Today, Don Soderholm epitomizes why he is one of The Greatest Generation. As a 20-year-old patriotic graduate of Alexandria Central High School’s class of 1939, he left on a train for San Diego in August of 1942 to begin basic training in the United States Marine Corps. He went on to Texas A & M College for radio training and Cherry Point, N.C. for patrol training before combat service. During basic training his first memory is of “crawling through the sand with our rifles. We had 10 minutes to clean them after that exercise.” A hunter as a younger boy, Soderholm was soon the recipient of the “sharp-shooter award” after he shot 10-out-of-10 shots in the bull’s-eye during training. Out of 60 men, his “shot of record” earned him the award, and he was one of only two who became a “sharp shooter” in his class.
Yes, Soderholm was a patriotic and exceptional young man with natural abilities put to use in the military. It’s the positive attitude he kept during war, reassuring the wife he loved back home, that makes his reminisces so powerful. Reading between the lines, the letters he wrote to Norma exemplify why he was fighting for his country alongside other brave men in his squadron. The letters gave her hope through 38 ½ months of separation (out of those endless months, he saw her only seven days).
“My dearest Norma and Kathy, how is the sweetest Mama and Daughter in the world this fine afternoon? I hope you’re both as fine and dandy as I am. I’m out at sea again, aboard a ship, naturally. That is why you haven’t heard from me for awhile. We are really having a swell trip. The chow they have on this ship is really delicious.” (Dated July 31, 1944, written after Saipan).
To begin his service in the Pacific Theater, Soderholm arrived at Marine Corp Air Station, EWA, Oahu, Hawaii, under Captain D. D. O’Neals. As part of Air Warning Squadron 5, Soderholm entered Saipan on June 15, 1944, the first day of the invasion, and participated in daily combat. “Within the first 30 minutes of landing on the island one of our ships took a direct hit. Our squadron had waterproofed a jeep and guys who were shoulder high in water were jumping onto that jeep,” he explained.
While on the beach, he observed an aquatic minesweeper strike a mine, which resulted in total destruction. As he went ashore his memory is vivid, “One of my first sights was a white house with an old man on the porch, on all fours, eating out of a bowl. Next I saw a dead cow and then I saw a little native girl. Her ankles were folded up; something was wrong. I carried her back to the beach where our men were working on the wounded. I don’t know what happened to her after that because I went back to the fighting.” He added, “Remember, Saipan is three miles wide and six miles long. When the Japanese cut loose, shooting at us, we dropped into ditches, shot back and used grenades as part of our defense.”
He remembers a goat falling into his foxhole (“that really scared me!”) and he saw local natives burying Marines in trenches.
A letter home reassured Norma, “We’re still in Saipan, living in a Japanese house. There isn’t much left, but we have it fixed up so we don’t get wet. It’s peaceful here now, but it certainly wasn’t that way when we arrived.”
Leone Howe and her dad, Don Soderholm, with some of the letters Don sent back home during the war.
By the time the Americans reached the northern end of Saipan on July 9, 1944 3,000 U.S. lives had been lost. And, because of pre-invasion propaganda, thousands of Japanese men (including their own soldiers), women and children, horrified by the thought of torture at the hands of Americans, had committed suicide by jumping off the cliffs of the island or by other means. His squadron had taken 1,500 prisoners onboard and headed back to Maui, but before leaving, Soderholm suffered from Dengue fever, experiencing a 104-degree fever, which lasted about a week. When his squadron left the beach, returning to their ship, he was so weak that he had to crawl to keep up with the rest.
Another letter continued, “It surely is wonderful to get away from Saipan. If I never see that place again, it will be too soon.” He added, “I’m washing clothes at the same time as I’m writing this letter. I’ve got the clothes tied to a rope and hanging over the side of the ship. They should really be clean in an hour or so, if they don’t wear out by then.”
And then, it was on to the next invasion in the Pacific. “It was really intense,” he said. The Battle of Iwo Jima was a 36-day battle, from February– March 16, 1945. It was one of the deadliest of the war, with over 26,000 American casualties, including 7,000 U.S. soldiers dead. 19,000 Japanese troops were killed and some 1,000 were taken prisoner.
