George Peto enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1941 (during peacetime) and yet saw 32 months of combat in four different Pacific theater campaigns during the next 4 1/2 years. Those campaigns lasted anywhere from three weeks to three months of continuous, brutal combat against the Japanese. His military experiences are unique; and he is alive today only because of his upbringing, a survival instinct, a quick mind, and an awful lot of luck.
Born on September 18, 1922, George Peto grew up with his two brothers and a sister in the Portage Lakes area south of Akron on wilderness-heavy land dotted by lakes, rivers, and swamps. His family owned a farm and raised its own food. Their home was only two blocks from the Ohio Canal, and they always had a boat docked there to take them fishing or exploring. He and his brothers trapped in the winter, usually for muskrats. Having hunted since he was nine years old, he cites all these early experiences with nature as the key reason he was able to survive World War II.
George never was very interested in school or studying. He had wanderlust and a passionate desire for travel and adventure. He said that he most often had a road map in his rear pocket, and it was common for George and a buddy to hitchhike far from home on a Saturday, spend that night in a barn or hayloft, and then hitchhike home again on Sunday. He finally dropped out of Kenmore High School in 1938 at the age of 15 and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC.)
The CCC sent him to Utah, where he lived in tents in the desert during the summer and also tents in the mountains during the winter. His monthly pay was $5 cash (paid in silver dollars) plus room & board, The CCC sent another $25 home to his family each month. During his year in Utah, George and his fellow workers built roads, fire trails, cattle & sheep corrals, and wooden irrigations systems. One of their roughest assignments was to build a ten mile long drift fence up the side of a mountain –often through solid rock and up and down steep cliffs. After a year away from home, the CCC allowed workers to return to their home state, and George spent his second year working in the Chillicothe area.
After two rough years of labor with the CCC, George decided to return to high school, this time in Wooster, Ohio, but soon dropped out again after a year. He was 18 years old.
Although George knew that war was imminent, he didn’t enlist out of any sort of patriotism. He did it more with thoughts of travel and adventure in mind. Also, his older brother, Alex, was being drafted into the Army but decided to enlist in the Marines instead. George had already taken and passed the military physical, but he had yet to commit; and the military kept sending him information about opportunities with Uncle Sam. When Alex reported for duty, he brought George and three other good friends with him. All five were voluntarily inducted into the U.S. Marine Corps on August 5, 1941.
Although they attended basic training together at Paris Island, Alex and George were then separated. Alex went with the 7th Marine Division and was wounded at Guadalcanal about a year later. George was assigned to a Guard Company with the 1st Marine Division and spent time at several bases in Rhode Island (including Quonset Point and Newport. Worth noting is the fact that from June to October of 1942, there was a 29 year old Lt Junior Grade stationed there named Richard Milhous Nixon, and George saw him on several occasions.) After nearly a year of Guarding trains, ships, aircraft carriers, subs and other government property, George was sent back down to Camp Lejeune for training as a machine gunner. From there he was shipped out to San Diego, where he spent two weeks. The USS Wharton carried George to American Samoa, where he spent another six weeks. After spending time in New Caledonia, he was taken aboard a luxury liner, the SS Lurline, to Melbourne, Australia. George recalls that this cruise was the lap of luxury for him and his fellow Marines. They ate at tables with cloth tablecloths and were served by waiters with pewter serving sets. It was in Melbourne where George joined M Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division.
From Melbourne, one of the newly-made Kent Liberty Ships carried George and his unit to their first combat campaign - in Finchhaven, New Guinea. From this point on, for the next two years, George did not wear a uniform with rank or insignia. As was the Marine tradition, the men wore dungaree jackets and trousers with no markings while in combat. The Australians were taking Finchhaven at the time, and George’s unit was their reserves. If anything went wrong, the Marines were going to bail the Aussies out. Although George was close enough to the action to hear the gunfire, he was not involved in any action there. And the battle was over in about two weeks.
His second campaign was at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, New Guinea. This was only the second landing of the 1st Marine Division in the Pacific (after Guadalcanal.) The objective was twofold: to capture the Japanese airfield there and then to expand and rebuild it for use by the Allies and; secondly, to ensure free Allied sea passage through the straits separating New Britain from New Guinea. George landed on an LST on Christmas Day, 1943; and he saw nearly nonstop combat until the Allies reached their objective of victory on April 22, 1945. To quote George, “We landed just as the monsoon season started, and we were there about four months. I do not recall a single day we did not have rain.” By the end of the campaign, the U.S. and Australia had 310 KIA and nearly 1100 wounded; the Japanese had more than 1000 KIA.
