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Democrat Photo by Jeanne Sager

MIKE LAURICH KEEPS a picture of himself from his Navy days, along with his discharge papers, near his bed. The Smallwood man has file folders full of papers that trace his path through World War II.

Smallwood Vet
Has Much to Tell

By Jeanne Sager
SMALLWOOD — November 12, 2004 – Mike Laurich is tired of secrets and lies.
More than 60 years ago, Laurich signed up for the Navy because he wanted to “see the world.”
He saw a lot more than he ever bargained for – stories he tells slowly, piecing together bits of his past through the papers and pictures in file folders he’s kept meticulously through the years.
They’re stories he’s never told, keeping the facts of what “really” happened before, during and after World War II to himself out of fear.
But Laurich is sick of the lies. He’s tired of hearing people talk of the war in half-truths – telling stories they don’t even know.
“They just don’t tell people the truth,” he said.
By “they” he means Washington. But many of the people who propagated these myths are dead, Laurich said, and his buddies, his doctors, everyone has told him it’s time to come out with it.
Some of his stories are slightly out of sync with what any kid in high school learns as “history” – he joined the Navy on February 25, 1941, a fresh-faced 18-year-old off to see the world.
After basic training, he was shipped off to war – months before Pearl Harbor, months before President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed war, Laurich was in England helping the British fend off the Nazi regime.
Later that year, Laurich was on the U.S.S. Washington, a huge battleship parked in the harbor off a Hawaiian island one Sunday morning in December.
His ship got orders to move out, along with some of the newer boats and bigger carriers.
Those orders came after two radiomen reported the sight of strange planes coming in – those orders have never been publicized, Laurich said, because they were the warning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Those orders may well have saved Laurich’s life.
While thousands of men sleeping in the harbor were surprised by bombs dropped in the deadliest attack thus far on American soil, Laurich and the sailors on the U.S.S. Washington were miles away.
Laurich could be listed as one of the survivors – a list that lessens every day. But he never told people why – he never shared his stroke of good fortune.
Laurich spent the course of the next few years of war traveling the oceans, raiding Pacific islands, even heading to Alaska.
Yes, he said, Alaska, not yet a state but American-owned territory where his boat was sent to fend off an attack from Japanese troops.
Most people believe the country was safe from attack during the great war, he said, but the Japanese were sending bombs in balloons – balloons the guys on his ship were trying to shoot down.
And troops were dropped in the Alaskan territory, he added.
“We went up there to hold them back,” Laurich explained. “But things like that, they’re held back – that’s what gets me mad.”
Laurich said few know about the atomic bomb tests done before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But he remembers when his entire ship was denied their leave after no one volunteered to take part in the bomb testing.
He remembers a Dr. Sawyer who was part of the atomic bomb project coming on board, and the next day he and his brothers at arms felt the ship rock, felt a tremendous heat wash over them.
“The waves moved the ship, and the cream puff – that’s what they called it – came over our ship and rained down on us,” he recalled. “A lot of guys got cancer from that.”
Laurich said he’s lucky he never had ill effects from the bomb – that he knows of.
Today he goes for regular tests at Catskill Regional Medical Center to ensure that nothing will crop up unexpectedly.
The nurses refer to him as the atomic man, he said, which makes him laugh.
Months later he was dispatched to the shores of Japan to set things up for the pilots who would drop the atom bombs that would end the war.
Laurich watched the cities explode from 10 miles out in the harbor. His special goggles protected his eyes – other guys went “stone blind” watching the mushroom cloud enveloping the city.
What he saw was “pure hell,” Laurich said.
“What I’ve seen, the explosion I’ve seen, just think – it could destroy the whole world,” he said.
On the days the bombs were dropped, Laurich said he didn’t know what would happen. He didn’t know if he was facing life or death.
“They didn’t even know themselves how far the explosion would go,” he said.
But Laurich couldn’t tell people what he saw.
He wrote regular letters home, but he couldn’t share his stories with his parents.
Laurich was on a super secret mission in March 1942 when his mother died. He didn’t find out she was gone until a month later.
“She died March 7,” he recalled. “We came back in April, and I got called into the office.
“There was a chaplain there, and they told me,” he said sadly. “When an officer’s wife passed away, he went home . . . he went home . . . but it was different, he was an officer.”
Laurich didn’t get a trip home. He spent five years in what he calls continuous fighting.
Of the four ships he called home, one was hit twice by suicide bombers. He spent time on the ship and time underwater.
His diving training was put to use in the harbors – he was sent down to look for bombs and diffuse mines before troops could be landed on the beaches.
He still has an old Navy-issue knife, with a handle fashioned from the glass of a suicide bomber’s plane, that he used in hand-to-hand combat on the beaches.
And in his files there’s a map of Hong Kong showing the docks, the banks and all the streets where he roamed months after the Japanese had signed the peace with America.
The war wasn’t over for Laurich and his comrades – they were assigned with the job of bringing peace, going house-to-house to find the suicide bombers who were convinced that Japan was still at war.
“We were still fighting at peacetime,” he explained.
Through it all, Laurich said he just survived.
“If a guy tells you he’s not scared, he’s a liar,” he said. “You know they’re coming, the tension is just waiting for them to come.
“You learn a lot of things when you see a buddy getting killed beside you – that’s what hurts you,” Laurich said matter-of-factly.
It’s a pain he’s never gotten rid of. When Laurich first came home, he’d jump out of bed in the middle of the night, out of the middle of a deep sleep.
Talking about his past is a way to heal the wounds of war, but there is no answer, Laurich said.
A quiet man, Laurich has lived in Smallwood for 30 years since retiring from ConEdison and moving out of the city to be with girlfriend Freda Shella.
He likes the town because it’s quiet, it’s peaceful, and his neighbors are kind.
“You have some fun with these people,” he said. “They’re something.”
The horrors he saw have put Laurich on a life-long mission to save the children of the world. He sends money to a Catholic school on a Native American reservation in South Dakota and supports work for children with cancer.
On Halloween, Laurich is the most popular guy in town – this year he boasted $3,000 worth of candy which he gave out to 600 kids.
“For me they come first, the kids,” he said. “I’ve seen too many of them suffer.”
In his Navy days, Laurich would sneak into the ship’s pantry and steal hunks of bread to take down to the beaches to the starving children.
“Boy did they eat,” he recalled, his eyes misting.
After 42 years of handing out massive amounts of candy, Laurich has a following.
“That kind of thing spreads around the schools and all that,” he explained with a laugh. “It gets bigger every year; I spent $3,000 this year, next year I’ll spend more.”
Laurich focuses his efforts on the future of the country – he said people need to pay more attention.
“Watch what goes on in Washington, D.C,” he said. “They’re liars, I hate to say it.”
Politicians have never been his favorite – although he said President John F. Kennedy was a good man. Laurich knew him before he was president, when he was just a simple guy in the military fighting with his buddies for his country.
“He had a small craft, but he never bragged about it,” he said. “He had guts.”
Roosevelt was a good man, Laurich said, but wartime President Harry S. Truman was trouble.
“He stabbed us in the back so many times. . .” Laurich said.
With the country’s military fighting bloody battles to bring peace to another country, Laurich feels the sensation of deja vu from his own peacetime war days.
“They better wake up in this country,” he said. “People need to realize these kids are fighting over there and appreciate them.
“When we came home,” Laurich remembered, “there was nothing for us – there was no band playing for us.”
While people honor the country’s wartime heroes for Veterans Day, Laurich said they should send their hearts out to the men and women fighting an unending battle today in the Middle East.

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