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Veterans Home resident George Vandersluis recalls the years he served his country

George Vandersluis cracks a smile in his room at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings. Star Gazette photo by Chad Richardson

I am here to tell you a story about a man. A very special man.

His name is George Vandersluis.

When George was a very young man he was walking down a street in Minneapolis with a good buddy of his when they came upon a Marine recruiting station. They decided on the spot to join up. This was early in 1940. The Marines accepted George, but his good friend Winston Fisher was told to go home and gain twenty pounds, then return.

George went on to boot camp and from there was eventually assigned to a ship named the U.S.S. Honolulu, a light cruiser. By now, his good friend Winston was in the army.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Honolulu was berthed beside a dry dock at a place in the Pacific Ocean called Pearl Harbor. It was 8 a.m. and George had a date that day. However, he had color guard duty and was raising our flag when the first bombs started to drop. He recounted to me how the order was given not to fire back in the first few minutes. He told me how he could actually see the pilots in their cockpits as they flew low over the water on their torpedo runs.

As he put it, he remembered the "big red meatballs" painted on the underside of their wings. It was total mass confusion. He saw the battle wagons getting hit. They were anchored right across from him.There was the Nevada, the Oklahoma, and he saw the Arizona taking a direct hit from a bomb right down her stack. His own ship took a bomb forward and she started taking on water. We lost the bulk of our Pacific fleet that day, the day of infamy. The only thing that saved us from a possible withdrawal to the mainland was the fact that our carriers were all out to sea.We still had a fighting force in the Pacific.

From there George ended up in an infantry. He was assigned to the 10th Amphibious Battalion. Their first target was Saipan.

He was in the first wave to hit the beach. Their objective was to take out the airfield. When I asked him how he felt about being the first to go in, he said that looking back on it now he was probably better off; the second and third waves had to worry about shooting their own men. The first wave shot at anything that moved, he said.

As the island came closer to being overrun, the civilian population started committing mass suicide. They started jumping off the cliffs at the end of the isle. The Navy tried saving them but the props on their boats were getting clogged from the hundreds of bodies in the water. Japanese propaganda had made them terrified of the Americans. Parents would throw their own children off the cliffs and follow them soon after.

After Saipan, George went directly to Tainan where he again landed in the first wave. By now he was a platoon sergeant.

After heavy fighting they secured the island. Some two years later, this island's airfield, which took the lives of so many young Marines, was the staging point for a B29 called the Enola Gay. This was the aircraft which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

However, there were battles to be fought and thousands of Marines dead before this happened.

George's next destination was a tiny little atoll named Iwo Jima. Again he was in the first wave, but this time they let the Marines come in. They waited until the Marines had established a foot hold on the island with thousands of men before they showed themselves.

The Japanese were dug in. The place had been bombarded by sea and air for 30 days. It was a battle that saw no quarter given by either side, it was kill or be killed. It was combat in its most brutal form. This was where George and two of his men were heading toward the beach when his buddy who was in front of him stepped on a land mine. The blast blew his leg off and the man behind George was hit in the face. He was blinded. George somehow escaped injury. He got the injured men to an aid station where he asked the doctor to please save his buddy's other leg.

The doctor came out of the tent shortly after and told him he couldn't, and that the leg had to come off.

The Marines finally cut the Island in two. George was in his foxhole when he heard the yelling and screaming coming from the marines. He looked up onto Surubachi and witnessed the American flag being raised.

History tells us the rest.

After the battle, his platoon was pulled out for rest and relaxation.

The next destination was the greatest killing field of them all: Okinawa. But his platoon was too chewed up, they had lost too many men. They had to rest and regroup.

They would be used as the first wave to hit the main islands of Japan.They knew this. It would be unbelievable.

It was during this time when George got word that his buddy Winston Fisher had been killed some time before on D- Day.

They were in Hawaii readying for the final assault on Japan when word arrived about the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, then a little while later on Nagasaki.

They were elated. These are not the men to ask about Truman's decision to use the bomb.

George Vandersluis now resides at the Hastings Veterans Home.

He is the home's oldest resident at 94. He is a humble man and he takes life as it comes with few complaints. He is honored by the men here.

He has left a legacy that few men can equal. Our children walk the streets of America as free men and women because of men like these.

When Winston Churchill was informed of the battles raging in the pacific he said:

"Let the tales long be told in The Great Republic."

This is one of them.

Dan Condon lives at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings with George Vandersluis.

This story was first published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press in May 2010.