As part of LFASCU (Landing Force Air Support Unit No. 1) Soderholm entered the island of Iwo Jima, an island two miles wide and four miles long, on day three of the invasion. “We went over on the U.S. WASP with 6,000 men on our aircraft carrier. We had 150 planes and 100 crates. We were a real target!” (The Japanese eventually did sink the WASP). As the “lead” radio man in the squadron, Soderholm was responsible for reporting what the enemy was doing from the island back to headquarters on the ship. For 14 days he was exposed to bombs and explosions to a much higher intensity than Saipan. A soldier next to him was killed by shrapnel.
“Well, sweetheart, take real good care of yourself and our Kathy. Don’t worry about me as I’m fine and dandy. Of course I’m awfully lovesick, but you’re the only one that can cure me of that Honey.” The American flag was raised on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, and Soderholm was there to witness it. However, the battle continued for another 30 days.
As part of LFASCU No. 1, Soderholm entered the next battle, Okinawa, on the first day of that invasion, which lasted approximately 60 days.* He explained, “there was no resistance at the point of entry on this strip of land that was 20 miles wide and 60 miles long. We were happy to have spent the first night of the invasion in a sugar cane field but learned that the Marine transport ship was hit by two kamikazes on the second day.”
He wrote, “How is our wonderful Kathy? I bet she has grown so much since I saw her, that I wouldn’t know her. Well, one of these days, we’re really going to get to know each other. What a wonderful day that will be.”
The battle on Okinawa has been referred to as the “Typhoon of Steel,” referring to the ferocity of fighting, the intensity of kamikaze attacks, and to the numbers of Allied ships and armored vehicles that assaulted the island. The battle resulted in the highest number of casualties in the Pacific. Japan lost more than 100,000 through death, capture or suicide. The Allies suffered more than 65,000. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused Japan to surrender just weeks after the fighting on Okinawa (Wikipedia).
By the time he returned to the homeland in October 1945, Soderholm had experienced more than any other man twice his age. Through it all he reassured his wife at home. He wrote on May 26, 1945, “Today we had a regular creek in our tent but we don’t have any gripes. Everything is fine & dandy and I hope to be home soon. We’ll put all of this behind us.”
Donald C. Soderholm began as a private and went on to corporal, buck sergeant, staff sergeant and technical sergeant. When he enlisted he was paid $50 a month and ended his service with $125 a month. He was honorably discharged in October 1945.
After the war, Don Soderholm returned to Minnesota, first living and working in Detroit Lakes before coming home to Douglas County. He worked for Williams Pipeline in Alexandria for 38 ½ years, “climbing tanks, loading trucks, working in the office,” he said. He and Norma lived a wonderful life on Lake Louise by Garfield and raised three daughters, Kathy, Joan and Leone. Today, he lives in Glenwood at Ridgewood Villa.
On June 12, 2007 his lovely Norma, wife of 65 years, passed away.
*Medals awarded Don Soderholm include the Presidential Unit Citation Assault & Capture of Okinawa – awarded “for exceptional heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the invasion and capture of Okinawa from April 1 to June 21, 1945.”
• Air Medal Ribbon – awarded for Landing Force Air Support – Iwo Jima • European-African-Middle East – awarded as a service ribbon through the entire WWII between December 7, 1941 – March 2, 1946 • Two Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters symbolizing combat service • Bronze Star awarded for meritorious participation in battle • WWII Asiatic –Pacific Ribbon • Military Dress Badge Pin • WWII Marine Cap Insignia • WWII Sterling Silver USMC Sharp Shooter Cross Badge Medal Pin • WWII USMC Pistol Proficiency Badge – also includes Bar for SS Auto Rifle • WWII Third Marine Amphibious Division Patch • USMC Third Marine Aircraft Wing Patch (awarded in connection with air warning – Saipan) • Military Dress Badge Pin, USMC Brass Black Collar Insignia, and WWII Bronze Marine Uniform Buttons • WWII Honorable Discharge Emblem
For more photos from Soderholm’s time in Saipan, visit the Sr. Perspective web page gallery at www.srperspective.com.