“On Nov. 14, 1944, I was part of a contingent of about 800 replacements who arrived on Maui, Hawaii, where the 4th Marine Division was based. We were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines (regiment) of the division,” Sam Leles recalled.
Only months after graduating from McKinley High School in 1944, Sam Leles found himself halfway around the world, fighting in one of the most memorable battles of World War II.
Indeed, only days after his graduation on June 6, 1944, Leles joined the Marines and began boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
“On Nov. 14, 1944, I was part of a contingent of about 800 replacements who arrived on Maui, Hawaii, where the 4th Marine Division was based. We were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines (regiment) of the division,” Leles recalled. “At that time, we did not know that our replacement unit and several other such units were being prepared for combat use in the coming battle in February 1945 for the island of Iwo Jima.”
Leles noted that he is “the son of Greek immigrants drawn to Canton by the steel mills.” His story is a classic tale of a family building a life in a new country.
“My father, Andy, arrived in 1913 and worked in the steel mills until he retired from Republic Steel Corp. in June 1955,” Leles explained. “In 1920, my father took a four-month leave, returned to Greece, married my mother, Sofia, and returned to Canton in 1921.”
The couple raised Leles to obtain an education and better his life, he said. Leles would do just that, but first war would intervene.
“Iwo Jima is a barren speck in the western Pacific and about 750 miles from Japan,” he said. “It is an island about five miles long and about 2 1/2 miles wide and shaped like a pork chop. It is estimated that about 20,000 to 22,000 Japanese were committed to defend it against the Americans.”
Anticipating an intense struggle, the 4th and the 5th Marine divisions, along with some of the 3rd, were gathered to begin the assault on Feb. 19, 1945.
“Running through the first week of combat, it can be estimated that about 50,000 to 60,000 (Americans and Japanese) were all trying to survive on a piece of land of no more than 15 square miles,” noted Leles. “About 45,000 Marines were above ground trying to kill about 15,000 Japanese who were still underground.”
Within days, Leles’ 25th Regiment lost more than half its men — dead, wounded or missing.
“It is only through pure luck and chance that I survived the battle,” claims Leles. “It was a difficult battle.”
Leles said that he went into that battle as a private, but after Iwo Jima he was promoted to a private first class. He was reassigned to the assault platoon of Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines. His regiment was one of the first to leave Iwo Jima, on March 19, 1945, and return to Hawaii.
“One of the beliefs that I hold is that out of a tragic or very difficult situation there is always the possibility that something good, or beneficial, or promising might occur.”
Page 2 of 2 - And so it did with Leles. After Japan surrendered in September 1945, while Leles was on Guam, he developed rheumatic fever and in April and May of 1946 he was sent home for a 30-day leave.
“During this leave, I met the love of my life, my wife, Phyllis Jean ‘Sue’ Hudnell,” he explained.
Last July, they celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.
Eventually, Leles became a school administrator. He was principal at Canton South High School from 1961 to 1964 and at Mentor High School in 1964 and 1965. He previously had taught at the high school for six years, and had been principal at Amos McDaniel Elementary School in the Canton Local Schools District.
After earning his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University in 1967, he left Ohio and was named professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He retired from that position in 1989.
The couple, now living in Panama City, Fla., has two daughters, one living in Florida and the other in Alabama.
“It really has been a very memorable life of rich and enduring experiences,” Leles said. “I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to serve my country and to participate in such a memorable battle.”