Like many other young men, James La Belle left high school in Minnesota at age 17 to join the US Marine Corps in 1943. A star athlete, La Belle played basketball, baseball and boxed. . As part of the 5th Marine Division, La Belle landed on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. It was his first combat.
La Belle had many close calls in the first several weeks of fighting. He survived machine gun fire which killed three Marines next to him. When a mortar landed on the edge of the shell hole he was in, La Belle was the only man not wounded. As his unit advanced on Nishi Ridge, his best friend was killed right next to him. On March 8, La Belle’s platoon came under intense enemy fire and La Belle and two other Marines took shelter in a cave. La Belle caught a glimpse of a Japanese soldier as he threw a grenade into the cave. He shouted a warning to the other Marines as he dove onto the grenade before it exploded, saving their lives. Private First Class James La Belle was 19 years old.