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thedrifter
05-06-04, 05:25 PM
Marine who led platoon into Saipan alive and well at 87
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BY TERESA SMITH
Times-Union Staff Writer
Warsaw, Indiana
5/5/2004

The 4th Marines hit the Japanese stronghold of Saipan the morning of June 15, 1944. Hitting the beach under heavy artillery, the 4th was escorted by an Army amphibian tank battalion.

One platoon was led by Don Frantz, now 87, who makes his home on Harrison Street in Warsaw.

“I was the senior first lieutenant at the time and I had the honor of going in first. That is as hot as it gets,” Frantz said of the start of a 24-day battle that left 4,200 U.S. soldiers dead and 12,000 wounded. The Japanese were ready for the invasion, fighting viciously to hold their long-established strategic position on the 14-mile-long, five-mile-wide island.

“The Marines are the greatest fighters in the world. Our job was to take them halfway in, drop them off and turn around and bring back more. Then we were told to go all the way in until the Marines established a front and then we would go back for more.”

The platoon made the beach and was stopped in its forward progress by an elevated railroad. The tractors couldn’t climb the steep embankment, so they started around the perimeter.

“The Marines got out and unloaded. They weren’t under any fire until they got to the top of the hill. And they went right on in.

“We got part way around and we got hit. Those of us who were hit pretty bad, well, we just laid there all day.”

Frantz, carrying a head- and shoulder-full of shrapnel, lost track of time. He was found by three Marines, who helped him back to the beach. There he was temporarily treated by his battalion doctor, who loaded him onto a landing vehicle tractor. They headed out into the Philippine Sea, back to the safety of a Navy ship.

“I don’t know how far we got, but we hit something or something hit us. That LVT sank like a rock.”

Fortunately, they were spotted, rescued and taken aboard a troop transport.

“To this minute, I don’t know what ship it was, what number it was or anything,” he said of the boat that carried him back to Pearl Harbor one month later.

The trip to a hospital took 30 days because Fifth Fleet Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, in command of “the whole works,” as Frantz said, gave orders to all ships afloat, excepting battleships and cruisers, which were heavily armed, to run east to the Marshall Islands. What was left of the Japanese air fleet was coming out of the Philippines.

When the ship Frantz was on arrived at the destination, the Navy had taken down most of the Japanese fliers. The aircraft carrier Intrepid had been badly damaged during battle. Intrepid planes and pilots were transferred to Frantz’s ship.

“Loaded to the gills, we went back to the Marshall Islands and on to Pearl Harbor.”

By the time he reached Hawaii, Frantz couldn’t open his mouth. He was badly underweight. Surgeons removed shell fragments from his face and shoulder. When a piece under his right ear was removed, the hearing in that ear went with it.

One piece of shrapnel went in at his right temple, passed between his larynx and spinal cord and settled on the left side of his neck. Since that bit wasn’t life threatening, the doctors let it wait for more skilled hands back in the States.

After completing officers’ candidate school and accepting his first assignment, Frantz fully expected to relieve the 1st Armored Division in Africa.

A 1939 graduate of Purdue University, Frantz was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Bluffton in 1942 when he was drafted.

“My draft number was up and I was guaranteed a job with the USDA after the war if I were drafted,” he said. After basic training and OCS at Fort Knox, Ky., Frantz was attached to the Army’s 6th Armored Division, 68th Armored Regiment, at Camp Chaffee, Ark., as a second lieutenant.

The regiment immediately began training in Texas and Louisiana “with a bunch of tanks ready for the scrap heap.

“They wouldn’t start and they wouldn’t stop once you got them started. The only way to get them stopped was to cut off the fuel. Then the cylinder would dry out. Then you had to call a maintenance man to open it up and put some fuel in there so it would go again.”

The unit went on to train in the California desert. The equipment was a little better out West, complete with two Cadillac motors. Frantz and several other young officers were sent back to Fort Knox to meet with Cadillac people on the engine’s specifications.

Frantz took advantage of the trip, marrying Mildred in Bluffton. The couple have been married 62 years.

Frantz and his regiment were assigned to the 4th Marine Division following the British victory on the Dark Continent.

“The Army certainly didn’t need us lightweight tank techs fighting the Germans in Europe.”

What the Marines needed were vehicles to get over reefs and onto the South Pacific island beaches.

“The 1st Marines, they took an awful beating in Tarawa. They had reefs to contend with down there and tried to get boats over them. The boats got hung up. Sometimes they had to walk in. Sometimes the reef was knee deep, sometimes it was 100 feet deep. The Marines were just decimated.

“They had to have something to get over the reefs and they looked to the light tank battalions – the same kind as on the (Kosciusko County) courthouse lawn with .37 mm rifles with a turret and armor-piercing gun.

“So we were attached to the 4th Marine Division and based in Hawaii. In June of 1944, we were scheduled to take the Marianias Islands – Saipan, Tinian and Guam – the Japanese army headquarters in the Pacific.

“And take it we did.”

From Hawaii, Frantz was sent to Nichols General Hospital in Louisville, Ky., the Army’s neurosurgical center at the time. He was there for two months while physicians punched and looked at the shell fragment in his neck, but, again, never removed it.

The adjutant general classified Frantz as essential personnel and he was assigned to Ft. Knox on a permanent limited duty status.

Mildred was summoned from Indiana. The couple secured an apartment near the base and “lived the life of Riley for the rest of the war.”

But that piece of Saipan shrapnel became a real pain in the neck. It started to abscess.

“In 1950, our family doctor was a surgeon who had been with the 1st Armored Division in Africa. He and another young surgeon went in through the back of my mouth and got it. He wouldn’t take any money for the operation.”

Frantz has never returned to the Pacific.

“I didn’t want to go the first time.”

The battalion was decorated by President Franklin Roosevelt as a distinguished Marine Unit and by President Harry Truman as a distinguished Army unit.

Frantz was awarded a Purple Heart.

Frantz has jotted down the Scripps Howard estimates of U.S. casualties for the South Pacific. Losses at Saipan – 4,200 killed, 12,000 wounded; losses at Iwo Jima 4,300 killed, 12,000 wounded; and at Okinawa, there were 12,500 killed, and 35,500 wounded.

Frantz eventually came to Kosciusko County and served as an Extension educator and was the WRSW radio station public affairs director. He was named Man of the Year in 1971. He was a regular columnist for the Times-Union. He was instrumental in establishing Kosciusko Community Hospital and the Kosciusko County Leadership Academy, and personally seeded some of the first greens at Rozella Ford Golf Club.


Ellie