I have been spending quite a bit of time with my grandfather in the past year, and my wife and I visit him every Friday. Yesterday we talked at length about his service in World War II as a Seabee, especially the months he was stationed on a Pacific island after the Battle of Peleliu.
The draft board deemed Chuck Maples fit for service in 1943, and he spent about 12 months stateside before being shipped out in the fall of 1944 for the Pacific theater. After a short stay at Guam, he and his Seabee battalion next traveled to Peleliu, where he stayed until his term of service ended in 1945.
Chuck worked in a transportation garage as a mechanic, fixing such items as vehicles and pond pumps, and he shared with me quite a few memories of his work. One of the first vehicles he repaired was a recovered Japanese steamroller, which he and his buddies enjoyed driving around the island at "all of two miles an hour." One of his pet projects was trying to get running a three-wheeled Japanese motorcycle, but he "could never get the damned thing to run."
An officer one day came in with an unusual request. One of the other officers had a Jeep that could produce an impressive plume of smoke, and it seems the officer had a case of smoke-envy. My grandfather showed him how to add some oil to the gasoline to produce the effect, and then demonstrated by dropping some oil in the carburetor, at which point the officer's "eyes lit up like a little kid at Christmas."
Chuck always enjoyed playing baseball and had some natural talent, so when the officers began asking around at roll call for players on the team, my grandfather acknowledged that he "had played some ball back home." This somehow became interpreted that he was a semi-pro player, and soon the officers began boasting that they "had a pro on their team, and they were going to murder the other teams when Chuck got up to the plate."
He didn't have the heart to break their dreams, and I guess he played well enough to keep the officers happy.
Chuck had little interaction with the Japanese, as the captured soldiers were held on the other side of the island. Occasionally he would see Japanese soldiers working on road construction detail, but his most grisly memory is of seeing human remains in caves on the island.
"The flamethrowers got them, and sometimes all that was left was bones," he observed.
As my grandfather traveled on the island, one of the sights that sticks in his mind were the piles of weapons and ammunition that U.S. forces had recovered. He noted that "all along the roads you would see stacks of grenades, guns, and boxes of bullets." He carried around an old Japanese rifle that he found for a few months, intending to bring it home as a souvenir, but he set it down one day and "some sonofabitch stole it."
One day while swimming in the Pacific, Chuck found himself in turbulent waters. He thought that he was going to drown in the tropical waters, and he noted that "this was as close to dying as he came in the war." He told me that "somewhere in a Peleliu tree is a pair of black Navy swimming trunks" that he tossed, since he never went swimming in the Pacific again.