Vail Van Leuven of Roberts, is one of the few remaining veterans in the area to have serve and survive the Battle of Okinawa.
Serving in the United States Army from 1944 to 1945, Van Leuven fought on multiple islands throughout the South Pacific during World War II.
Before his time in the service, his father had also served during World War I after being drafted out of Teton Basin.
“They put him in what they call the Spruce Regiment in Vancouver, Wash.,” Van Leuven said.
Before volunteering for the draft, Van Leuven worked on the family farm and took 500 head of cattle to pasture in 1943. Prior to his deployment he married his late wife Bessie who was pregnant during much of his time in the Pacific. Their eldest daughter Anne was born July 1945.
Knowing that he would more than likely be drafted, Van Leuven volunteered for the draft with three of his good friends—Gaylon Wilson, Dale Jardine and Dave Wilding.
“I decided I wanted to go with them,” he said. “I knew that I would soon be drafted anyway.”
Like his father, Van Leuven was drafted into the 165th Infantry formerly known as the 69th Infantry during WWI when he was 19.
“At the time that we went to the Army, it was said that it was the largest number of draftees that was taken into the army,” he said.
After 17 weeks of basic training and a 10 day break, Van Leuven and his fellow soldiers were divided by age to determine where they would be deployed. Being in the 19 to 26 age group, it was decided he would be deployed to the South Pacific.
“They said everyone from 19 to 26 was sent to the Pacific because it was a tougher deal,” he said.
In the Pacific, Van Leuven said the battles would only last a few days, but by the end of them regiments had to be rebuilt due to the number of casualties.
Prior to be sent to Okinawa, Van Leuven was sent to New Caledonia to replace a division that had been nearly wiped out on Saipan that was attached to the Marine Corps.
“The Marines always had an Army unit with them, because the Marines didn’t fight at night,” he said.
From December 1944 to mid-March 1945 Van Leuven served on the New before taking the 17 day journey to Okinawa.
“The main landing was done on Easter Sunday—the first of April—in 1945,” he said. “We landed on the 9th of April.”
Van Leuven recalls the ship to Okinawa containing numerous amounts of cargo that caused the ship to rock back and forth leading to many of the men on the ship experience sea sickness.
“A friend of mine was seasick all the way,” he said. “I remember this very well because he was in the same squad as me. He was the first man killed close to me. When he was seasick he said to me ‘I would almost do anything to keep from having a boat ride back.’”
Such cargo on the ship was white crosses for each soldier aboard the ship.
“We weren’t there to be combat troops, we were there to be island control, to police the island and look after the civilians,” he said.
Van Leuven said on Okinawa’s north end was the only portion of the island that was defended by the Japanese.
“It was called Motobu Peninsula, that was the Japanese submarine base,” he said. “The Marines that went into that had about 2,500 casualties.”
On the south end of the island there was a Japanese line called Kakazu Ridge where the 96th Division couldn’t get through.
“We were sent into that to clean it out,” Van Leuven said. “We got some replacements but not a lot of them. In our company there were only 13 men that landed with us that didn’t receive a Purple Heart alive or dead.”
Van Leuven has countless stories about his time on Okinawa, but only spoke about few. One such story is his recount of crossing an open field in Okinawa.
“On the 19th of April our company was on reserve. We started across an open field and went alongside a big ridge. When they started shelling that ridge, it was a green hill, when they lifted the barrage it was gray,” he said.
Working as a scout, Van Leuven was ordered to cross the open field before the rest of the troop would cross.
“I thought we were looking for snipers,” he said. “Next to the last guy that crossed the pontoon bridge stepped out of my tracks. He lost his two legs.”
“When I was put in as a squad leader and a platoon leader, I was the last guy that was given authority on the frontlines,” he said. “I never lost a man that did what I told him.”
Van Leuven ended the war as a Staff Sergeant. He said he should have been a Platoon Sergeant but his PTSD was so bad that they couldn’t talk to him.
At the conclusion of the Battle of Okinawa, Van Leuven still didn’t have enough points to return home. Instead he had the choice to either transfer to the 11th Airborne Division of a different division located in the States; he decided on the division in the States.
“I actually only spent about month in that division until I got enough points and was able to go home,” he said.
When the war ended in September of 1945, Van Leuven returned to his home in Roberts. In the time after, he and Bessie had eight children and over 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He continued to work on the family’s 80-acre farm, went on a Mission and helped raise his eight children.
“They said that during that time for every guy that was on the frontlines, there were 90 guys behind him that didn’t see combat like we saw it,” he said. “The Pacific, where we were, was rougher than you can believe.”