Standing on the barren, windswept steppes outside Stalingrad (now called Volgograd), Russia, in August 1997, Phil Peterson BS’68 thought back 55 years, when the place where he stood was the site of the largest battle of World War II—and in the history of the world.
The battle, which raged for more than three years, was known as the Russian or Eastern Front and involved more than three million Russian and three million German soldiers. The Russian Army eventually won two major victories, capturing more than 90,000 German troops and sending them to prison camps in Siberia, where fewer than 5,000 survived.
Peterson, a graduate of the U’s College of Pharmacy, says visiting World War II battlefields—and remembering the human conflicts they saw—is a lifelong endeavor. Peterson had an interest in the subject even before entering the U, and his knowledge helped him ace a history class on World War II. He knew the topic so well that he correctly answered all 200 questions on the final exam.
“My goal,” Peterson says, “is to visit every site where a major battle in World War II took place.” At age 65, the retired pharmacist has almost made it. “I’m getting close,” Peterson says. “I only have a few left. I still haven’t seen the battlefields in Italy, and there are a couple in Libya I would like to get to but haven’t been allowed to up to now because of the limitations on Americans traveling there.”
Other than those two places, Peterson has “seen ’em all.” Twice he has purchased Delta Airlines’ “Around-the-World” tickets. He has flown over the Atlantic 20 times and crossed the Pacific at least a dozen. His quest has taken him to Russia, Japan, China, Egypt, Europe, Hawaii, and the South Pacific. He even took a cruise through the Aleutian Islands (located in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia). Altogether, Peterson has spent 15 years and traveled to 80 different countries indulging his passion.
One thing is certain: you definitely don’t want to play this man in a game of Risk.
Why would someone spend the time and money to visit hundreds of battlefields where often there is nothing left to see but a dilapidated monument and some rusted barbed wire? “
I’ve long had an interest in history and geography,” explains Peterson, “especially in World War II. It was such a gigantic event and had such an impact on world history that I wanted to ‘walk the ground’ in order to get a sense of place.”
Peterson says the hardest part of making the trips was getting time off work. After graduating from the U, the Salt Lake City native worked at pharmacies in Utah and Alaska. He took early retirement in 1998 to have more time to travel. Occasionally, some of Peterson’s four children—three of whom graduated from the U—have accompanied him on his battlefield odysseys.
Several tours that Peterson took featured stops at World War II battlefields on their 50th anniversaries. The most significant came on Dec. 7, 1991, when he was in Pearl Harbor to commemorate the attack that sent the United States reeling into World War II. The weeklong celebration included an appearance by President George H. W. Bush. At 7:50 a.m., exactly 50 years to the minute when the Japanese planes started their attack run, Peterson stood in Pearl Harbor along with thousands of others, many of them survivors of the attack.
“I talked to a man who was on the battleship West Virginia when it was hit by a torpedo and sunk,” Peterson says. “Luckily they were able to counter-flood it when it was going down, so it hit bottom right-side-up. He and several other men were trapped in an airtight room on the bottom for 36 hours before being rescued.”
The battleship Utah, moored on the opposite side of Ford Island from battleship row, was another casualty. The vintage World War I battleship was being used to tow targets for the current ships to practice on. The ship had some wooden planking installed on her decks and fore structure to be used as targets for planes to practice dropping sacks of flour (in place of bombs). The Japanese pilots had instructions not to hit the Utah because she was not a threat, but with the planking on her decks she looked like one of the aircraft carriers they were looking for, so they plowed five torpedoes into the venerable old ship, sending her to the bottom along with 58 sailors. The big carriers the Japanese were looking for were not even there.
Peterson’s cruise through the Aleutians enabled him to visit the only battle of World War II that saw American and Japanese troops engage in combat on North American soil. One of the keys to the U.S. victory was the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City. In March 1943, the U.S. fleet, led by the Salt Lake City, prevented the Japanese from supplying their garrisons on Attu and Kiska Islands in the battle of Komandorski Island. It was the last major battle of the war in which aircraft were not a decisive factor. The Salt Lake City suffered heavy damage in the daylong battle but was repaired and saw further action during the war in the South Pacific.
Peterson’s stops in the South Pacific included all the islands that were sites of major battles. He spent two days on Corregidor Island in the mouth of Manila Bay touring old gun emplacements, buildings, and tunnels used during the battles. He went by small boat with a tour group to the Bataan Peninsula on Luzon Island where they followed the 65-mile route of the infamous Bataan Death March, walking part of the way. Three men who made the march were in the group and recounted their experiences trying to survive without food, water, or any medical help.
“It was hot in April,” Peterson says, “but we were well fed and healthy, so the walk was easy. I thought about the conditions of the marchers 55 years earlier—the heat and humidity and lack of water except what could be sneaked to them by local villagers when the guards weren’t looking—and realized what incredible sacrifices they made.”
On his visit to Midway Island, Peterson discovered that the island made famous in the movie of the same name is now a wildlife refuge. “When we flew into Midway,” he explains, “we had to land at night because there were so many gooney birds flying around it wasn’t safe to land during the day.”
During his travels, Peterson has spent countless hours on airplanes, but his favorite mode of transportation proved to be something much slower. While in Russia, he had the chance to ride in a T-34 tank, which played a decisive role in World War II. After they bumped down the road for a couple of miles, the tank driver asked if anyone would like to take the wheel. “I jumped at the chance,” says Peterson. Although he had never driven a tank before, he was a quick learner and soon had the tank rolling around the oval test track. “I was only supposed to make one lap but was having such an adventure that I gunned the engine and roared around the track for a second time,” he recalls.
Memories like these have kept Peterson focused on his quest. All the time, money, and planning have been worth it, he says, giving him a chance that few people have: to take a few steps back in time.
—Bruce D. Woodbury BS’72 is director of community relations in the athletics department.