At the age of 99, Dean Ladd just made another sacrifice for his country.
It doesn’t compare to the Japanese bullet that almost took his life at Tarawa, or the shrapnel wounds he suffered a few months later at Saipan. Or to the sacrifice of the men who fell at his side.
“Those poor kids, some of them were just 17 or 18 years old,” Ladd said, shaking his head.
Still, it had to hurt for a man who has spent the last four decades touring battle sites and writing books about the war.
Ladd got the bad news last weekend: Six days before he was to fly to Pearl Harbor for ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, his trip was canceled by a rise in coronavirus cases in Hawaii.
The ceremony itself will go on, aboard the same USS Missouri where the war officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945.
But it will go on without Ladd and several other veterans.
“He’s actually taking it pretty well,” said his daughter, Lia, as they stood outside their home. Nestled in the foothills south of Mt. Spokane, it looks out onto a field of wheat – amber waves of grain behind an American flag.
Three months from turning 100, Ladd stood as straight as a flagpole during an interview and recalled a life that’s the embodiment of the Greatest Generation.
Raised in northeast Spokane, he attended Bemiss Elementary and Rogers High School before enrolling in the fall of 1939 at Washington State College in Pullman.
Barely out of high school, Ladd also enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. One year into college, he was called to active duty. A year later – just a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – he was shipped to American Samoa to prevent the island from falling into Japanese hands.
Two months into the epic battle of Guadalcanal, Ladd and the 2nd Marine Division went into the line and stayed there for three months until the island was secure.
He wasn’t as lucky at Tarawa. Wading toward the beach on Nov. 20, 1943, Ladd felt a searing pain in his gut.
“I didn’t think I’d ever make it back to dry land,” Ladd recalled.
But help came immediately, almost providentially.
He was rescued by a landing craft commanded by actor Eddie Albert, who took them back to a hospital ship.
The bigger miracle came aboard a troop transport, where Ladd’s wound was treated by an abdominal specialist from the Mayo Clinic.
Recalling that moment, Ladd found it easier to deal with the missed opportunity this week in Hawaii.
“You always have life’s problems and pressures, and I would always compare it to what I went through, almost dying,” Ladd said.
“God’s will, I guess,” he said.
Ladd needed several months to recuperate, but was back in action as a first lieutenant during the bloody battle of Saipan in June 1944.
Seriously wounded by shrapnel from American artillery, he was sent back into action to help mop up after the largest Japanese banzai attack of the war.
Now with two Purple Hearts, Ladd saw more action as a company commander on the neighboring island of Tinian, where a year later the Enola Gay took off on its way to deliver the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
By then, Ladd was back in the states, at Marine headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. That’s where he was when the war ended, training troops.
“I don’t recall celebrating that much,” Ladd said. “But I guess things got crazy in New York.”
Ladd considered staying in the Marines. Instead, he got the best of both worlds. He joined the reserves, where he remained for 30 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
He also helped win the peace.
“I really wanted to get my engineering degree,” said Ladd, who went back to Pulllman and went on to senior positions with Kaiser Aluminum, North American Rockwell and Lockheed.
And he married Vera Michel, a Rogers classmate. They raised three daughters and traveled the world until her death in 2007.
Many of those journeys took Ladd to former battle sites, even those he didn’t see in wartime.
Last year, Ladd and other Pacific War veterans were given an all-expenses-paid trip by the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans and their families.
Ladd appreciated the generosity, even more so the attitude of local kids in Saipan.
“They knew the history when it happened. Different than our young people here now, they don’t know anything about it,” Ladd said.
But Ladd isn’t giving up. In the basement of his home is the “war room,” which holds hundreds of books and manuscripts, many written by Ladd.
He’s most proud of his book “Faithful Warriors,” published in 2009 by the U.S. Naval Institute Press.
“I just don’t want people to forget,” he said.
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