we belonged,” Harris said.
Eventually, Harris had a change of heart. But it took 65 years for it to happen. He began speaking at all types of veterans programs, from Memorial Day to Flag Day and Veterans Day, and he even included some of his own experiences.
“I found people want to know it from someone who was there,” he said.
Chandler says to not know history is to be doomed to repeat it.
“Freedom isn’t free,” Chandler said. “People sacrificed their lives.”
Claire knew this all too well.
“It wasn’t about the flag for him,” Chandler said. “It was about Pearl Harbor.”