Connellsville man recalls World War II battles
By Karl Polacek
Published: Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, 4:45 p.m.
For Martin Griglak of Connellsville, enlisting in the Navy seemed a natural reaction to seeing all of his high school friends go to war. A draft had begun to take young men in their last year of high school.
Griglak, 87, said the draft began by registering men ages 21 to 45. After Pearl Harbor, the age range was extended to 18 to 65. Griglak said that by the time he reached his last years in high school — 1943 and 1944 — officials were running out of men to draft.
“They (draft officials) went into all of the high schools in the country and they said, ‘If you're 18, in December (1943 at the end of the first semester), you got your diploma.' ”
With most of his friends gone to the military, Griglak talked his parents into signing for him. He enlisted in the Navy.
He underwent recruit training, then was sent to San Francisco.
“They brought us in from all over the country,” he said.
The recruits were assigned to the Naval training and distribution center at Shoemaker, Calif.
“When they had a whole lot of guys, they took us and put us in the stockade, so we wouldn't run away,” Griglak said. “In the middle of the night, they took us down to the dock and they had this big (transport) ship for men. We all had to go on board that thing. We went in there and when it got daylight, they got ready and they took off. We didn't know where we were going.”
He didn't know it at the time, but his days assigned to the Navy would soon be changed. The Navy and Marines were all part of the Department of the Navy.
During the attack on Iwo Jima, the Marines were losing up to 9,000 casualties a day. The battle for Peleilu, occurring in 1944, was like the later battle for Iwo Jima: The Marines were losing many men.
Griglak said the island-hopping campaign was still going forward to Saipan, Tinian and other locations.
Her found himself involved in the invasion of Okinawa.
The first stop for the ship was Enewetak.
“We could not believe it,” he said. “As far as anybody could see, there were ships, battleships and every kind of a thing, all laying out and all over the place.”
When his ship got to Okinawa, the sailors he was with were told to take their sea bags — used to hold their uniforms and equipment — and get off there. When he and the others hit the beach, things were quiet. He said the troops landing on the other side of the island were hit first. Then the Japanese turned their attention to the Marines and sailors who had landed where he was.
The Navy guys with him were told, “OK, you guys are now Marines.” Their sea bags were taken and put into storage and they were given their “greens” — Marine Corps combat fatigues.
They were told they had to take two airfields, Kadina and Yontan, in the central part of Okinawa.
“We were sailors, but we were Marines,” said Griglak. “So we went in and we took a lot of hits.”
He and his fellow former sailors got into very heavy combat after taking the airfields.
“The Army came up from the south, and they were in a dry riverbed,” he said. “And what happened when they got in there, they got ambushed. The Japanese were waiting for them. So they called us up and said, ‘You guys are going to have to go down there and relieve them. They're pinned down and they're getting killed.' So we turned around.”
He wandered into one incident that still disturbs him. He hesitated to talk about it. He was going through a cave going south with another member of his unit when he found a treasured souvenir and earned a painful memory.
“We were going in, in through a narrow area to another place and then there was an (Japanese) officer,” Griglak said. “He was laying there. And I had set my rifle aside. And the guy in front of me said, ‘Look at him. He's going for his gun.' My buddy saved my life.”
At that point, Griglak refused to say more about what happened.
“That's pretty hard for me to say,” Griglak said.
Later, he said he had not told anyone about the incident until his daughter got it out of him just a year or so ago.
That began his part in the taking of the Shuri Line. His fellow Navy/Marines suffered heavy casualties in the battle.
After the battle, the men who were used as Marines were returned to fleet duty.
When the war ended, he was sent by ship up the Yangtze River to Shanghai, China. The sailors were told not to bring any souvenirs with them. They were told anyone caught with the souvenirs the next day would be punished.
Griglak had a Japanese officer's sword and a rifle. He hid the sword in his bunk, but threw the rifle overboard. He could hear splashes all night long as fellow sailors dumped their souvenirs.
When he got to the ship that was to take him farther up the coast, he was told he could not carry the sword on board but it would be kept for him to bring home. That sword now sits on his mantle.
Even though the war was over, Japanese troops all over China refused to surrender. Griglak and a large group of sailors were placed on a ship and sent to Tsingtao, now Qingdao.
“They didn't want to give up, and they wanted to die for the emperor,” he said.
From there, they brought Marines back down to be sent back to the United States. Griglak and his fellow sailors ran into a problem. Because they were sailors, there was no record of their combat service. No one knew whether they had enough points to be shipped home.
“They didn't even know what I was,” he said.
He said he met with “a guy who was a secretary, like.”
He was told there was no folder on him, so the guy made him up one. He came back to the United States on a ship with the Marines. The ship docked in San Diego, where there was a huge celebration. When it was over, the Marines went to Camp Pendleton to be discharged.
The 60 sailors with Griglak were then sent to Navy installations to be discharged. Griglak said he had to travel across the country before he left the Navy.
Griglak said he had no marketable skills when the war ended. The big corporations had football leagues. He caught on as a fullback with an Alcoa team, the North End Tornados. After a few years, he was so beat up, he had to quit playing football.
He met Rita Ternatozz, who was working as a secretary in the Dunbar Township School District after graduating with high honors. She would go to the football games when he played. They were married on Nov. 24, 1949. They had four children.
He got a job with AT&T and became a union negotiator and a lobbyist. He also became involved in politics and served for a time as a Secret Service agent, even guarding the Kennedys during the 1960s.
Years later, he went out to San Diego to visit with this son, a medical doctor. His granddaughter was to be christened. A Navy admiral was to be her godfather. He questioned Griglak and told him that, yes, Griglak was “one of them.” As it turned out, the Navy had been looking “for them” since the end of the war. The next day, he presented Griglak with a special medallion honoring his service on Okinawa.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-626-3538.
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