93 Year Old World War II Veteran From Santa Barbara Remembers D-Day On Anniversary Of Historic Event
It was some seven decades ago, on June 6th, 1944, that D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history occurred.
An armada of 7,000 ships supported the landing of more than 150,000 Allied soldiers on the beaches of Normandy, to begin retaking the European continent from Nazi Germany.
For most of us, D-Day is something out of a history book. But, it’s a memory for Art Peterson. The now 93 year old Santa Barbara man was a paratrooper in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division during World War II.
It was his first time in combat, and says the plane flight from England into Nazi-controlled for the invasion was pretty scary. He says they could see tracer bullets flying around the transport plane he was in, and as he watched out a window, he saw another plane carrying his best friend get hit, and explode.
But, he says once they parachuted out of the plane, their role in the Normany invasion was a piece of cake.
Peterson fought in some of the biggest battles in the European war, even though he had a hard time getting into the military. He was just 17 years old, and finishing up high school when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into World War II. He wanted to be a Marine, but was turned down. The Navy and Army also said no, for the same reason. While Peterson grew up in the United States, he was born in Mexico, and wasn’t a U.S. citizen at the time. Finally, he got his chance to serve after being drafted.
Peterson was sent to basic training at Camp Roberts, which is on the San Luis Obispo/Monterey County Line. While there, he heard they were recruiting for paratroopers, so he volunteered, and was set to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. His unit, Fox Company, arrived in England in late 1943 for final training before the invasion.
Peterson says it was while he was in England, he had some of the toughest duty of the war, helping to recover the bodies of British civilians killed in the Germans incessant bombing of London. He still gets choked up, saying because it was civilians, it was worse than anything he ever experienced in combat.
He came through D-Day without a scratch, but wasn’t so lucky three months later as the 101st Airborne pushed into German occupied Holland. He was preparing to jump out of a plane with his unit when a bullet came through the floor of the plane, and hit him in the leg, severely wounding him. His sergeant ordered him not to jump, and to take the plain back to England.
But, five minutes later, the plane was hit again by fire from the ground, and he and the crew had to bail out to safety. He spent three months in the hospital recovering from his injury.
Then, three months later, he found himself in the middle of a third major battle. Peterson’s unit was one of those sent to help U.S. forces in the Belgian town of Bastogne, who had been surrounded by German troops during there last great military offensive, a surprise attack known as “The Battle of the Bulge” He was wounded during the “Battle of the Bulge,” again hit in the leg. But, he has good memories of his role in the battle, making lifelong friends in the community. He has a lasting reminder in Bastogne in his name, a tree in his name.
As Peterson took part in a D-Day remembrance luncheon in Santa Barbara sponsored by the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation, he noted that age has caught up with the survivors club, and there aren’t many left. He says he’s the only still living member of his squad.
Peterson says despite being wounded twice, he feels lucky to have survived, and is proud he served. He returned to Santa Barbara after the war, where he opened a successful janitorial and housecleaning business. He married, and had two boys and two girls.
He says life has been good, and he says thanks every morning as he wakes to start a new day.