V-E Day, May 8, 1945

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of V-E Day, when World War II ended in Europe with the utter defeat of the Nazi regime.

That military conflict is the one with which I most closely connect, primarily because, as my interest in history developed, most of the books I read tended to be about that war. Although I grew up during the Vietnam War, it was too current for many books to have been written about it when I was developing my love of reading. Besides, I had an uncle who was directly engaged with the earlier war in Europe, and I saw his military souvenirs from that conflict. As an adult, I became interested in tracing his footsteps through that war in an attempt to learn as closely as I could where he had been and what he experienced.

Although the infamous fire in the St. Louis record depository destroyed his (and thousands of other servicemen’s) military records, I have been able to piece together enough through the history of the units he was part of to get a pretty good idea of the path he trod.

Uncle Dillon Summers was inducted into the U.S. Army in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, as part of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion (patch shown here), 3rd Armored Division, First Army, under General Omar Bradley. He trained in armored warfare at Camp Polk, Louisiana, and the Desert Training Center in California and then had advanced artillery training at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. On September 3, 1943, he embarked for England with the 3rd Armored Division aboard the S.S. Shawnee. He got further training in Warminster, England, before landing on Omaha Beach on June 25, 1945, D-day + 19. The 391st AFA began firing on the Germans the next day.

 

 

Dillon was a tank driver for artillery forward observers (FOs) of Combat Command B (CCB). FOs moved out in front of the main lines, identified enemy targets, and called in 155 mm artillery strikes against them. As such, he was in constant danger. He was involved in the Battle for St. Lo; Operation Cobra, the breakout from the bocage, or hedgerow country of Normandy; the closing of the Falaise Gap; the drive into Belgium; the breaching of the Siegfried Line; the crossing of the Rhine near Cologne; and the liberation of the concentration camp at Nordhausen/Dora Mittelbau, where the Nazis used slave labor to make their V-2 rockets.

As best I can ascertain, combat for Uncle Dillon’s unit ended on April 24, 1945, when CCB was relieved by the 9th Infantry Division and went into a period of rest and maintenance in the vicinity of Sangershausen. I assume that he was still there on May 8, 1945, when they received word of V-E Day. (On May 12, the unit moved to occupy Neu-Isenburg, a sector south of Frankfurt. They moved again on August 14 to a sector between Stuttgart and Nuremberg.)

 

Although I can trace (with some frustrating gaps in information) his general steps throughout his active combat duty, I have no idea what his reaction was to the end of hostilities. Was it elation? Was it a heavy sigh of relief? Was it an anticlimactic shrug? I’ll never know. I only know that what he witnessed firsthand changed him, and he never (in my hearing anyway) talked about it.

But the United States clearly won that war, unlike the Vietnam War, from which we merely withdrew to allow the enemy to walk into and seize their original objective virtually unopposed. Maybe that is another reason I feel such an affinity for the history of World War II: it was a clear, decisive victory.

Be that as it may, we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to those who fought in World War II, whether in Europe or the Pacific theaters and whether on the front line of battle, as my uncle did, or in the far-off and virtually unknown theaters of relative inactivity, such as the Aleutians (see my article “The Forgotten Theater: The Aleutians Campaign” in World at War, June-July 2018, which, I learned this past weekend, is available at Barnes & Noble). That generation is fast passing from us, and we should both learn as much as we can from them and express our gratitude before they are all gone and we lose that opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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Tell Us a Farm Story, Daddy!

When my siblings and I were just youngsters, our father often told us stories from his Depression-era childhood, when he grew up on a dairy farm. Daddy was a sole son, so he had a lot of responsibility on the farm, but he also collected a lot of experiences that became grist for his story mill.

Although we kids viewed his storytelling as a means of our entertainment (and maybe Daddy also was entertained by telling them), there was a greater purpose behind them. He wanted to preserve our heritage for us, and he hoped that we would remember not only the stories but also the lessons they taught.

We called Daddy’s stories “farm stories,” although the setting for some of them was not the farm. “Tell us a farm story, Daddy!” we’d cry in chorus when we’d see him sit down in his recliner after supper. Sometimes he would be too tired from a long day of work. But often he regaled us with several stories, much to our delight, even if we’d heard the same stories over and over.

