Local veteran recalls combat as WWII Marine

REED CITY — At 25 years old, there was no question in the mind of Melvin St. Onge when he enlisted in the military in 1942, about a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was his duty to serve his country.

"I felt enlisting was the thing to do," he said. "It was an interesting experience."

Once enlisted, he completed boot camp in San Diego with the Marines and became a gun recharger. He volunteered for a raider battalion in the Pacific, arriving on islands including Guam, Iwo Jima and Bougainville, an island in Papua New Guinea.

Each time U.S. combat troops cleared an island, other squads came in to "clean up" the area of wounded or deceased soldiers, and then additional troops would come in to replenish his outfit before moving to the next island.

More often than not, Japanese troops which occupied the islands showered his battalion with gunfire.

"You'd come in on a group transport ship with a lot of men and you'd go over the side onto a cargo net with probably 15 people," St. Onge said. "There was a lot of enemy fire, but in your mind you had a job to do, so you did it. Training took over and you moved inward until you got it all secured. We lot a lot of men on the beach."

But enemy fire wasn't the only thing U.S. troops had to worry about, he added.

"The jungle was deadly," St. Onge said. "It was hot and rained every day. There was malaria, yellow jaundice, dengue fever and lots of disease. We lost many more men to disease. It was so wet your feet would rot in your boots. It was nasty. You were wet most of the time and then the sun came out and it was pretty hot. It was the scariest place you've ever seen, especially when you're brand new.

"We'd move up the beach and the Japanese would booby-trap everything. One of my guys should have known better, but he went back to the beach to get his canteen, and they had it rigged. You had to be careful.

Also, U.S. supply lines weren't as efficient as the Japanese lines, he said, so he and his fellow troops didn't have much to keep them comfortable. Food was even limited and had to be rationed carefully. Most of what they carried was ammunition.

Bougainville also was the place where St. Onge received injuries earning him a Purple Heart. He and a fellow soldier were in a fox hole, trying to avoid enemy attacks.

"It was early in the evening, we were under enemy fire and there was a grenade," St. Onge said. "Shrapnel cut me right above the eye, so I lucked out. My partner got killed so I was alone. I laid there all night in the fox hole until morning. Nobody moved at night. I couldn't see out of my one eye."

He was sent to Auckland, New Zealand, for surgery and then was shipped back San Diego for further recovery. Upon his release, he was sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, then was sent back to the Pacific following a physical which deemed him fit for combat duty.

When the war ended in 1945, it took time for word to spread to St. Onge and his platoon.

"In the Pacific, you didn't get the word too quick, especially when you're on the front" he said. "They said 'the war's over' when we were getting ready for the next battle. We were getting ready for Japan. It was hard to believe because you don't have much communication. By the time we heard my time was almost up, so I was ready to go home anyway."

The first thing he wanted to do when he was back in the U.S. was "get some ice cream," he said with a laugh.

Following his return state-side, St. Onge and returned to his hometown of St. Ignace to work for the state and met his wife, Veronica, known as Nonie. They were married for 67 years and moved to Reed City in 1967 while raising six children.

Now, at nearly 100 years old, the former soldier can be seen wearing his Marine Corps cap and attending the Reed City Memorial Day Parade, paying tribute to the fallen soldiers of past and present conflicts. St. Onge also has been presented with an honorary quilt during the GT Norman Elementary School Veterans Day program.

"I'm very proud, I did my job," he said. "I focus on the good memories."