TORRINGTON – Henry Peterson lives in a small, humble room at Evergreen Court in Torrington. It’s not fancy – but it’s his.
The walls are adorned with religious images. There’s a large TV, an easy chair and a desk cluttered with family pictures and various correspondence.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like the trappings of a man who was the tip of the spear for some of the most important combat operations in the Pacific Theater during World War II. In his room, his military service is relegated to a single, poster-sized frame. It holds a few pictures of Peterson as a younger man in his United State Marine Corps uniform. There’s a Purple Heart, and an American flag – yellowed with age, but otherwise immaculately kept.
Peterson is 94 years old. He has aged well and still gets around under his own power without much difficulty, but the heavy hands of time weigh down everyone – even the warriors.
But mention his military service – boot camp in San Diego, shipping out to the South Pacific, his years hopping islands in Micronesia – and he’ll light up. A spark comes to his eye, and his voice gets a little stronger. His back gets a little straighter, and he’ll look you right in the eye.
“I’m just a proud Marine,” he said. “That’s all I am.”
“What I should do”
History remembers the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, as President Franklin Roosevelt called it, “a day that will live in infamy.”
For Peterson, it was a call to action.
Peterson was still in high school then, and living in Laramie. He said he’d never thought much about the military before that infamous day, but when he heard about the attack, all he wanted to do was join up. He was a young man, angry about the attack with revenge on his mind. He dropped out of school and, after some debate with his parents, joined the United States Marine Corps in 1942 at 17 years old.
“There was just something in my mind because a foreign country had bombed our United States,” he said. “I said ‘well, I’m going to go get them guys,’ not realizing what war was. I just thought that was what I should do.”
Peterson attended basic training in San Diego, Calif., and soon after he joined the First Special Operations unit in the United States military – the Marine Raiders. The Raiders were, according to Peterson, the World War II equivalent to the modern-day Navy Seals. The Raiders specialized in conducting high-risk missions behind enemy lines. Peterson was assigned to the Fourth Marine Raider Battalion, and served under Lieutenant James Roosevelt – the son of the President.
In August 1943, Peterson got what he signed up for and shipped off to fight the Japanese.
“Many sad things”
“War is Hell,” Peterson said. “Things can happen you don’t even understand.”
He may not have realized what war was when he signed up, but Peterson learned about it when he arrived. The Marine Raiders were an elite unit, and military leaders used them to deliver the first blows in combat.
Peterson and his comrades saw action in some of the most important battles of the Pacific Theater. He led the charge at Guam, Guadalcanal and Okinawa, just to name off some of the most infamous fights he took part in. According to Peterson, the Marine Raiders would sometimes slip in under the cover of darkness, sometimes swimming to shore and handling their business during the first days of an attack.
“We would do the real quick and dirty work,” he said. “We would go into combat and get out right quick. We had a lot of casualties.”
Peterson said he is proud he served in the South Pacific, but doing the quick and dirty work had consequences.
“There were many sad things,” he said. “I can remember all of those things.”
One of the saddest things Peterson was witness to occurred during the invasion of Guam in 1942. Peterson was a machine gun commander, and he and his fellow Marines held a piece of high ground when they noticed a group of Japanese soldiers below.
“We shot at them with our machine guns and rifles,” Peterson said. “When they were all down, we went to see how many we killed. We turned some of them over and they were women with babies. The baby was shot, the mom was shot. That is one of the worst things that I can remember.
“I remember shooting down at them because we thought they were soldiers. We did not realize they were women made up as soldiers. That was a sad thing. There were only two babies that survived. In my mind, I would say ‘well, was I responsible for their death or was it the guy next to me?’”
As is the nature of war, Peterson wasn’t always the hunter. The Marine Raiders captured a number of islands, and on one of them, the Japanese military played a deadly guessing game with the Americans.
“Japanese soldiers would just come out of the ground and they would shoot at you,” he said. “If you got him, you did and if you didn’t he would just pull the wood back over top of them and you wouldn’t see him. We had this happen and I did shoot some of them.”
Peterson’s most trying experience of the war came at Okinawa – where he earned his Purple Heart. The Battle of Okinawa lasted from April 1 until May 22, 1945, according to history.com, and was one of the biggest battles of World War II. Peterson was one of the 180,000 soldiers who invaded the island, which would have provided the staging area for an eventual invasion of the Japanese mainland. Over 12,000 Americans lost their lives at Okinawa.
During the battle, Peterson and his fellow soldiers came ashore expecting heavy enemy resistance. Instead, there was none – the Japanese forces had lured the Americans into a trap further inland.
“We didn’t see a Japanese soldier anywhere,” Peterson said. “We went all over that place looking for something and we couldn’t find it. But boy, that next day all hell broke loose. They were everywhere. They were all around us. We had quite a time. That was one of the biggest battles of World War II. It was even bigger than some of the battles in Europe.”
Sometime during the battle, Peterson was wounded and injured his neck and left arm – though he doesn’t remember how.
“I tried many times to remember what happened,” he said. “I got blown up. All I know is I was injured and I still have problems from it.”
The wound wasn’t enough to stop Peterson. After Okinawa, he boarded a ship to Japan. The United States had already dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Japanese hadn’t surrendered. When Peterson and the Raiders boarded the ship, they were going to invade.
“We thought we were going to go into combat,” he said. “Actually, the United States government knew the Japanese were going to surrender. We went in there knowing that we might end up fighting. We had no idea about the truce.”
When the ship landed in Japan, the Raiders were told the war was over.
Peterson was discharged a few months later and returned to Wyoming – but sometimes, even 73 years after he left Japan, the war still weighs heavy on Peterson’s mind.
“You have all these things in your mind you remember from a long time ago,” he said.
After the war, Peterson worked as a carpenter, a police officer and a firefighter. He owned a filling station next to War Memorial Stadium in Laramie and employed University of Wyoming football players. He built and ran a bowling alley.
More importantly, he married and raised a family.
In his room at Evergreen Court, it’s apparent his faith and family are first and foremost in his life – but the Marine Raider is still there, right under the surface. He won’t hesitate to show off a closet full of Marine Corps and Devil Dog hats, and jackets with the Marine Raider patch.
And then there’s that flag, the one in the frame in Peterson’s room that has gone threadbare over the decades. It’s housed in the same frame as his Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal and his other commendations – and it means as much to him.
Peterson carried that flag with him in the South Pacific. It went to Guam, to Guadalcanal, and to Okinawa. It went to war with him, and it came home with him. It’s a symbol of what he gave to our country – and he’s proud of it.
“I’m proud that I was a marine and I’m proud that I was in the Pacific,” he said. “I’m also proud of our country.”