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Wes Claire

, Star Tribune

Wes Claire, 89, had pivotal role at Iwo Jima

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK
  • Star Tribune
  • December 10, 2011 - 4:50 PM

When Wes Claire and his daughter would walk past a copy of the iconic photograph of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, Claire would quietly point to a place just outside the picture and tell her: "That's where I am, right there."

Claire, a native of St. James, Minn., was a private first class in the Marines and in the first wave of troops to hit the island on Feb. 19, 1945. When the flag was raised atop Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island, on March 23, Claire would tell his daughter, he was standing guard, just outside the frame of the picture.

Claire, 89, of Otsego, Minn., who had been in a nursing home and in failing health, died Dec. 2.

His account could easily have been the tall tales of a veteran whose war stories got better over time, except it was backed up by the history books and from others who were there. The American flag he carried ashore from the landing craft he was on, LST 1033, is believed to be one of the first planted on the beach. He was friends with Ira Hayes, one of the flag raisers; Claire named a horse he had "Pima Joe," after Hayes, an American Indian.

When the Clint Eastwood film "Flags of Our Fathers" opened, the studio invited the family to a special premiere.

"My dad would say he wasn't a hero, that the real heroes did not get a chance to come home. But that wasn't true," said his daughter, Marie Chandler, who did research on her father's role in the capture of the island, which eventually led to the end of the war in 1945.

Assigned to the 5th Division, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, B Company, he was a Marine Corps paratrooper, the equivalent of someone serving in today's Special Forces. He also saw action in pivotal battles at Guadalcanal, Vella Lavella and Bougainville.

Once he returned home, only snippets of his battlefield experience would occasionally emerge. As enemy fire ravaged American troops on Iwo Jima, command was picked off one by one.

One published account of the day-by-day fighting documents an enemy mortar blast that killed Sgts. William Woods and Harry Scarborough. When Marie brought up the published account and the names to her father, he said only: "I seen it." He had been so close that the same mortar blast had broken his eardrum. Claire, who left Iwo Jima on March 27, had been nominated for a Bronze Star for his efforts.

"He said when he came home he never wanted to see any more killing," his daughter said. "He refused to hunt or fish. If there was a stray animal, he would take it in."

After leaving the service, Claire spent time on a rodeo circuit, owned his own plane, and worked on the railroad and in automobile body shops.

"He was a quiet man who did amazing things. He would say he couldn't figure out why someone would want to ask him about what happened, and I would tell him it's because people need to know," Marie Chandler said.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his partner, Elaine Speaker; a son, Michael; another daughter, Rita Poff, seven grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

Burial was Friday at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, Minn.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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