Following that, his unit went back to Pavuvu to rest and retrain. Pavuvu is the largest of the Russell Islands in Central Provence, Solomon Islands, located Northwest of Guadalcanal. This tropical paradise was previously used as a coconut plantation by the natives; but they abandoned the island when the war started, and the Marines had it all to themselves. George was promoted to corporal while here.
On his first night in his third campaign (September 15, 1944) on Peleliu Island, George was the forward observer for the battalion reserve, a job that required him to fire the big gun, the 81 mm mortar. That’s a rather daunting task for a young man who was only 5’6” and 125 pounds. This duty also required George to be with the rifle company during an attack. And he was right in the middle of things, because one cannot fire a mortar without observing fire. Whenever one company got relieved, he went with the replacements. The Navy had bad information about Peleliu. They said the island was flat, but it was 550 feet high with a mountain right down the middle. They didn’t take into account the guns firing down at the beach. It was a formidable offense. The very next morning, of the 235 guys that landed, George was one of only 18 who survived. George says that D-Day may have been “The Longest Day” but September 15, 1944, on Peleliu Island was “The Longest Night” in WW II.
“Everything was a disaster – total chaos. I didn’t think we were going to make it,” George says. “Whenever I fired my last round, I was going to hit a10-foot drop into the water and swim for the ships. That was the only time I ever thought that we weren’t going to win. That was about as intense as combat can get.”
Landing in LTVs at White Beach on the western shore of the south part of the island nearest to the Japanese airfield, the 1st Marines made very little progress because of the relentless attacks from The Point. Keep in mind that was the first day of a battle that the generals thought would only last four days. However, due to Japan's well-crafted fortifications and stiff resistance, the battle lasted over two months. In the United States, it was a controversial command decision because of the island's questionable strategic value and the high casualty rate, which was the highest for U.S. soldiers of any battle in the Pacific War. The National Museum of the Marine Corps called Peleliu "the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines". When the battle finally ended with an Allied victory on November 27th, 1944, Americans losses totaled 1,794 KIA and 8,010 wounded or MIA from the 1st Marine Division and the 81st Infantry Division, The Japanese casualties included 10,695 killed and 202 captured.
George told me that he ran into the commander during the battle and exchanged a few words with him. Who was that commander? Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller (June 26, 1898 – October 11, 1971) - the most decorated U.S. Marine in history, and the only Marine to be awarded five Navy Crosses. He was promoted to colonel effective February 1, 1944, and by the end of the month had been named commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. Colonel Puller would lead the 1st Marines into the protracted battle on Peleliu, where he was awarded his first Legion of Merit. Puller retired as a Lieutenant General and probably would have made four-star were it not for a severe stroke he suffered.
George’s fourth and final campaign was Okinawa, the longest and largest amphibious assault in the Pacific theater of World War II. The 82-day-long battle lasted from early April until mid-June 1945. After a long campaign of island hopping, the Allies were approaching Japan and planned to use Okinawa, a large island only 340 miles away from mainland Japan, as a base for air operations during the future planned invasion of the Japanese homeland. Four divisions of the U.S. 10th Army (the 7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th) and two Marine divisions (the 1st and 6th) fought on the island while the 2nd Marine Division remained as an amphibious reserve and was never brought ashore. The invasion was supported by naval, amphibious, and tactical air forces.
The battle for Okinawa has been referred to as the "Typhoon of Steel" in English, and tetsu no ame ("iron rain") or kou no kaze ("steel wind") in Japanese. The nicknames refer to the ferocity of the fighting, the intensity of kamikaze attacks from the Japanese defenders, and to the sheer numbers of Allied ships and armored vehicles that assaulted the island. The battle resulted in the highest number of casualties in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Japan lost over 100,000 troops killed, captured, or who committed suicide; and the Allies suffered more than 65,000 casualties of all kinds, including nearly 13,000 KIA. Simultaneously, tens of thousands of local civilians were killed, wounded, or committed suicide.
