In May and June, The Buffalo News will tell the stories of some of Western New York’s veterans who served in the armed services in World War II and beyond.
As an artilleryman, Theodore W. Balliett saw nearly a year of combat in France and Germany and won a Bronze Star for courage under fire.
Today, as he prepares to celebrate his 98th birthday in June, Balliett says his wartime experiences were no big deal.
"I had a job to do. I was called to do the job. I did the job. The job is over and we came home," Balliett said during an interview in his Buffalo home. "The World War II veterans, as a majority, did not come home and talk about the war. I don't know why. We just didn't."
He said he never thought he would be killed, unlike some of his buddies who expected to die – and did. Balliett survived several incidents without a scratch.
"I'm not a hero. The real heroes are dead," said Balliett. "It was still combat, but it wasn't as bad as infantry combat."
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Balliett's 344th Field Artillery Battalion landed on Utah Beach, by far the more lightly defended of the two beaches American forces assaulted on the German-held Normandy coast.
"They missed the initial landing area, is what I heard. I didn't know they missed it because I didn't know where it was anyway," Balliett said.
Casualties were light at first.
"The first time we went forward, it was quiet and peaceful. We were supposed to dig a foxhole," Balliett said. "If you've ever been to Normandy, you can't dig a foxhole like you see on television. You had roots, you had rock. It was just enough to lay down, but it's not really protecting you."
That's where Balliett survived a "tree burst," a shell that struck a tree and turned the wood into shrapnel, killing the soldier in the next hole. And it's where he successfully fled from a barn the Germans obliterated with shell fire while he was trying to sleep there.
After the Germans retreated from Normandy, Balliett and his buddies checked out what their guns had done in the Falaise Gap, an escape route the Allies cut off.
"They took us artillery people on a tour. That sounds good, huh?" Balliett said. "You could see the bodies burnt. It stunk. It made me sick to my stomach, all these bodies of the Germans. We wiped them out there."
He earned his Bronze Star Feb. 1, 1945, near Heckhuscheid, Germany.
The citation says Pfc. Balliett "assisted in establishing an artillery observation post and traversed an open field through intense shelling to lay the necessary telephone wire. On three occasions he advanced through unrelenting fire to locate and repair breaks in the line."
"They say three occasions. I have no idea. It could have been three, could have been two, could have been five," he said. "All I remember is we ran out and made the splice."
Balliett, a Buffalo native who attended School 45 and Lafayette High School in 1941, was drafted and assigned to the artillery during basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C.
He crossed the Atlantic aboard the USS John Ericsson, which had been a luxury liner before the Pentagon requisitioned it.
"By the time you got to England, you were worn out," Balliett said. "You only had two meals a day because there were just too many men. By the time you got to stand up at the table – you didn't have to sit – you didn't feel like eating. It wasn't that good. The Red Cross gave us a package containing soap. It didn't lather like it was supposed to. It never cleaned you."
After arrival in England, the men ran for the showers on shore. "Ice-cold water," Balliett said.
After the war, he returned to Buffalo, married the former Bernice Twist, who died in 1989, and had two daughters, Suzanne, who is deceased, and Jo Ann Michael. He worked 39 years at Western Electric.
It's possible none of that might have happened if President Harry S. Truman hadn't ordered two atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan in 1945, making it unnecessary for Balliett and his buddies to invade that country after the Germans surrendered.
"That's why I have a Truman calendar," said Balliett, pointing to the wall of his home.