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Our War: Belleville West grad traded sports gear for Navy bell bottoms

Frank Brestal holds his diary that he started during WWII
Frank Brestal holds his diary that he started during WWII

In the spring of 1944, Frank Brestal's uniform was a pair of shorts and a tank top as he leapt the high hurdles for the Belleville Township High School track team.

He had just finished his last high school football season, hanging up the jersey he wore while kicking field goals and extra points for the Maroons. He was so good he earned the nickname "The Educated Toe."

Before the ink on his diploma was dry, Brestal had a new uniform: The bell bottoms and cap of an apprentice seaman in the United States Navy.

"I enlisted in the V6 program in February of 1944, which was a program that allowed you to sign up then, but wait until after you graduated to report for duty," Brestal said. "I wanted to join the Navy before I got drafted into the infantry because I thought I would rather take my chances on a ship than sleep in a foxhole."

Brestal dreamed of being on an aircraft carrier like his brother James, who was aboard the USS Intrepid, or maybe on a battleship. Instead, he was assigned to LST 843, a 327-foot-long, 60-foot-wide ship with a pair of doors at the front that opened like a clam shell. The ship, which when empty extended three feet below the waterline in front and six feet at the rear, was made to be beached. Its doors would fly open and a ramp would come down, allowing it to deposit tanks, trucks, jeeps and men into battle. Subsequently, its crew was deposited into the line of fire.

LST 843 was built at Ambridge, Pa., and was launched on Nov. 29, 1944. It was a workhorse in the battle for Okinawa from April through June 1945, ferrying reinforcements from the Philippines and other south Pacific bases to Okinawa while carrying wounded or shell-shocked units away for a rest.

Brestal remembered being fired upon as the ship landed to drop off its cargo and being anchored 100 yards offshore as he could both hear the exchange of rifle and machine gun fire on land and the whoosh of shells from Navy battleships and cruisers as they flew overhead toward Japanese pillboxes.

"We would have an air raid every now and then, and a couple of times the kamikaze suicide planes would crash so close that the deck of our ship would be showered with shrapnel from plane parts," Brestal said. "But none of that was as scary as the typhoons."

Only two men were lost from LST 843, and both of them were swept over the side during a storm that battered the ship with 40-foot-tall waves as it struggled to stay afloat.

Brestal said while the first trip to Okinawa was hair-raising, the second his ship made was heartbreaking. When it arrived, following a fierce battle, pieces of battered ships and planes were floating in the water. And so were the bodies of sailors who were killed in action.

The memory caused the veteran to fight back tears 63 years after the sight.

"We picked up the 305th Infantry," Brestal said with his voice cracking from emotion. "They were there for 60 days and when we came back, there were 20 left from the original company."

Typically, a company has about 160 men and five officers.

All the details were carefully written in a journal that Brestal secretly kept.

"We weren't really supposed to do it," Brestal said of his journal. "But I don't think there is anything they can do to me about it now."

Another thing he wasn't supposed to do was reveal where he was. But he and his future wife, Wildamae, worked out a code so he could let her know.

He said he would spell out the site name of the place he was by putting a false middle initial in his name. If he was in the Philippines, the first letter would come from Frank P. Brestal, the second from Frank H. Brestal and so on.

While the memories of the dead sailors still haunt him, all of his wartime memories weren't bad.

His LST was amongst the first to land on mainland Japan at the end of the war. He was one of the first few Americans to set foot on Japanese soil when he went ashore at Yokohama.

"All that you would see were women, children and men that were too old to fight," Brestal said. "They wouldn't make eye contact with you, and as soon as they could, they would disappear."

He remembered going to Tokyo where it seemed like everything except the Emperor's Palace was bombed flat.

"Within a few blocks of the palace, everything was just leveled," Brestal said. "But they didn't touch the palace."

It was Thanksgiving time when Brestal found his ship along with his brother's in Tokyo Bay.

"We used semaphore signalers to ask if he could come aboard my ship or I could come aboard his," Brestal said. "Finally, they gave me permission to come on board, although they told me I had to be off by 3 p.m. because they were getting ready to sail."

The brothers had a Thanksgiving meal together then wrote a letter to their parents before Frank was back to his ship to watch his brother head for home.

In early 1946, Brestal finally got to come back to the states. But he wasn't yet discharged from the Navy. He periodically had to check in, but with the war over he was sent home.

"My father told me, 'If I was you, I would never quit the Navy. All they do is tell you to stay home.'"

Finally, he got his honorable discharge.

"I told my father one day that I was thinking about going down to get my 52-20 and he asked me what that was," Brestal said. "I told him that when you got out of the service, you were eligible for 52 weeks to get a $20 bill once a week. He told me I better get down to the Carpenter's Union hall and become an apprentice."

Brestal was accepted and went to work for $32 a week. He remained a carpenter until he retired in 1984.

"It was amazing to hear all of this," Wildamae Brestal said. "In all the years we have been married, he has never talked about these things before. It's amazing to know that he played a role in such a big part of our history."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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