Memories of bloody Pacific battle still fresh
Seabees carried ammo, helped the wounded at Peleliu
By TIFFANY PAKKALA
Posted: Monday, March 26, 2007
If Frank Baltes could have traded places with the dead soldiers he buried during World War II, he would have. "I thought the guys that died first were the lucky ones because we were all going to die eventually. I just kept wondering what they would tell my mother when I died," said Baltes, now 82 and living in Northwest St. Johns County. The retired Navy chief still holds those days in the bloody Battle of Peleliu as the toughest in his 20 years with the Navy.
Baltes was part of the 33rd Construction Battalion, which put aside its usual building and construction duties at the start of the battle. Instead, the Seabees had to run to the front lines of fighting to deliver ammunition. They returned with dead and wounded soldiers on stretchers and dug as many as 100 shallow graves a day.
Some of the Seabees used bulldozers to dig pits and bury groups of dead Japanese soldiers, but the Americans were buried in individual graves hallowed out by hand with small shovels. Baltes was among the Seabees who had to dig.
The young Minnesota boy vowed to bury something else if he survived: his memory. It took him 50 years before he could speak of those days in the South Pacific.
For Baltes, a farm boy who enlisted on his 18th birthday, joining the Navy was a chance to see the world while doing his part in the war. He had never been on a train or a ship and had never seen the ocean until he joined. When he was assigned to the Seabee unit, he was taught to construct buildings and airport runways. During most of the war, his unit built up islands all over the South Pacific, just as they were trained. But, during the battle, Baltes was faced with a job no training could have prepared him for.
With his first view of Peleliu on Sept. 15, 1944, he knew this place would be different.
"As we pulled toward the island, I could see the airplanes bombing (the Japanese). Every now and then, you'd see one of them drop out of the sky and crash," Baltes said.
He watched as Marines headed to the shore on Higgins boats, the landing craft used extensively throughout the war. Then, he heard a commander call his name.
About a third of his Seabee unit had to ride ashore. Some men objected, only climbing onto the boat when the commander threatened to shoot them if they didn't. But Baltes followed the orders as soon as they were issued.
"I was a kid, just doing what I was told to do," he said. "After growing up on a farm, I was used to doing as I was told, even if I didn't know how to do it at first."
When his Higgins boat pulled ashore, Baltes remembers running down the bow ramp, dragging equipment onto the beach with the other Seabees. Then he was put to work, rushing to the front lines with ammunition and running back with wounded soldiers. He had to leave the dead where they fell until the wounded were taken care of.
Baltes was never shot at, and he never had to use his weapon.
"We just snuck in, picked up bodies and snuck out," he said.
He carried hundreds of wounded soldiers to the beach, laying them down to await boats that would take them to a hospital ship.
Once the Seabees were able to return to the battle lines to retrieve the dead, they dug 1 1/2-foot holes for each body and buried them.
They worked until they were too exhausted to carry on, then they slept in foxholes. Baltes remembers waking up once and finding shrapnel from a Japanese Howitzer shell on his chest.
"The Japanese almost took the island, and I would have slept right through it," he said.
American troops had control of almost the entire island within days of their arrival. The exception was a mountain in which the Japanese hid in caves. As the fighting to win the mountain carried on, the rest of the island was ready for the Seabees to build up.
Baltes thanked God he survived those early days. The devout Catholic attended a chaplain's makeshift mass services on the beach every Sunday.
When the battle ended and the Americans overtook the island, Baltes and the other Seabees returned to the burial site to give the dead men a proper burial. They covered the area in a giant mound of dirt five feet deep, ensuring the dead were the traditional six feet below ground. Then they placed crosses above each grave.
Baltes said nothing of his experience in Peleliu when he finally returned to Minnesota a year later.
"Something in your mind makes you want to keep yourself from thinking about it, to keep you sane in your own mind," he said.
He left the Navy for a while, then he returned as an aviation machinist's mate, serving 20 years before retiring in Jacksonville.
Baltes moved on with his life, having seven children with his wife, Connie. He continued to attend mass daily, and he continued to keep his story secret. Then, in the 1990s, he changed his mind.
"I just started talking about it one day, and it all started coming out," he said.
Baltes said the world would be an entirely different place if the men he fought beside had not been willing to give their lives and fight for the United States.
The veteran, himself, would have had an entirely different life.
"If it wasn't for the war, I'd probably still be in a little village in Minnesota," he said.
Though his time on Peleliu was difficult, Baltes is proud that he was part of the massive team that won the war.
"When you're fighting a war like that," he said, "there isn't much you can do unless everyone agrees to work together. Everyone's job was hard."
If asked, Baltes said, he would do it all again.