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World War II still bonds this band of brothers

For 64 years, the Laesch brothers from the east side of Detroit have gone about their lives with little fanfare. They worked hard, remained loyal to their wives and children, and retired where the weather is mild.

And in all that time, they never sat down together to discuss the single most defining experience of their lives.

So why now?

"We won't be around much longer,'' said Harold, 86.

"We're sewn together, but our minds are still clear,'' added Carl, 90.

"Too many damned bitter memories,'' offered Robert, 83. "Harold opened his big mouth and you came in.''

Harold's invitation for me to visit his home in the Summertree subdivision near Hudson actually came in a letter, meticulously crafted on an ancient typewriter. ("We don't have a computer.'') It had been nine years since the brothers got together, and Harold worried he wouldn't get another chance to tell their story.

The numbers aren't lost on Harold Laesch — 5 million World War II veterans left; more than 1,000 of them dying every day.

This is why the brothers' story is unique: They fought at the same time in the Pacific Theater, in different branches — Army (Harold), Navy (Carl) and Marines (Robert).

• • •

Harold was the first to go. He was 19 and working for the Ford Motor Co. when he got drafted in March 1943. He left his parents, brothers and four sisters behind and joined the 33rd Infantry Division for training in the Mojave Desert and then Hawaii. He wound up in the Philippines with the 123rd Infantry, enduring artillery shelling by Japanese forces near Baguio.

In his words:

"When a shell gets close, you can hear it screaming. I had just dug a slit trench when I heard one coming. I pushed down as hard as I could into the earth. When it exploded, dirt covered me. The two men next to me were killed. I survived by the grace of a higher authority."

Harold earned the Bronze Star for bravery.

• • •

Carl was 26 when he got drafted. A week later, he said, "they stopped drafting men 26 and older.'' He had been repairing aircraft engines at the Packard factory, but now the armed forces needed reinforcements. He was given a choice of service branches. "Being a machinist, I thought I could be of most value aboard a ship.''

He wound up aboard the AKA93 Yancey, which transported troops and cargo to, among other places, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

In his words:

"We endured several attacks from the air; some near-misses by kamikazes. But we were lucky and avoided casualties."

• • •

Robert was 15 when the war broke out. He went to work at a converted car factory, helping to build B-24 bombers. He turned 18 on Feb. 25, 1944, got married a week later and received his draft notice on June 24 and "volunteered'' for the Marines.

After jungle training in Hawaii, he shipped out with the 5th Division, 27th Marines. At sea, the Marines learned they were headed to Iwo Jima, considered homeland by Japanese.

In his words:

"Based on other battles, the commanders thought it would take three or four days to secure Iwo. It took 38. I was in the third wave. It was Hell. We didn't move off the beach for four days, while we got pounded."

Robert looked out to the sea and saw the AKA93 Yancey, his brother's ship. They both knew the other was there, but they couldn't get together.

Almost 7,000 Americans died in the fighting. Another 19,000 were wounded. More than 21,000 Japanese were killed. Robert Laesch's detachment lost 566 men, with another 1,703 wounded. He escaped unharmed. Physically, at least.

• • •

The Laesch brothers prepared for an invasion of Japan, but the war ended Aug. 14, 1945, days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The brothers are as certain today as they were then that the bombing was necessary. They agreed millions more would have perished in an invasion of Japan.

They returned to Detroit, resumed civilian careers, raised families. Carl retired from Ford and moved to Spring Hill. He and Evelyn have been married 63 years. Harold chose a career as a police officer in the Detroit area and retired to Hudson in 1981. He and Adele will celebrate 49 years in September. Robert left Michigan and worked 45 years for an aeronautical company in San Diego before retiring to Lake Havasu City, Ariz. He and Wanda have been married for 65 years.

And so last week, they all gathered in this comfortable home in the Summertree retirement community. Robert cracked open a beer — and cracked several jokes. "If bull---- was music,'' Harold said, "he'd be the whole brass band.''

The brothers clearly enjoyed the moment. They weren't certain why it took this long to sit together and talk about the war, but now they couldn't stop.

And then I asked Robert why he didn't revisit Iwo Jima like so many other old soldiers; why he didn't participate in reunions. He had kept a Japanese battle flag, signed by many of his buddies. They included their stateside addresses, but Robert never looked them up.

Now, on a couch with his two big brothers, the memories returned. He saw the faces again, the carnage. Sixty-four years is a long time, but not long enough.

Tears welled in his eyes. He excused himself and walked to another room.

Bill Stevens is the Times' North Suncoast editor. You can reach him at (727) 869-6250 or by e-mail at stevens@sptimes.com.

World War II still bonds this band of brothers 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 1:20pm]
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