Frontera knew it was coming; was ready to go
Joe Frontera knew that his nation’s call to serve in World War II would come.
“My father had a kind of radio that had short wave,” said Frontera, who lives on Hammond St. in Warren. Everyone was quiet “when war stuff came over that short wave because he wanted to know what was going on over there.”
With the information they were hearing, Frontera knew it was only a matter of time before the U.S. would be in the war as well.
The war fumed during the 1930s but exploded in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and by 1940, when Joe was 15, he knew “they really raised hell over there.
“We knew we were going to be in that war some day.”
That sense pervaded the schools during that time.
During his senior year at Warren High School in 1942, Joe said all boys were assigned to pre-induction classes. “You were going to war. It was strictly a pre-induction class,” he explained. “That entailed carpentry, electrical, all the handy-man staff. We… had to go over to Beaty for them classes. I got aptitude in electric.”
He also said the pre-induction classes came with a “real strenuous gym class…. Boy, you got the hell knocked out of you.”
While Joe was still in school, his brother Pete enlisted in the Air Force.
Dominic was drafted 10 days before Joe.
Joe’s draft notice came in July 1943, one month after his graduation from Warren High School.
After a physical in Erie, Frontera was given the choice to enter the Army, Navy or Air Force.
He chose the Navy and was sent to Great Lakes Naval Base in August 1943.
“I just liked water,” he said. “I saw the propaganda movies, Wake Island and guys in the… jungle. I don’t want nothing to do with that. I didn’t want anything to do with that infantry. I had a bed and we had food…. At that time, they needed Navy personnel.”
“Being on a ship, we didn’t have to worry about those mosquitoes.”
And that was thanks in part to the homefront.
“You got to give credit to the homefront,” Frontera said. “They did a great job. Our homefront people did a great job. When I first went in we had nothing. All they did was march us around here and there.”
The pre-induction classes may have helped Frontera score well in an electrical aptitude test.
He was then sent to Little Creek, Virginia for amphibious training for service on a Landing Ship Medium, assigned to LSM 168.
But what is an LSM?
“The Bureau of Ships Engineer at the time,” Frontera said, “(thought) the LST (Landing Ship Tank) was so slow. For landings, it took them hours to unload… The LSM was made special.” The ship met the “need (for) a medium landing ship and that name stayed.” A total of 575 of the ships were built.
He said the ships were fitted with two 40 mm guns, one on the front and one on the back, as well as five 20 mm and approximately 8 machine guns, and noted that they “weren’t offensive-minded ships” but “had something for protection against a suicide plane.”
Frontera explained that the LSM was 203 feet long as opposed to the 340 feet of the LST and was just 34 feet wide. The ship had 49 enlisted men and five officers on the crew. “The LSM crews were called the “Misfits,” Frontera said. “Some men were 40 years old that got drafted.”
“They had elevators in there to bring the equipment down to go off the ramp,” he said, and were capable of carrying 40 troops, jeeps and Sherman tanks. “You name it we could carry it,” he said. “We could load and unload three times in the time an LST could do it once.”
Frontera almost wasn’t on LSM 168.
He said he was “scheduled to be in the Normandy invasion on an amphibious ship. But, as he put it, “showing off” during a training exercise “I lost my coordination and I hurt my shoulder. I lost my group for 10 days (and) went with a group from Farragut, Idaho.”
Going to the Pacific instead of the Atlantic met with Frontera’s approval.
“I was happy to hear I was going to the Pacific,” he said. “I like warm weather and I like it today.”
“I was assigned as a Fireman First Class,” Frontera said when he was first assigned to LSM 168. The crew was bussed from Little Creek to a Navy base at Charleston, SC where they “took LSM 168 on a shakedown cruise on Cape Hatteras, NC, one of the roughest parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the crew was so sea sick. I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t get sick.
“After that, we were sent to Key West, Florida, a hurricane was brewing. We were told to ride it out. The LSM was also a flat bottom (and) had no keel. It was like a floating tin can out there. We looked at that thing (and asked) are you kidding?”
LSM 168 headed to the Pacific after sailing through the Panama Canal in September, 1944.
While the added flexibility of the LSM to approach the beach was invaluable, it wasn’t without risk.
“We would go right to the beach (and) could take them within 10 feet of shore.”
“They had no weather reports in those days. A sextant would tell when the tide was due,” Frontera said. But if you landed, and the tide went out before the unloading was complete, “you sat there for another six hours in Japanese infested islands. Scary.
“One time we went in like that, I think it was the island of Panay in the Visaya island group,” said Frontera. “We were there and we were on dry land. We were given machine guns (and) told to shoot anything in the water.” They were afraid the “Japs would swim and blow it up.”
Their first transport duty was to take four Sherman tanks to New Guinea.
“New Guinea was a pretty hot area for combat,” he said. He recalled an African-American unit whose responsibility was to bring in bodies from the fighting on the island.
“Seeing that for the first time was a little bit sickening,” Frontera said. “You get over it after a while.”
LSM 168 continued work in New Guinea.
“We had a few mop up missions in New Guinea,” Frontera said. “When the Japs were more or less licked, but they were still in the mountain raising hell, (we) took troops into each of the islands there.”