Sometimes he told stories other than “farm stories.” Such as Peter Rabbit. But it was his version of that story, because he always added some details that weren’t in the traditional version. For example, he might start out, “One upon a time, there was a family of rabbits: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, Peter–and Sharp!”

Having heard the story repeatedly, we knew that Sharp was coming, but we always interrupted him at that point to ask, “Who was Sharp?”

He never told us; we just accepted it as an unexplained but essential part of his story. We accepted the added character so readily that whenever he began to tell the story and commenced listing the characters, we all chimed in unison at the appropriate instant, “and Sharp!

Part of our growing up included my parents’ instruction in important life values. The farm stories that Daddy told included, subtly, those values. Our parents sought to instill those values in us with the hope and prayer that they would one day become our values, values that we accepted not as theirs but as our own convictions.

Preservation of such values comes as a result of tales told generation after generation. Failure to tell and retell them and failure to listen to and heed them or to think lightly of them leads to their loss. I hope that doesn’t happen to our family’s stories and values and heritage. That’s why I told Daddy’s “farm stories” to my kids when they were growing up, with a few of my own stories thrown in for good measure. And I hope that my kids repeat those same stories (with a few of their own thrown in) to my grandchildren.

When I’m gone or unable to tell those value-laden stories, I hope that my children and grandchildren will be able to hear them from other sources, including reading them in the articles and books I’ve written. That was the main reason behind my writing of Look Unto the Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee https://www.amazon.com/Look-Unto-Hills-Stories-Tennessee/dp/1975798899 .

What about the stories of your own heritage? What are you doing to preserve and pass on that family history? Make it a point to tell or write down a few of your own stories, “that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psa. 78:6-7).

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

But That’s Not in My Plan!

Sometimes things just turn out differently than we plan. That’s life. But, if you’re like me, such unexpected changes to the plans tend to upset us.

For example, whenever we’re heading out on a trip, I like to make a list of everything I need to pack so I don’t forget anything. (Yet, I always manage to forget something! I once had to buy practically a new wardrobe because I left my suit bag hanging in the closet at home. My wife still insists that I did it on purpose.) I also like to have a schedule: a specific time of departure to which I adhere religiously; a timetable with definite milestones that we must reach at precise times; planned necessary stops for food, gasoline, bathroom breaks, etc.; and a definite time of arrival. Any deviation from the plan creates frustration.

But it seldom works according to my plan. Things happen. The stops take longer than expected because we have to wait longer than we should at the fast food joint. The bathrooms are crowded (or we have to do the janitor’s job for him before we can use them). Or we have car trouble. The more such disruptions to the plan, the greater the degree of frustration that results.

I must admit, however, that sometimes the best things have happened when the unexpected disrupts my plan. At the moment of the disruption, I might not know how it will turn out, but afterward I might see that the revised schedule or itinerary or event actually worked out for the better. I think that’s what’s called a serendipitous moment.

That has sometimes happened with my writing. In fact, it happened just a few weeks ago.

From the beginning, my original plan for my four books has been that my promotion and marketing efforts would focus on only two of them, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries and Teacher. A third, Look Unto the Hills, would receive much less attention because it is a collection of memoirs of my early personal life (childhood, in fact), and I knew there would be little public interest in that. And for the fourth book, A Goodly Heritage, I intended no marketing efforts whatsoever, having written it for only my own children, my two siblings, and possibly a few other close relatives who might (might!) be interested.

That was MY plan. And then something happened to change that plan. I received an e-mail request from the editor of Southern Writer magazine. She wanted to “push” one of my books, but neither of the two that I would have expected. She wanted me to write an article on how I wrote and researched A Goodly Heritage. She wasn’t interested in my family; she was interested in sharing with her readers how to write a “family legacy.”

Who knows how this article will turn out or what may result from its publication? Perhaps nothing at all will come of it. Nothing lost. On the other hand, it might open other doors for my writing that I could never have imagined, things that weren’t on my plan.

This is often the way God works with His children. His Word tells us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9, Amplified).

