Amsterdam Sniper


Private Ralph Howard St. Clair
Company D, 29th Marines
MIA May 20, 1944 on Okinawa
Accounted for in 1956

The Troy Record, December 24, 1943.
The Troy Record, December 24, 1943.

The 1943 holiday season was a difficult one for Fred St. Clair.

Twenty-five years ago, he was in Europe, a doughboy with Company D, 52nd Infantry. The Vosges and the Argonne were behind him; 227 men from his regiment lay buried in French soil, but such was the price one had to pay to win the war to end all wars. He came home in 1919, hung up his uniform in his Whitehall, New York home, went to work as a laborer and tried to forget about the past year of his life.

Seventeen years ago, his wife Mary gave birth to the third St. Clair child, their first boy. Eva and Dorothy fussed over little Ralph, the way big sisters often do. Between shifts at the rail yard – work a little harder now with the new mouth to feed – Fred watched his son grow up and start attending school. Perhaps Ralph asked his father about the war; perhaps Fred told him never to mind – such a thing would never happen again, at least not in their lifetime.

Three years ago, he was alone. Eva was gone; she was now Mrs. Eva Kissinger of Broadalbin. Mary was gone; now she was Mrs. Edmund Fields. Even Dorothy and Ralph were gone, living with their mother in Bradford, Vermont.

Now, in 1943, Fred learned that his only son had enlisted. He was going to be a Marine, fighting in his own war. As the tuberculosis began to get the better of Fred St. Clair, he walked the grounds of Sunmount Sanitarium and hoped that Ralph would someday come home to hang up his own uniform and believe that war was over for good.

Ralph St. Clair reported to Parris Island as instructed and went through boot camp, where the rifle range instructors discovered that he was an uncannily good shot. When his platoon was sent en masse to the replacement battalions of Camp Lejeune, Private St. Clair and a handful of others were selected to attend the Scouts and Snipers Class which commenced on April 15, 1944. While training, St. Clair picked up a number of other qualifications, and when posted to Company F, Second Battalion, 29th Marines that summer was rated as “746” – an automatic rifleman. On July 15, he was subject to an intra-battalion transfer that placed him in a platoon of Company D – this unit would be his home. [1]

The Sixth Marine Division, of which Private St. Clair was a part, underwent months of training to prepare for its first objective. The “Striking Sixth” was composed of a mixture of new recruits and veteran fighters; the “New” Fourth Marines, composed of the four seasoned Raider battalions, was among its regiments, and 1/29th Marines had even fought through the battle of Saipan as a semi-autonomous combat team. Even so, none were expecting the reception the Japanese prepared for the Okinawa beachhead – opposition notable for its absence. Many units simply walked ashore standing up.

By May, the story was very different; the First and Sixth Divisions were embroiled in heavy fighting in southern Okinawa, with a particularly fierce battle centering around Sugar Loaf Hill. The companies of the 22nd Marines were ground down to platoon size or smaller between May 11 and May 14; on May 15, a 60-man platoon of St. Clair’s own company went forward to help hold the hill, and in five hours lost 49 men, from Lieutenant “Irish” George Murphy to a draftee from Rhode Island named Maurice LaPlante. The remainder of the 29th Marines dug themselves in on Half Moon Hill, weathering unceasing fire and drenching rains that turned the ground into a blasted morass. If he had a spare moment, Ralph St. Clair probably drew the same conclusion that many Marines on Okinawa did – this terrain looked exactly like their fathers’ descriptions of the Great War.

Evening Recorder, Amsterdam NY, June 21 1945.
Evening Recorder, Amsterdam NY, June 21 1945.

On 18 May, D/29th Marines reached the crest of Sugar Loaf Hill. There was no safe place; the entire hill was targeted by Japanese artillery and mortars, and by that night it was clear that the regiment simply did not have the clout to continue. The following day, the regiment was relieved by the Fourth Marines – a difficult operation that, despite the shellfire and attacks from small groups of Japanese soldiers, went with surprising ease. By May 20, the battered regiment was in Corps reserve.

It wasn’t until May 20 that someone realized Private St. Clair was missing. Company D had little time to recover the slain during the fighting, but at least the majority were known definitively to be dead. Ralph St. Clair had simply vanished, and apparently none could say where he was. His friends hoped he had been wounded and carried off to an aid station; realists who knew the risks of a sniper’s job kept their opinions to themselves. St. Clair was noted officially as “Missing In Action” and the appropriate telegrams were dispatched to his mother in Amsterdam.

The Troy Record, June 29, 1945.
The Troy Record, June 29, 1945. [2]
Mary, in turn, contacted the boy’s father, struggling with tuberculosis in the Whitehall sanitarium. The news was too much for Fred St. Clair.

The family held out hope for a year. As the war ended and the men began to return home, Ralph’s chances dimmed, although stories would circulate that some soldiers suffered from amnesia or were otherwise alive, but “lost” in the system of hospitals and treatment centers.[3] Their hopes were dashed in 1946, when Ralph was officially declared dead. Then came the even more crushing news that his body was missing. The St. Clair family had nothing to remember their son except a few photographs, newspaper clippings, and the few belongings he’d sent home before going overseas.

Then, in 1956, came a bolt from the blue.

Amsterdam Evening Recorder and Daily Democrat, June 14, 1956.
Amsterdam Evening Recorder and Daily Democrat, June 14, 1956. The second man was almost certainly Maurice LaPlante.

Ralph St. Clair was officially accounted for in June of 1956. In accordance with his mother’s wishes, he was buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific on 17 August. Visitors may pay their respects at Grave 535, Section G.

Recently, several of Ralph St. Clair’s personal effects – including his camouflage face paint – were purchased by a private collector at an estate sale.

At the time of this article’s original publication in 2014, Ralph Howard St. Clair was still listed as missing in action. The official DPAA list has been corrected to reflect his accounted-for status.

[1] Interestingly, St. Clair’s MOS numbers would indicate that he was either a BAR gunner (746) or a rifleman (745) rather than a scout/sniper (761). However, each of these specialties were interrelated, and the MOS system is never a 100% accurate means of determining an individual’s role in the company. St. Clair did attend Scout/Sniper school, so it is possible that his MOS was simply never updated.
[2] Fred St. Clair is buried in Greenmount Cemetery, Whitehall.
[3] This hope is not as far fetched as it sounds. In Killing Ground on Okinawa: The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill, author James Hallas relates the story of one PFC Dom Spitale who was wounded in the head while attacking Sugar Loaf not far from St. Clair’s company. Spitale had torn off his clothes and dog tags in a fit after being shot through the temple; he awoke with no memory and no identity. Six months later, he had a flash realization and blurted out “Dom Spitale, United States Marine Corps.” He had been in an Army hospital for months – the war was long over, and his family told he was missing, presumed dead.


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