LSM 168 was then all over the Philippine Islands, bringing in heavy artillery, food, tanks, and ammunition as well as the 23rd Infantry Division, to islands such as Leyte, Negros, Panay, Bohol, Samar, Cebu, Palawan, Mindoro and Mindanao.
“That whole center group of islands, the Japs just loaded them up with Japanese soldiers,” said Frontera. “We made several landings at these islands… And whatever was needed from personnel and cargo ships, we’d go back and forth bringing them in.”
Frontera was thankful that the presence of the Japanese air force was minimal in the Philippines by this time. They had shifted their decreasing resources to Okinawa and Japan. “Thank God they took them up there to concentrate on home island defense,” he said.
But at the time, Frontera didn’t know nearly as much about the big picture of what they were doing as he does today.
“We knew nothing as to what and where we were going,” he said, indicating that all he knew was that he was “somewhere in the Pacific.”
After a rest period in the Dutch East Indies, LSM 168 was moved to Morotai “to transport Australian soldiers who fought in North Africa,” Frontera said. “I was 20 years old when we took those guys and let me tell you, young guys matured quickly around those guys.
With a mission in Borneo complete in July of 1945, LSM 168 was ordered back to Luzon in the Philippine Islands to prepare for the invasion of mainland Japan.
“We were to be in the invasion of Kyushu, the lower island of Japan,” said Frontera.
The invasion was to launch Nov. 1, 1945.
“One of the largest convoys in the Pacific was being formed,” he explained. “Thousands of ships of all kids in Luzon. Some of my high school classmates were there… Slim Salerno, Jim Walters, Joe Colosimo… about six from my high school. We visited but couldn’t off the ship. (We) could jump to another ship to talk to them.”
But amid the camaraderie of seeing friends, the training for the invasion of Japan continued and everyone knew the toll would be costly.
Then the United States dropped the atomic bombs, which effectively forced the Japanese to surrender.
“Thank God for President Truman,” Frontera said. “You wouldn’t be interviewing me today. I’d be dead. They were going to go after us,” he explained of the landing craft crews. “We were the ones that brought them (infantry) in there. (Japan) had about 10,000 kamikaze planes, we never would have got in there.”
When the news of the atomic bomb came “we all looked at each other and said ‘What’s that?'”
After the second bomb was dropped, Frontera said officials “kinda explained to us” what the bombs were and what they had done.
The bottom line? The war was over.
Frontera remembers tracer bullets lighting up the skies from all of the ships celebrating the announcement of the Japanese surrender. “We had enough of this war. It was a relief,” he recalled. “We were done.”
But without combat experience, Frontera did not have the points to come home.
“You didn’t go home,” he said. “We had to stay there. Who do you think brought the occupation troops in?”
With those troops delivered, LSM 168 made its way back east to Manila, Guam, Wake Island and, for Christmas, Pearl Harbor.
While the ship was kept out in the bay, Frontera remembers the three days spent at Pearl because they “saw some of the destruction there” from the Japanese attack four years earlier.
They arrived back on the mainland on January 2, 1946 but the Navy “kept us out at sea so we didn’t have New Year’s Eve celebration.”
Regardless, Frontera was “glad to see the USA again.”
They took LSM 168 back to Oregon where it was decommissioned and mothballed. Frontera said he “advanced in rank (from) Fireman First Class to Electrician’s Mate First Class.”
After a 39-day leave when he returned home to Clarendon, Frontera reported back to Seattle where he was discharged on Dec. 3, 1946. At the time of his discharge, he had been awarded the Asiatic Pacific Ribbon with two battle stars, Philippine Presidential Unit Commendation, Philippine Liberation Ribbon with two stars, Combat Action Ribbon, American Theatre Ribbon and Good Conduct Medal.
When he returned to Warren County, there wasn’t any big celebration.
“By the time we came home, all the celebration was over,” Frontera said.
He went to work as an apprentice electrician and met a girl.
“My parents knew my wife’s parents in Italy,” said Frontera. “They lived here in Warren. My parents wanted to see the father of my wife-to-be. They didn’t drive. That’s how I met my wife.”
Joe Frontera and Sarah Pellegrino were married in 1949. They were married for 44 years before Sarah passed away. They had three children, two girls and one boy, who gave them six grand-children.
He said his kids are in their 50s and 60s now. “They’re ready to retire and I’m still going,” he joked.
Frontera knew the manager at the wire department when Sylvania came to Warren in 1956. That friend got him in the door and Frontera retired in 1986 after 30 years with the company.
In his retirement, he has spent many winters in Florida and was an avid golfer and “loved to pitch horseshoes.”
Now, at age 89, he is still concerned about the legacy of LSM 168 and the amphibious forces.
“I am very discouraged,” he said. “People don’t understand what the amphibious forces really did…. The South Pacific was nothing but a Navy war. (We) took those poor kids island hopping. I made the remark to some of my teenage buddies on my ship ‘Are you tired?'” Recalling that they would be on general quarters, combat ready, 20 of 24 hours in a day, he said “when you’re tired you’re tired.
“I’m very happy that I served in the war (and) lucky I didn’t get hurt. When you spend a year and a half over there, that’s a long time. We knew it was harder but we said to each other ‘How much longer do we have to put up with this?’ We knew we were going to a hell of a place. Truman, he did the right thing.”