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Hero in the Pacific

It's been about 73 years since World War II veterans were on active duty, but their service to our country and sense of duty remain vivid memories for most military veterans who lived through the war that earned the moniker "The Greatest War."...

This photo of Larry Urbanski of Cloquet was taken when Urbanski was in the Army in 1945. Special to the Pine Journal
This photo of Larry Urbanski of Cloquet was taken when Urbanski was in the Army in 1945. Special to the Pine Journal

It's been about 73 years since World War II veterans were on active duty, but their service to our country and sense of duty remain vivid memories for most military veterans who lived through the war that earned the moniker "The Greatest War."

Veterans of World War II are becoming rare as the years pass by, as most WW II active service people are now in their 90s. One local veteran who fits this description is Larry Urbanski, 91, of Cloquet.

In 1944, Urbanski was an 18-year-old high school student from Tracy, Minn., who was drafted and inducted into the Army. He didn't finish high school, but he eventually earned his diploma - more than 50 years later.

Journey to Pacific Theater

After leaving Minnesota in the summer of 1944 for basic training at Camp Stewart in Georgia and then Camp Blanding in Florida, Urbanski made a short visit home to Tracy in January 1945 before being shipped overseas to join the Army's 381st Infantry 96th Division in the Pacific Theater of WW II.

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Initially trained in anti-aircraft basic training and telephone communications that included installing field switchboards and phone lines, he was transferred to infantry training because replacement infantry riflemen were needed more.

Troop ships crossing the Pacific Ocean were the primary means of transportation to get soldiers to Pacific Theater locations. Urbanski had a few long boat rides, including eight days from Seattle to Hawaii, where he underwent two weeks of jungle training, and then 16 days on a ship from Hawaii to Saipan.

After another five-day trip from Saipan to Okinawa, Japan, on May 5, 1945, Urbanski and his fellow soldiers went over the side of the ship, scrambling down cargo nets and into the ocean as they landed on the island as replacements to units already on Okinawa.

"We were basically there as cannon fodder," said Urbanski, recalling his landing day on the island. "We arrived to replace the soldiers who had already been killed or wounded since the start of the battle on Okinawa."

According to 96th Infantry Division records, on April 1, 1945, the Division initially struck near the heart of the Japanese Empire by landing on Okinawa. This began the largest battle of the war in the Pacific, code-named "Operation Iceberg," on a day designated as "Love Day."

According to 96th Division historian Don Dencker, the 96th Infantry troops, nicknamed "Deadeyes," reached the main Japanese defenses in early April and battled the Japanese military for control of the Kakazu and Kakazu West Ridges, with heavy losses on both sides.

During intense fighting on Tombstone, Nishbaru and Hacksaw ridges, the 96th Division broke the Northernmost Shuri line, which had the largest concentration of Japanese firepower, artillery, mortars, anti-tank guns and mines confronting American forces during the Pacific War.

Wounded in battle

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Following this battle victory, the entire 96th Division was withdrawn from front-line combat for rest and replacements, which included the just-arrived Urbanski and his shipmates.

Urbanski was on the front lines of combat for about six consecutive weeks, experiencing brutal conditions and danger all around him.

"I think I crawled about halfway across Okinawa," he joked when recently recalling his combat experience. "And it wasn't just on soil - we crawled through just about every rice paddy in the flatlands of Okinawa. I don't think I have ever been as physically dirty and grimy as I was back then."

On June 15, Urbanski was wounded during combat, hit by Japanese sniper fire. He was leading a group of soldiers to recover four wounded soldiers when he was shot.

"Our commander said he would create a smokescreen to cover us while we went to get our wounded buddies," Urbanski said. "I could hear the artillery shells going overhead and behind us. We eventually got all four of the wounded guys out."

It was on his first trip carrying a medical litter to the ridge where the wounded were hunkered down when Urbanski was wounded. After bringing back the first two wounded

soldiers, Urbanski, despite being shot in the shoulder during his first trip to the ridge, made a return trip to retrieve the remaining two wounded soldiers and bring them to safety.

Urbanski received the Purple Heart medal, Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman's Badge for his service in the Army.

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Life after war

After evacuation to a field hospital and then recuperation in Guam, Urbanski returned to field duty. The 96th Division had moved to the Philippines, where he rejoined his company and was assigned to be company clerk, based on a few weeks of typing he had in high school. One of his tasks was to write letters of condolences to families of servicemen who had been killed.

Finally, his discharge orders arrived and after another two-week ship crossing of the Pacific, Urbanski was officially discharged in August 1946.

Post WW II service, Urbanski made the most of his GI Bill benefits, earning a bachelor's degree in social science from St. Mary's College in Winona. He began teaching in Aitkin in 1951, then moved to Cloquet for a teaching position in 1954. He taught social studies and English, coached, directed plays, and advised the school newspaper.

After earning a master's degree in library science from the University of Minnesota in 1969, he became the Cloquet Senior High School librarian until he retired in 1988, a career of 37 years in public education.

"That's not a bad career for someone who never graduated from high school," Urbanski said with a laugh. It's a story he loves to tell, and he wears it as a badge of pride.

"Even though I stopped attending as a junior to work to help support my family, I returned the next school year, but was drafted before I finished," he said. "I took correspondence courses in the Army, but I never did earn a high school social science credit. So, I never graduated because of it, but the irony is that I taught high school history classes for many years."

After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in college and retiring from a long career in teaching, Urbanski eventually was awarded a high school diploma in 2000 as part of a program that linked veterans who lacked diplomas due to the interruption of WW II.

Urbanski currently resides in Inter-Faith Care Center in Carlton.

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