The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

October 26, 2011

‘You never forget it ... it’s still in there ...’

By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

CHEROKEE — Curtis Peters of Cherokee, 93, joined the Army late in the Second World War.

He put the uniform on for the first time in early 1944 as troops were preparing for D-Day. By the following spring he had walked across France in pursuit of the German Army, seen the Third Reich fall, witnessed the atrocities of a concentration camp and seen some of the perpetrators brought to trial.

His journey to military service started with Beech Aircraft, where he helped to rebuild America’s military strength.

Peters was working for Beech Aircraft before the war, assembling wing sections for B-29 bombers in San Diego, Calif., and later in Wichita, Kan.

When the war started in 1941, many of the aircraft manufacturer’s male employees were drafted and replaced on the assembly lines by women. Peters was one of the few men who remained at the Beech plant in Wichita, and he soon rose to the position of shift crew leader.

“I was in charge of 38 women and one elderly man,” Peters said with a laugh. “Those women finally drove me to want to join the service.”

Men like Peters, in essential war production positions, largely were exempt from the draft. But he gave up that exemption and enlisted in March 1944.

“I wanted in the Navy,” Peters said, “but all they had left open by then was the walking heavy weapons division of the infantry.”

With no other options left open, Peters enlisted in the Army and returned to his hometown of Cordell to await assignment to basic training.

He did not have to wait long. Peters was ordered to report to Fort Sill in April 1944, and was transported by train from there to Camp Blanding, Fla.

Peters does not have fond memories of Camp Blanding.

“We got down there, and it was 100 to 115 degrees and nothing but sand and swamp,” he said.

The men were put through a rigorous training regimen designed to prepare them for the war’s final push into Germany and Japan.

Peters quickly learned what it means to be in the “walking infantry.”

“We’d go out every day with full packs and one canteen of water, nine miles out and nine miles back, to train on shooting all our weapons,” he said. The heavy infantry weapons troops specialized in machine guns, bazookas and mortars.

After one such march the men returned to their barracks compound after a long day with little water.

“We were told we were going to have to wait several hours before we got any water, but we just broke ranks and got our own water anyway,” Peters said. As punishment, the men quickly were reassembled in full battle gear to repeat the day’s march.

The training, designed to toughen the men for the realities of combat, cost several men their lives.

Peters remembered an exercise that required the men to low-crawl under a long series of barbed wire lines while live tracer rounds were fired over their heads.

“A couple of guys finally lost it and just stood up ... they didn’t make it,” Peters said.

The troops’ final test came in a 30-mile march through the northeast Florida swamps, scheduled for late June.

Peters was in D Company, waiting to begin the march, when the heat began to take a toll on the lead companies.

“It got so hot that day, the whole morning while we were waiting to start you could hear the ambulance sirens for those guys who were falling out,” Peters said. The march finally was called off on account of the high rate of heat casualties.

Peters said the transformation from civilian to soldier was complete when he left Camp Blanding.

“That place was a war all its own,” he said. “By the time you finished that training you were just numb, like a zombie. You didn’t really care what happened to you anymore ... they made you pretty tough.”

The newly minted infantrymen were loaded into trains bound for an unknown destination.

“We weren’t told where we were going, but we’d been training in the sand and swamp for so long, we just knew we were going to the Pacific,” Peters said. “But, you never can take the Army for granted, because you never know what they’re going to do with you.”

The men were loaded on the SS Ile de France, a French luxury liner converted to troop transport, bound for Europe.

Peters remembered the hold of the ship, where the men were berthed, as “probably the stinkingest place ever created.”

The ship made its trans-Atlantic passage safely and delivered its 18,000-man cargo to Patton’s Third Army in Glasgow, Scotland.

Peters and his comrades soon learned all the marching they did in basic training was just a prelude to what they would face in Europe.

“We walked across Scotland, across England and all the way to the English Channel,” Peters said.