But He also tells us about His plans for us: “For I know the thoughts and plans that I have for you, says the Lord, thoughts and plans for welfare and peace, and not for evil, to give you hope in your final outcome” (Jer. 29:11, Amplified).

Have you had a sudden change in your plans? Rather than allowing frustration to ruin your day, seize the new opportunity and make the most of it. That’s what I’m slowly learning to do. Let’s learn together!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Pleasant Distraction

While passing through our utility room on my way to the garage the other day, my attention was attracted to (or perhaps distracted by would be more precise) a shoe box on a shelf above the dryer.

Now what could that be? I wondered. Although I’d passed through the room many times a day, day after day, I couldn’t recall seeing the box there. I forgot why I was going to the garage and stopped to take down the box and examine its contents. What I discovered inside held my attention for the next hour or so. (I don’t think I ever made it to the garage for whatever it was I was seeking.)

Inside that box were old family photos from when our four daughters were infants and toddlers, when we lived in Pennsylvania and Tennessee and the kids were growing up–and when my wife and I were much younger.

Going through old family photos can take up a lot of time, but it sure can bring back a lot of memories! And it can make you think. As I perused those old photos, I was struck by several thoughts.

  • How much fun we had “back then.” We didn’t have much money, but we did enjoy the time with the children–and the photos show that they, too, were having fun.
  • How innocent and carefree life was for the kids. The problems of life–work, money, taxes, government intrusions into private life, etc.–none of that fazed them.
  • How much our grandchildren resemble our own children when they were young. (I can also see now how much like my grandfather my dad looked when he was a kid. And people tell me that I look like him.)
  • How much younger–and lighter–I was back then. The cares of this life, the ravages of time, and overindulgence at the table can sure change a guy’s appearance!
  • How fun-loving my own parents were, such as the Christmas when Daddy got all of us men–my brother-in-law, my brother, and me–overalls and bandanas. We never understood why.
  • How organized I kept the old photos–in contrast to the jumble of files and flash drives I must study to find the image I’m seeking today. I once was super-organized, so much so that I could feel my way through the closet and find just the shirt I was looking for–in the dark. But ever since we moved from Tennessee to South Carolina thirteen years ago, organization seems to have vanished from my list of skills.
  • How glad I am that I can revisit those times with a hard copy of the memory and not have to rely on an electronic gadget–and risk losing the images to a crashed hard drive, an accidentally deleted file, or a lost flash drive.

Technological advancements surely have made it easier for us to capture memories as images. The passage from 35 mm film and flashbulbs to Polaroids to Instamatics and from slides and prints to digital images has been wonderful for picture taking. The quality of photography possible today is phenomenal. And you don’t really have to have an expensive digital camera with all the bells and whistles to get good photos. Sometimes photos taken with a cheap cell phone today rival anything the professional photographers could produce “back then.” (Well, my wife still cuts off people’s heads, and her shaky hand produces some blurry images, but that’s not the fault of the technology.)

It certainly is less expensive to take pictures today. In the “good ol’ days,” I had to send my exposed rolls of 35 mm film out to be developed, and even the cost of sending it to “economy” companies like Clark and York got pricey after a while, especially if you, as I did, ordered double prints of everything. But now I’m glad that I ordered those double prints. As the kids married and moved away, I noticed that our photo albums’ contents seemed to dwindle as the kids expropriated their favorite pics for their own albums.

But even that purloining is good because it shows that they, too, have valued the times and memories of their past. Those old photos ensure that the memories will live on and the girls will tell their children stories of what life was like when they were little. Their heritage will continue to future generations.

Now, if I could only recall what I wanted in the garage before that box of old photos distracted me!

The Greatest Day?

June 6, 1944, just might have been the greatest single day of what has become known as the greatest generation. At least it has become one of the most widely discussed days of that generation’s involvement in World War II.

Individual soldiers and sailors, however, might offer a variety of other days that they consider to have been the “greatest,” depending on where they were serving and what they were doing at the time. For some, it might have been their involvement in the Doolittle raid on April 18, 1942. For others, it might have been the invasion of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Or it might have been the day of one of any number of many invasions, bombing runs, and other military actions across the numerous theaters of World War II. The soldiers who invaded Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians certainly thought that they were involved in a momentous event, although those invasions are little known or discussed today. It’s sort of like they say of surgery: It’s minor surgery when it’s performed on someone else; it’s major surgery if you’re the one going under the knife!

