Leo Larrabee was born in Northeast South Dakota in 1923 and came with his parents to Belle Fourche when he was four. His dad was a general contractor – and one of the contractors who hauled gravel in trucks to help turn Highway 85 from a muddy trail into a real road.
Larrabee said his life was pretty typical for the era up to high school graduation in 1941. He was bit slender for football and such, so took to hunting and fishing.
But with war rumbling in Europe and china, he was very aware that his relatives served in the Civil War, the Philippine insurrection and World War I.
He knew war was coming: “Way back as far as 1936, how a kid will hope, you know. They had war in China and I hoped it lasted long enough for me to get in there. After I got there, I decided it was no place to go.”
In December of 1942, Larrabee took a Saturday to head to Rapid City to enlist in the Marine Corps. But after some testing and physical, he was told he’d have to come back Monday to be sworn in.
“I thought it over a week or so,” he said. “Then I went up to the draft board and volunteered.”
Then it was a trip to Ft. Crook, Neb., to be inducted – and sent home again.
“They had so darned many going in at the time that they sent us home for a week.”
He almost didn’t get back thanks to a snowstorm.
“They came and got us with a steam engine, caboose and a snowplow,” he said.
Typical of the times, Larrabee found himself shuttled around until he ended up in an infantry outfit – the same as Sandy Justice, Dale Henderson, Alex Schmidt, and Johnny Klein.
But after basic training Larrabee ended up a corporal and helped train new recruits instead of heading to combat right away.
That came with a boat ride to England, then France as a combat engineer trained for demolition work. In the line they fought in forest country all winter. “I don’t know how many divisions they chewed up in that place.”
In one job he helped dismantle booby traps and explosives designed to blow the dam. “The thing that I dreaded the most, was going out ahead at night and have to pick up a mine field to go through. You’re down on your hands and knees with a bayonet feeling for the mines.”
He got a bronze star for blowing out German pillboxes as they show in the movies. He was wounded twice. Of 51 men in his platoon, 14 were left after the war. Now there are three.
Larrabee was also among those who saw the concentration camps. “I’ve seen guys killed and stuff, but … when you see rows of people stacked up like cordwood…you kind of sit down and think…and you wonder what kind of a person you would have been without going through all of that misery.”
After the war he mostly was a stonemason. He and his wife Shirley were married in 1948. They were married 56 years and 28 days. “I have two good children that have never caused me any trouble.”