He was assigned to join Third Army in late August 1944, more than two months after D-Day. He was transported across the channel in a landing craft to France, where the marching resumed as the replacement troops tried to catch up with the advancing American lines.

“We began walking, and we walked all the way across France by the time it was done,” Peters said.

His unit finally caught up with the battle lines in fall 1944.

Peters remembered a long, listless night just short of the German lines, the night before what was supposed to be his first day in battle. The Third Army was preparing to assault the French city of Metz.

“Me and this other boy I was friends with were in our tent, and we could hear the battle going on,” Peters said. “He asked me ‘Curtis, how do you pray?’ I just told him ‘I think it’s time we both said a few prayers.’ And we did pray ... it was pretty tough that night.”

But, the Army had plans for Peters that did not include his going into combat the following morning.

“The next morning a corporal from headquarters opened my tent and told me to report to headquarters. I got on this truck with another boy who was just shaking ... we both wanted to know where they were sending us,” he said.

The Army was sending Peters back from the front lines to act as a liaison with the 358th Fighter Group.

“I had been a liaison between different plants for Beech Aircraft,” Peters explained, “and that one word, ‘liaison,’ got me taken out of battle.”

The Army at the time was suffering heavy casualties from pilots mistakenly bombing and strafing their own troops. Peters was put to work marking the Army unit locations on maps for pilot briefings.

“The major I was working for said ‘These pilots have killed a whole bunch more of our men than the enemy, and we’ve got to do something to stop the slaughter,’” Peters said. “I like to think I helped save a few of our guys.”

Peters was stationed at a front-line airfield serving fighter aircraft, primarily P40 Warhawks and P47 Thunderbolts.

The field became a favorite target of the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of the Bulge.

“We were right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge,” Peters said. “They’d come in at dusk every day to bomb and strafe us. You could hear them coming every day, and they kept it up until they didn’t have any planes left.”

Peters remembered encountering and befriending many young pilots who did not return from the battle for the skies over Germany.

“If you knew them, you didn’t know them a week later ... they’d be dead,” Peters said.

The Battle of the Bulge effectively broke the German Army’s fighting capacity. By late January 1945, Allied troops, including Peters, were pressing the Germans into retreat, and in March the first units of Third Army crossed the Rhine into Germany.

Peters came across the most haunting episode of his wartime experience in May 1945, shortly after the Dachau Concentration Camp was liberated by American soldiers.

Captured Germans still were working to clear the dead from the camp when Peters arrived. He was not prepared for what he saw there.

“It was horrible ... there’s no way to explain just how horrible it was,” he said.

“There were about 32,000 people in that camp, and they were all naked, all starved ... they were just walking skeletons,” Peters said. “The stench is something I will never forget. It was the most sickening thing ... you couldn’t even dream of such horrible stuff.”

“They had long rows of sheds, and they would bring this horse-drawn cart between these sheds, and bring out the dead and throw them on that cart,” Peters said. “They had big trenches dug, and they’d throw them in and lime them down, throw them in and lime them down ... they’d just keep that up until it was almost full, then throw some dirt on top and move on to the next trench.”

Peters said what he witnessed at Dachau was “so horrible, there’s no way to make you understand how horrible it was.” He wants others to understand, if only in some small measure, the horrors committed in the concentration camps.

“Every person should have to walk through a camp like that,” Peters said. “If every person had to see that, there would never be another war.”

Germany capitulated not long after Peters’ visit to Dachau. Following the war, Peters spent one year in Germany with the occupation forces.

He was barracked at a former SS training facility under conditions he described as “luxurious.” During that time he attended a portion of the Nuremberg Trials, where German officers were being held accountable for the atrocities in the concentration camps.

In March 1946, Peters returned home to his wife Averille. The couple raised a family and Peters went on to earn a degree in agriculture education from Oklahoma State University. He served as an agriculture teacher for 31 years and retired in 1980.

Peters said his experiences in World War II have stuck with him, and continue to influence his life.

“You never forget it ... it’s still in there, inside, right now,” Peters said. “I’ll never forget what I went through.”