George and his unit were quite battle weary by the time they landed in Okinawa; and, about one month in, they started taking casualties. During the following 52 days, George says they never had a second that they were not getting shelled, strafed, or attacked. It was constant, day and night! There were a lot of mental casualties among the Marines, because the onslaught was never-ending. On the 10th of May, George’s unit took a direct hit. When it ended, he was the only sergeant left for the whole platoon. (They should have had 10.) George lost a whole bunch of friends and admits that he got rather bitter toward the end. He figured that if it had lasted another couple of weeks, he probably wouldn’t have made it. He would have ended up a mental case. But then again, he realized, he wasn’t alone - everyone was hanging on by their fingernails. On May 10, 1945, George was promoted to sergeant.
“Making a beach landing against a hostile enemy is like playing Russian roulette,” George states. “In all those four campaigns in the Pacific, I spent all my time on the line, but I never got wounded and never lost a day. I was sicker than a dog a few days, but I hung in there. One time, the battalion doctor did attend to me, but I merely spent one night in an Army hospital tent and then returned to my unit the next day. I could have had a free ride out, but I didn’t take it. There were guys I had served with for two years, and I would have felt like I was just running out on them.”
“The conditions we were fighting under were horrible. I was real calm about the whole thing. It didn’t really upset me. Hell, I could have told the doc, and he would have shipped me out of there. One time, he gave me a gallon of 190-proof alcohol. We had little shots of brandy for the guys when they were wounded, so I said, ‘Hey doc, we don’t have any more brandy and the guys are getting shot up pretty bad,’ so he gave me a whole gallon. Guess what I did? I just drank that son of a bitch myself. [Laughs.] I mixed it with Kool-Aid and was carrying two canteens that should have been water. It was mixed half-and-half. I’m ashamed of that to this day. But at that time, any silly notions I had about life disappeared. I became very serious about everything and learned a lot. I was 23 when it ended, but even then, I was probably a hell of a lot older than my years.”
While the 1st Marine Division left Okinawa and headed for China, George had seen enough combat to be rotated back to the States, and after a brief stint with a 90mm antiaircraft outfit on Okinawa, he boarded the USS Lavaca for the cruise back home. Due to some boiler problems, the crossing of the Pacific took three weeks, arriving in San Francisco in September of 1945. There the ship was moored for four days while civilian passengers were unloaded before finally traveling to San Diego to let the war veterans off.
George spent some time in San Diego before being shipped up to Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. It was there, on November 25, 1945, that George was honorably discharged from the military. His decorations included The Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat V, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation with two bronze stars, Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Medal with four bronze stars (one for each campaign,) WW II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Medal, and the Solomon Islands Medal.
“My first act as a civilian was to proceed to the nearest bar in downtown Chicago, which happened to be the Hotel Sherman. It took a week to wash away all those bad memories. When the week was over I had spent all my mustering out money. I was hung-over and broke; so I hitchhiked home, got a job and worked for the next 40 years to help the government pay for the war. After about five years, the nightmares ceased, and the war became a distant memory.”
George returned to Akron, but jobs just didn’t interest him or couldn’t keep him satisfied. He admits he probably had five jobs in a month. So he roamed for a while – down to New Orleans and then over to Florida. He finally decided to try to make something of his life and use his G.I. bill, so he moved to Columbus and started classes at Ohio State University in September of 1946. After two years, he decided to drop out and take a full-time job with Ranco, a manufacturer of controls on Fifth Avenue. Meanwhile he met his bride-to-be, Juanita, who worked at the Columbus VA clinic. They were wed in June of 1948 and have lived in Columbus ever since, raising a son and a daughter. For more than 36 years they owned and ran “The Loop,” a beer, wine, and magazine carryout store on north High Street in what is now called “The Short North.”
George has spent the last 10 years speaking to schools and senior centers in central Ohio, folding and presenting the flag to widows of deceased veterans, serving in honor guards, participating in parades and assisting any other patriotic endeavor that could use his help. In November of 2009, George was inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame for all his contributions to his fellow veterans.
George’s mind is clear and his memories vivid and accurate. Had I not heard him tell his story, I never could have guessed that this genial gentleman had endured so much combat. Indeed, he is an amazingly friendly and personable fellow to be around, and he seems none the worse for wear considering his brutal years in the military.