Valor Friday

| August 7, 2020

US Navy Medal of Honor

Ex-PH2’s article about Peleliu made me realize I hadn’t yet done a Valor Friday article about anyone involved in that battle. I aim to rectify that today. Along the way I discovered something fascinating.

During WWII 27 Marines jumped on live grenades to protect the lives of their fellow Marines. Four of them survived, including one of my subjects today. That man, and two other Marines who jumped on grenades, were all from the same small Minnesota county. That’s 11% from one county!

We’ve previously talked about one of the grenade smothering survivors, Jack Lucas (who jumped on two grenades and later also survived a parachute jump without a functioning parachute). Richard K Sorenson was another survivor.

Richard Sorenson

Born in Anoka (the county seat for Anoka County), MN, he graduated high school there in 1942 and enlisted with the USMC a few months later. After boot camp at San Diego he was assigned to 3/24 Marines amid their run up training for the Pacific Theater. January 1944, Private Sorenson and the 24th sailed for Kwajalein Atoll.

Landing on Namur, an island in the atoll, on February 1st during the first day of invasion, the Marines faced a determined Japanese force. Sorenson and his cohorts were defending against a Japanese counterattack. Sorenson and five other Marines had taken refuge in a shell hole when a Japanese grenade came flying in.

Sorenson leapt onto the deadly device before it could explode. When it did, he absorbed the entirety of the blast, saving the other men in the improvised foxhole.

Critically wounded, a Corpsman tied off a severed artery and bandaged his many wounds. He was immediately evacuated, ultimately having six surgeries before making a full recovery. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry. He was presented the medal at a naval hospital in Seattle by Captain (Doctor) Joel Boone, USN (who had received several valor awards, including the MoH, as discussed here).

Sorenson spent the remainder of the war in support positions in the states, was promoted to sergeant, and mustered out in 1946.

He then worked for the VA in Minnesota and attended university. In 1947 he re-enlisted into the Marine Corps Reserves. Called to active duty in 1950, he spent the next three years assigned to Minneapolis on recruiting duty. He’d rise to the rank of master sergeant (the highest enlisted rank at the time) in June 1953.

He then went through OCS and was commissioned a second lieutenant. Sorenson would serve as a supply officer until 1955, when he voluntarily reverted from his then-rank of first lieutenant to master sergeant to leave the service. He’d return to work at the VA in civilian life, worked as an insurance underwriter for ten years, and then made a career out of the VA. He retired from the VA having been in charge of their operations for the entire state of Nevada and parts of California.

Sorenson passed away in Reno, NV at age 80 in 2004.

From nearby Columbia Heights, also in Anoka County, was James La Belle. Like Sorenson, he enlisted in November 1943 shortly after graduating high school. He had played basketball, baseball, and raised homing pigeons.

James La Belle

Attending basic training at San Diego, he was then assigned to the Weapons Company of the 27th Marines. They fatefully sailed to Iwo Jima, landing as part of the initial invasion on February 19, 1945.

For nearly a month La Belle and his fellow Marines fought one of the most well known and brutal battles of the Pacific War. After facing weeks of constant combat, on March 8th, 1945 the 19 year old was in a foxhole with two other Marines when a Japanese grenade came in, just out of reach.

La Belle shouted a warning and without hesitation dove on the grenade, absorbing the blast with his body, and saving the life of his two comrades but not his own.

The final lines of his Medal of Honor citation describes La Belle’s final act with more eloquence than I could hope to muster;

Stouthearted and indomitable, he had unhesitatingly relinquished his own chance of survival that his fellow Marines might carry on the relentless fight against a fanatic enemy and, his dauntless courage, cool decision and valiant spirit of self sacrifice in the face of certain death reflect the highest credit upon Private First Class LaBelle and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.

La Belle’s family would find out until three months after his death that he’d died at Iwo Jima. His mother was presented with his medal in 1946. She received the award from then-Brigadier General William Riley, a Minnesota native and Director of Marine Corps Public Information at the time.

Buried with his fallen brethren at Iwo Jima, his remains were returned to the United States in 1948.

Our third, and youngest, young man who was brave beyond belief from Anoka County is Richard Kraus. He was born in Chicago, but the family moved to Minneapolis when he was a boy. Kraus graduated from Edison High School on Minneapolis’s Northeast side. He’d previously tried to enlist, but was too young. He was inducted on his 18th birthday; Christmas Eve, 1943.

