You will not find the name of Lester F. Graham on the monument to those Laurens County men who lost their lives in World War II. Those names are only the men who lived in Laurens County at the beginning of the war, or at least our country’s entrance into the war. If you were making a list of those who served and fought in World War II, the name of Lester Graham would be right up there at the top. After his graduation from Dublin High School, Lester joined the United States Marine Corps and entered basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina in the fall of 1934.
When one thinks of Marines of that day, they think of the Marines who fought in the South Pacific in World War II. In time, Lester Graham would become one of those Marines. When Lester got to the scene of the fighting in the South Pacific in 1942 with the First Marine Division, he had already crossed the South Pacific twice on his way to two tours of duty in China.
Lester F. Graham was born on July 14, 1914 to John J. Graham and Pearl Carr Graham, of Empire, Dodge County, Georgia.
You see, Lester Graham was what they once called a “China Marine.” With the aid of Russia, the United States and yes, even Adolph Hitler’s Germany, the Republic of China engaged in a war with the Empire of Japan, after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. To help protect American economic interests and citizens in the area, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the 4th Marines to the vicinity of Shanghai.
It was in the summer of 1937 when an intense struggle for control of Shanghai erupted. Just north of Soochow Creek, the antagonistic armies of China and Japan collided in brutal combat - all combat is brutal. The 300,000 man Japanese Army launched an all out offensive in October, seventy five years ago this week. Further resistance was futile. With only 6500 British and French forces and a mere thousand Fourth Marines in support, the Chinese retreated to fight another day.
After a lull in the fighting in downtown Shanghai, Graham took a little time to write his mother, the former Miss Pearl Carr, at her home at 303 Telfair Street, now part of Duncan Tire Company.
“Dear Mom, I hope you aren’t too frightened by me being here, because there is hardly any danger. All I have to do is to keep near sandbag emplacements and duck when I hear shells and bombs whistling,” Lester wrote.
Graham told his mother that some times the Japanese fired into the American lines, but never hit anyone. The Dublin Marine reported that only a few foreign soldiers had been killed during the fighting, but he did relate an incident when an enemy aerial shell struck within seventy yards of his fortified position. When the excitement subsided, Lester and his buddies ventured out to pick up a few souvenirs from a crashed Japanese airplane. Although he planned to bring some large pieces home on his next visit, Lester sent his mother a small piece of the bounty of war.
“The officers really gave us a workout when we first arrived here. We had to build sandbag emplacements, put up miles of barbed wire and cut portholes through brick and stone walls,” Graham wrote.
Graham, a private in C Co., 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, wanted his mother to know that he often talked about her mother, “Big Mama,” to his fellow Marines, and what “darned good biscuits” and ham she can cook.
He ended his letter with the usual sentiments and asked all not to worry about him.
Graham returned to China in May 1938 aboard the U.S.S. Sacramento for a 15-month hitch.
After serving relatively light duty in his first years in the Marine Corps at the Naval Prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Lester received orders just before Christmas 1939 to report for duty at the World’s Fair in New York. Being in the Big Apple in those happy times leading up to the war was a thrill of a lifetime. At every turn, there was fun and happiness.
After the war with Japan began in December 1941, Corporal Graham served in Marine installations primarily on the East Coast of the United States and assignments in Puerto Rico and Cuba.
In April 1942, Corporal Graham was assigned to C Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division. As a part of the Marine Corps’ first major offensive against Japan, the 1st Division attacked on several fronts during the Guadalcanal Campaign. Roughly 7,000 good men were lost in contrast to the deaths of some 30,000 plus resolute Japanese defenders.
During the middle of the six-month unmerciful campaign, Sgt. Graham was promoted to Platoon Sergeant Graham. In July 1943, Graham added a fourth bottom stripe on his sleeve when he was elevated to the rank of Master Gunnery Sergeant.
In December 1943, just three short years after Lester was living the easy life on the busy streets of New York City. Graham found himself entangled in a savage struggle when the First Marine Division staged its second amphibious landing in a series of fights called the Battle of Cape Glouchester.
Somewhere in the fighting on January 23, 1944, First Sergeant Lester F. Graham was killed in action. His body was brought back home and buried beside his father in the Rogers Cemetery, near Empire, in Dodge County, Georgia.
So now you know part of the story of Lester F. Graham, First Marines, a Dublin man, a China Marine, who fought to protect Americans in the volatile streets of Shanghai, China, seventy-five years ago and became the first Laurens Countian to serve in World War II.