My Uncle Dillon’s “greatest day” didn’t come on June 6, 1944. He didn’t arrive on Omaha Beach until June 24, D-day + 18. He came ashore with the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Armored Division, that day and then entered the fighting in the bocage region the next day. A tank driver, he took forward observers to the very front edge of the front lines so they could identify German targets and call in artillery fire against them. The fact that he didn’t participate in the June 6 landings in no way minimizes the greatness of his contribution toward winning the war.

But June 6 has another significance for me. On that day in 1844, my great great grandfather, Joshua Peterson, was born. If not for him, there would have been no James Peterson, no Blaine Peterson, no Ralph Peterson–and no me!

Joshua was the son of Hiram Peterson and Nancy Mashburn and was the grandson of Tobias Peterson of Kjolen, Sweden, and Maria Silva of Portugal. Joshua’s grandfather Tobias reputedly was the first white settler along Poplar Creek in the Toe River Valley of North Carolina.

Joshua either enlisted or was drafted into the Confederate Army. In the mountains of western North Carolina, both the Union and Confederate armies enforced conscription. If one army didn’t get you, the other one probably would. Many men from that area, owning no slaves and being predominantly Whig in political sentiment, had “no dog in the fight,” so they often served briefly in whichever army had drafted them, then they deserted and hid in the mountains. To them, it was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” and they really wanted nothing to do with either side. They just wanted to be left alone to farm their steep hillside farms, provide for their families, and worship their God in peace. Such might well have been the case with Joshua.

Joshua survived the war, and in 1866, shortly after the war ended, married Martha Warrick. They had ten children, three girls and seven boys, one of whom was James, my ancestor. Like many of his own ancestors, Joshua was an active member of the local Church of the Brethren, a group of German Baptists that included a long line of preachers and elders among the Petersons. Joshua died on August 12, 1933, in Relief, N.C.

But wait! There’s more! Joshua’s son James, my great grandfather, died on June 6, 1941. He was born August 12, 1867, and died eight years after his father at age 74. I know perhaps less about James than any other of my known ancestors, except perhaps Charles Mathias Peterson, the farthest back I can trace my lineage. He lived in Sweden, and I’ve been unable to find anything about him.

Neither Joshua’s nor James’s life was something that history books mention even in passing. They were not involved in earth-shattering events at which future generations would marvel and discuss ad infinitum. They were not famous in the general sense of the term. They were just common people–common in their appearance, their upbringing, and their lifestyle–yet, they were anything but ordinary. Rather, they were of strong stock, and, as Jean Thomas wrote, they “held safe and unchanged the simple beauty of the song of their fathers, the unsullied speech, the simple ideals and traditions, staunch religious faith, love of freedom, courage, and fearlessness. Above all they . . . maintained a spirit of independence and self-reliance that is unsurpassed. . . .”

And their lives were crucial to my own life and the lives of others of their progeny. So June 6 has multiple meanings for me. Dig into your own family’s past and find a member of your own “greatest generation.”

 

A Momentous Hiatus

Some people who follow this blog might have noticed that it has languished a bit over the past couple of weeks. There’s a good reason: family.

First, over the Mother’s Day weekend, my wife and I spent an extended time in North Carolina with two of our daughters and two of our six grandchildren. We shopped, attended a rodeo, worshiped in church, played with the grandchildren, enjoyed fellowship with our sons-in-law, and allowed the daughters to lavish well-deserved praise and presents on their mother. (My souvenir from the trip was an expensive new set of wheel bearings on the car!)

After one day back home to repack and reload, we journeyed to Southwest Florida, where my wife and her three siblings had planned a big surprise for their parents. The convocation was an occasion to celebrate three milestones: my father-in-law’s recent ninetieth birthday, my mother-in-law’s upcoming ninetieth birthday, and the couple’s seventieth wedding anniversary. It was also the first time in ten years that we had all been together at one time.