By July 1944 he was all trained and headed into the Pacific Theater. Kraus was assigned to the 8th Amphibian Tractor Battalion with the 1st Marine Division. Landing on D-Day at Peleliu on September 15, 1944, Kraus served as a driver of an amphibious tractor (known as an amtrac) during the brutal battle.

Richard Kraus

Peleliu was where the Japanese made their first determined stand. They used the small island of coral to build defensive positions inland of the beaches. This was a successful tactic as it cost the attackers dearly for every inch they took. The island itself is mostly sharp, jagged coral. The weather is hot and humid. As if that’s not bad enough, there’s no fresh water in the whole place.

After nearly a month of brutal fighting against a well-entrenched Japanese force of more than 10,000 men, Kraus volunteered on October 3rd with three other Marines to retrieve a casualty from the front lines.

As they approached the front they came under heavy grenade and rifle attack from the enemy, forcing them to seek cover. Unable to continue moving forward, the men began to retreat to safety.

As Kraus and his comrades moved back they saw the figure of two men moving towards them. Thinking they were fellow Marines, they challenged them only to discover they were in fact Japanese soldiers.

Once identities were confirmed, one of the Japanese lobbed a hand grenade at the Americans. The little bomb landed right in the midst of the four men. Kraus immediately and unwaveringly threw himself onto the grenade, absorbing the blast. Though doing so meant the loss of his life, it ensured the survival of his three fellows.

He was still just 18 years old. Posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor, Kraus was initially buried at Peleliu. At his parents’ request, his remains were repatriated in 1948.

All three men lived and grew up within a few miles of each other. They all entered the service in Nov or Dec 1943, choosing the Marine Corps. All three men dove on grenades to save their fellow Marines. All three men are now buried together, along with numerous other heroes, at Fort Snelling National Cemetery just outside Minneapolis.

Richard Sorenson was one of only four men who earned the Medal of Honor at Kwajalein. His was the only award to a living recipient. Interestingly, two of the other (posthumous) Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines for jumping on grenades.

La Belle’s Medal of Honor was one of 27 awarded for the Battle of Iwo Jima. Fourteen of these medals were posthumous awards. Twenty-two were awarded to Marines. La Belle was one of three Marines awarded their medals for diving on grenades there (including Jack Lucas).

Krause was one of eight men, all Marines, to earn the Medal of Honor at Peleliu. He was one of five posthumously honored. All five posthumous awards and one living award were to Marines who had jumped on grenades.

For those keeping count, of the 27 Marines who would receive the Medal of Honor for sacrificing themselves by falling on a live grenade, 12 of them came from just these three battles; Peleliu, Kwajalein, and Iwo Jima.

Among many honors and remembrances for each man individually, the three together are commemorated on a plaque at the Anoka County Veterans Memorial at Bunker Hills in Coon Rapids, MN. Honoring the men and the unique connection this one small county played in three decisive battles, far, far away.

Anoka County Veterans Memorial Plaque

Category: Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

Comments (7)

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  1. USAFRetired says:

    WOW

  2. KoB says:

    “…that such men lived!” “…no greater love…”

    BZ Devil Dogs. No telling how many other stories like this from those battles are out there that were not witnessed, or a “I was just doing my job/only did what anyone else would have done.”

    Maybe Minnesota became such a wimpy place because these men’s sacrifice meant that their DNA was not added to the gene pool?

    Battery Gun Salute…Fire by the Piece…from right to left…PREPARE….COMMENCE FIRING!

    Thank you for bring us the stories of these Heros Mason.

  3. 26Limabeans says:

    Thanks Mason.

  4. Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

    Stouthearted and indomitable,
    He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.
    Stouthearted
    Indomitable
    Gallantly

    Words you don’t hear much in use anymore.
    Got me right in the feelz.
    Damned allergies and dust.
    Where’s my kleenix?

    GROUP!
    A-TEN-TION!
    PRE-SENT ARMS!
    OR-DER ARMS!
    AT EASE!

  5. 2banana says:

    Big enough to kill all of them…

    “The little bomb landed right in the midst of the four men…”

  6. AW1Ed says:

    Thanks Mason, more great work.

  7. USAF E-5 says:

    Thanks Mason. Always enjoy these. Reminds me that there are still men and women out there who are willing to go that extra mile.