Military oversight finally is rectified for Lakewood vet
Lakewood Marine veteran Leonard Kiesel, 75, stopped a bullet with his leg when hitting the beach Aug. 7, 1942, on Gavutu Island in the South Pacific.
That was a close call but not as unsettling to him now as the realization that his participation in an earlier military action was omitted from his war record.
"Even though the unrecorded incident happened stateside, it made my 29 leatherneck buddies and me the very first U.S. Marines to take the fighting to the enemy in World War II," Kiesel contends.
The episode, according to Kiesel, took place Dec. 7, 1941, the fateful day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. At that time, he was a member of a 30-Marine guard unit at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida which, only hours after the news of Pearl harbor became known, was ordered to seize three Italian ships and their crews.
"The ships were out in the Jacksonville harbor ramming a closed toll bridge in an attempt to escape to the open sea," recalled Kiesel, who had enlisted as private in the Marines in 1940.
"Armed with bayoneted riffles and Colt .45-caliber pistols, we boarded three small boats and headed out to tackle the foreign ships.
"The Italians -- about 400 merchant mariners in all -- surrendered. They had no guns. But they had a lot of knives, which we quickly confiscated."
The following day -- Dec. 8 -- the U.S., Great Britain and Canada declared war on Japan, and Dec.11 Italy and Germany declared war on United States.
Kiesel said that, through the years that followed, he never was credited with taking part in the capture of the Italian seamen. Only recently, after months of investigation that he said he initiated, did Marine Corps headquarters at Washington, D.C. finally inform him that the maneuver now has been entered in his service portfolio, he pointed out.
"Nevertheless, my Marine buddies now also will have to write and substantiate their participation to receive similar recognition for their involvement," Kiesel explained.
The Lakewood veteran knows of only four other Marines from the Jacksonville action who are alive today. In an attempt to locate others, he currently is running a notice in the official publication of the 1st Marine Division Association.
What caused the recording oversight? Kiesel said he only can guess that the officers in charge at that time had completely neglected to report the action, or there was a serious foul-up in communications somewhere along the way.
Kiesel's later Purple-Heart action on the beach of Japanese-held Gavutu Island, just north of Guadalcanal, occurred while he was serving as a paratrooper in Company C of the 1st Marine Division's Parachute Battalion.
"We had come to Gavutu, a Japanese seaplane base, as 'ripcord raiders' but, because there was no good place there to jump, we went in on landing barges," he said.
"It was still early in the war and I remember that the barges were wooden, although painted gray to look like they were made of metal.
"More than half the 350 men in our small battalion were killed. Many were struck while up to their necks in water. Some, who were loaded down with mortars and other heavy equipment, stepped into holes made in the reef earlier by the softening-up guns of offshore American warships, and were drowned."
After landing, Kiesel and six other formed a unit to silence an enemy machine gun nest. Four Marines lost their lives in the try. Three others, including Kiesel, were wounded.
"I took a slug in my right leg that shattered my thigh bone," Kiesel recounted. "I lay on the shore for two hours, afraid to call for a corpsman because I heard Japanese voices all around me."
"Eventually, our forces took the island, but it wasn't easy. The enemy had underground tunnels linking their machine gun positions. They were really dug in and waiting for us."
When nightfall came, he was rescued and sent to Auckland, New Zealand, where he was hospitalized for two months.
Later, the USS Solace, a hospital ship, took him to the San Diego Naval Hospital. In 1943, he was sent to Washington, DC for limited duty and, after opting for a two-year extension of service, was mustered out of the military as a Marine sergeant in 1946.
What was left of Kiesel's battalion of paratroopers after Gavutu went on to the invasion of Iwo Jima.
"Most of our Gavutu survivors were then killed at Iwo," Kiesel related. "Only seven originals are left now. We meet at reunions."
The doughty veteran was advised by medics to get a walking job when he returned to civilian life, to strengthen his leg.
He became a postman, retiring at age 62 after 30 years of delivering the mail. He and his wife Florence, whom he married 46 years ago, have a son and three grandchildren.
The couple moved from Cleveland to Ridgewood Avenue in Lakewood in 1952, and have lived on Lakewood Heights Boulevard here for the past 20 years.
There are times when Kiesel's leg pains him but he continues to walk 2 miles in his neighborhood every day, and remains active in veteran affairs, traveling to military reunions throughout the country.
Kiesel made 36 jumps as a paratrooper and said he world jump again, but only with a silk parachutes of old.
"I don't trust the newfangled ones made out of synthetic fibers," he explained.
This article by Dan Chabek appeared in the Lakewood Sun Post July 7, 1994. Reprinted with permission.
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