My wife and I spent several nights with her Aunt Florence, who also lives in the area. We usually stay with Connie’s parents when we go down to visit, but the need to preserve the secrecy of the event allowed us to spend time with her aunt this time.

On Wednesday evening, we all traveled to my in-laws’ church, where my father-in-law was preaching for the pastor, who was ministering in Ghana. My father-in-law only recently retired after more than a decade serving as the church’s “interim” pastor. Between raindrops of a subtropical downpour, we all entered the church. My mother-in-law stood gaping in disbelief as each of us filed through the door. My father-in-law grinned from ear to ear to see his children but for none more than his son, David.

After about 15 minutes of breathless hugging and kissing and backslapping, my father-in-law struggled to conduct the service. He could scarcely gather his thoughts for all the excitement and surprise.

For the next several days, my in-laws had to do something they are unaccustomed to doing–sit back and be served. They usually are busy serving others or doing things for themselves and refusing proffered help. Fiercely independent and in amazingly good health, they still drive; mow their lawn; maintain their pool; care for trees, shrubs, and flowers; and work out at a local gym three days a week. They chafe at inactivity.

We “kids” (and none of us is a spring chicken at this point) spent those days trimming palm trees, mowing and trimming the lawn, preparing meals, battling ants, taking a generator for repairs, organizing the contents of closets and kitchen cabinets, and doing a host of other little things to help out our honorees. Between the periods of work, we found time to put together a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Although we had surprised the Dietterichs by all showing up at once (allaying our fears that the sudden shock might trigger a heart attack with the knowledge that David had been a medic in the Navy), we left gradually over several days. Connie and I were last to leave, and the Dietterichs have now returned to their quiet but ever-active independence.

And now you know the reason for the hiatus of this blog. I think that what took its place, however, was well worth it. Family trumps personal and professional priorities every time. Those other things will always be there for us to deal with; family members will not. We were blessed to celebrate the patriarch and matriarch of the Dietterich side of our family, and we hope that it was a blessing to them as well.

 

A Call to Share Local History

IMG_0823There’s a saying, “All politics is local.” The same could be said of history. We tend to get so caught up in international and national history that we forget that all of that starts with local history.

Some people, however, are beginning to recognize the importance of learning about their local history as evidenced by the series of small history books about small towns and communities all over the nation that are being published by Arcadia Publishing. More people are tracing their genealogy. And local historical societies are being organized or revitalized here and there.

An emphasis on local history gives one a sense of place. It helps natives of a community feel a sense of pride in their ancestors and their predecessors in the community. It helps newcomers feel more at home to understand how their new community came to be and why things are as they find them.

I’d like to encourage each of you to share with our readers your own thoughts about your local history and how it has influenced you and what role you and your family have played in it. I look forward to hearing from you, and I’ll try to share some of your stories in subsequent posts.

To get the ball rolling, I’ll share a little about some of my own local history. Originally, “local” for me was Halls Crossroads, a rural community north of Knoxville, Tennessee. It was an area of small farmers, craftsmen, and small businessmen. It was founded by a farmer named Thomas Hall.

One set of my great-grandparents lived in Halls. My great-grandfather, Harvey Graybeal, was appointed by the governor to be justice of the peace. My grandfather grew up there and became a prominent grocer, farmer, and churchman. He also was for a while a streetcar conductor in Knoxville and during the Depression a machine repairman in the Standard Knitting Mills. But his main prominence came as a successful dairy farmer operating a TVA test-demonstration farm, conducting agricultural experiments and welcoming visitors from all over the world, most notably Albert, the Prince of Belgium.

My father partnered with my grandfather in the farm but later became a brick mason. The homes he bricked still stand all over Halls and surrounding communities as silent testimony to his workmanship. He and my mother were early officers in the Halls Community Club.

Some Petersons still live in Halls. In fact, my sister lives in the old home place, although the farm has since been subdivided and provides homes for numerous other families. Other Petersons became teachers, preachers, and business people and scattered all across the nation. But no matter where they now live, they still consider Halls home.

Your family’s local history no doubt differs from mine in many details, but it holds great value to you and others. Why not share some of that history with the readers of this blog? I look forward to hearing from many of you, and I’ll try to share as much of your stories as I can.