For Virgil Peters, memories of World War 2 are vibrantly alive – not only in his mind, but also on the walls of his workshop.
Photographs hang side by side, a big change from just a few years ago. “I had them in a box really,” Peters said.
But then he found a forgotten treasure.
“When I came up here this past winter putting all this together I came across this,” he said, pointing to a letter addressed to him. The letter was signed by President Harry S. Truman. ” I thought Hey – I forgot I had this.”
It was a thank you letter, a one-page acknowledgement of what Virgil Peters did at the age of 17.
“Virgil C Peters – to you who answered the call of your country and served in its armed forces to bring about the total defeat of the enemy I extend the hearfelt thanks of a grateful nation.”
Peters said the discovery of the letter sparked something in his mind – a hunger to remember and to become re-aquainted with the boy who left a farm in Scott County, Virginia and followed his four brothers into war.
“Just a young punk,” he said, looking at the picture taken the year he joined the war, not too long before he was assigned to work on a minesweeper called the USS Climax.
“The motto of a minesweeper is ‘where the big ships go we’ve already been,'” Peters said, smiling with pride. “When I was sweeping mines I’ve looked at the mines right down by the side of the ship. All they’d have to do is hit the side of the ship and boom.”
When conflicts flared in the South Pacific, his ship went in first to clear the way for the transport and battle ships.
“I wasn’t old enough to be scared really,” Peters said.
While American soldiers fought on land in Okinawa, Guam, and Iwo Jima, Peters and his crew on the U.S.S. Climax were removing mines from the waters off-shore.
At Iwo Jima, he caught of a glimpse of history.
“At first, I didn’t see anything. Turned my head and there was a Flag. I said, ‘Hey guys… they’re raising the flag!'””
Peters and his four brothers made it home after the war. After spending two years in a veterans’ hospital recovering from a serious lung infection contracted while in service, Peters ran a business in Kingsport, got married, and had a family.
“For an old country boy out of Scott County, I’ve led an exciting life really.”
Since finding the letter from President Truman, he’s been on a pursuit to rediscover his own story of service in World War 2.
“You have to do what you have to do, and you have to do it with honor,” Peters said. “If it means giving your life up – hey it’s what you got to do. For many in my generation, it meant they didn’t get to come home.”