Once the U.S. became involved in World War II, many young men were eager to enlist.
“All my friends were going,” Jim Peterson recalled, “so I decided to go too.”
The Navy was Peterson’s first choice. “They wouldn’t take me because I was colorblind.”
Having learned to play the oboe in Walt Olson’s band class at Fremont High School, Peterson was glad to hear that the Army had a marching band. He would get to enlist after all.
“They were glad to take me,” Peterson said. “The Army band didn’t have many oboes.”
As a member of the 86th Infantry Division band, Peterson completed his basic training at Camp Howze in Texas, where he took part in retreat parades and bond drives. A significant portion of the war effort’s funding came from the millions of war bonds purchased by civilians.
During his first furlough, Peterson went home in June 1943 to marry Dorothy Heggstedt. The two had met while working for Fairmont Dairy in Fremont.
Later that year the couple moved to Louisiana, where Peterson was stationed at Camp Livingston. The following year they lived in California, where Peterson’s division began training for the war in the Pacific.
Before training was completed, however, Peterson learned that he would be going to Europe. The Battle of the Bulge had officially ended, but there was still some fighting going on.
As a bandmember, Peterson joined the military police. Despite being colorblind, he was given the job of transporting captured German soldiers from the front lines to division headquarters.
“By this time the Germans were giving up,” Peterson said. “They were running out of food and were exhausted.”
Although he managed to avoid bullet wounds, Peterson was not so fortunate when it came to food. After surviving on K-rations, he and his unit were delighted to find a boxcar filled with eggs.
“They were safe to eat,” said Peterson, “but the grease I used to cook them was rancid. We got very sick.”
During the last few weeks of the war in Europe, Peterson’s unit roamed through several castles and stopped to rest in abandoned houses. The nicest home they stayed in was in the Swiss Alps, where they snacked on wine and cookies.
“We were just lollygagging at a lake when we got word that the war in Europe was over.”
Following a 30-day furlough, Peterson and his wife moved to Oklahoma, where the 86th underwent further training for the Pacific campaign. Once Peterson’s unit was assigned to the Philippines, Dorothy needed to return home to Fremont. By this time, she was expecting their first child.
Another GI’s wife was pregnant and needed to get home, but the two women were having trouble getting seats on a train.
“The only way wives could board a train,” Peterson explained, “was if their husbands were with them. Two GIs offered to claim them as their wives and got them on the train back to Fremont.”
Peterson was in Arizona, on a troop train bound for San Francisco, when he heard the news that Japan had surrendered.
“We were the first infantry unit to be redeployed to the Pacific,” Peterson said. “Our division was sent in to clean up the remaining pockets of resistance where fighting continued. They didn’t know the war was over.”
Peterson’s daughter, Karen, was born in October 1945, but he didn’t get home until February. “She was three months old when I finally saw her.”
Following his discharge from the Army, Peterson resumed his employment with Fairmont Dairy in Fremont. Through the GI Bill, he enrolled at Midland Lutheran College, where he studied business. Upon graduating Peterson was hired by Lon Wright at the Department of Utilities, where he worked for 34 years before retiring in 1985.
After Dorothy passed away in 1953, Peterson remarried. His second wife was Florene Wesphalen. She died in 1995.
He met his third wife, Phyllis, on a blind date arranged by their sons. Both he and Phyllis had become avid golfers and were members of the Fremont Golf Club.
Since their honeymoon cruise through the Panama Canal, the Petersons have taken eleven more cruises. “We were on a European cruise that offered tours of castles,” Phyllis recalled. “But castles didn’t interest Jim. He saw so many of them during the war.”
“No, I didn’t need to see anymore castles,” Peterson said.
This year Jim Peterson turned 94 and became a great grandfather for the sixth time.
“He has several great grandsons,” Phyllis said, “but his first great granddaughter was born on October 25th of this year. We’ll get to meet her on Thanksgiving Day.”