Tom Peterson’s baptism of fire came during the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest battle on the Western Front during World War II. He was a young 2nd lieutenant commanding a platoon of M-4 tanks, part of the 781st Tank Battalion attached to the 7th Army.
More than 1 million soliders on both sides, supporting mechanized forces, clashed in the heavily-wooded and mountainous area of eastern Belgium. The German’s Ardennes Offensive was aimed at reaching the Atlantic and trapping four Allied armies. At that point, Hitler hoped to negotiate a peace treaty.
Within a month Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt’s major offensive had failed. Germany would capitulate in less than six months and Allied forces would celebrate V-E Day (Victory in Europe).
“I was at the Bulge and it was terrible. We had hard, hard days of fighting. I don’t know how the hell you’d describe it but to say firing was coming from all directions. We were just trying to keep alive,” the 88-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. resident said recently.
“Our trouble was we had M-4 tanks with a 75 millimeter gun. That was a pea shooter compared to the German Tiger Tank with its 88 millimeter gun. Our tank weighed 30 tons. The German’s Tiger weighed 68 tons and had 7 inches of steel armament in the front. The Germans had the best tank in the world with a gun that would shoot through anything.”
It was at Bastogne that Peterson received his first Bronze Star with V attachment for valor.
“The 101st Airborne was trapped and our tank unit was sent to help rescue them. The quickest route was down a dirt road through the Ardennes Forest but our company commander was concerned the Germans might be waiting for us in the forest. So he asked for one officer to take a Jeep supported by a light tank and scout the area. I volunteered. I found a way to reach the 101st and get around the Germans. Our unit took the trail through the woods and broke through to the beleaguered airborne troops.”
Lt. Peterson survived the biggest land battle American forces fought during the Second World War. However, the Germans and their fantastic Tiger Tanks didn’t.
It was at Bastogne his unit was attached to Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army.
“I hated Patton for one thing, he made us wear neckties in the tanks while we were fighting. I thought, ‘Well, the hell with the neckties. When we leave we’ll take ’em off.’ But that S.O.B. sent necktie enforcers out to make sure we were wearing our ties.”
Shortly after the Bulge, Peterson’s unit headed south through Germany as part of the 7th Army. They rolled through Austria fighting an ever-shrinking enemy. The 781 Tank Battalion became the only mechanized unit to cross the Alps at the Brenner Pass into Italy during the war.
“When the war ended in Europe, we were in some mountain village in Italy taking advantage of the restaurants in the town. We went back to Austria, got rid of our tanks in a storage lot and were shipped back to the States.”
By then he was a captain and company commander. His unit was getting prepared to be reassigned to the invasion of the Japanese home islands when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending WWII. Peterson spent the next three years as part of the occupation troops stationed 70 miles outside Tokyo.
Shortly after the North Koreans invaded the south in June 1950, Captain Tom Peterson and his company of M-48 tanks headed back to war again as part of the 64th Tank Battalion. In WW II the 64th was an all black battalion, but by then it was integrated.
“Every time an infantry division attacks, a tank battalion leads them. We supported many of the infantry divisions in Korea and went to the Chosin Reservoir to help the 1st Marine Division that was surrounded by the enemy. The temperature was 25 below zero and we were told to break the encirclement of the Marines. We did.
“I watched the Marines load their frozen dead into 2 1/2 ton trucks. I remember 15 or 20 trucks passing by our position piled high with dead Marines.”
When the fighting in Korea ended he returned to Fort Knox, Kentucky. Peterson remembers trying to teach an undisciplined southern National Guard battalion at Knox how to be tankers.
“As I recall it was the 131st Tank Battalion out of Alabama. They walked around calling each other by their first names. We got word from the Department of the Army they were going to have an atomic bomb exercise in the Nevada desert. They needed one officer and 100 enlisted men. I got volunteered along with the Alabama guard outfit.”
It was 1952 and the bunch of them were sent by train to Camp Desert Rock in the middle of nowhere some 75 miles outside Las Vegas.
“When we got there they gave us a big lecture about what was going to happen to us. They said we’d better obey the instructions or we were going to be dead. The Alabama guardsmen thought it was all a big joke.”
“Next day we were sent to the bomb detonation area. Right in the middle of the site was a 100-foot tall steel tower where the bomb would be detonated. Some 400 to 500 yards away was a six-foot deep trench where we were to take cover.”
“We were told to squat down on our knees in the bottom of the trench, close our eyes and put a forearm over our eyes. Under no circumstances were we to open our eyes when the thing went off because we’d be blinded.
“The A-bomb was in what appeared to be a wooden box atop the steel tower. When it was detonated about noon, we were showered with dirt from the trench and about the same time we felt the blast from the bomb. A moment later we looked up and saw the mushroom cloud forming. Shrubs and small trees along the road were uprooted and were zooming past us as they were being sucked into the mushroom cloud.
Before the blast the officials controlling the experiment had built wooden homes in the general area and placed cars and trucks to see how they would fare. In addition the government had positioned cows, donkeys, dogs and cats near the blast.
“A civilian with a Geiger counter came and got us about 10 minutes after the explosion and took us for a walk around the area to see what the bomb had done. It was a tough thing to look at.
“All of the animals were terribly burned on the side facing the bomb explosion. The steel tower that held the bomb was nothing but a big, black round spot on the ground. It was gone. The wooden homes were completely wrecked.
After the single bomb test Peterson and his troops returned to Fort Knox and went on with their lives. He apparently suffered no ill effects from serving as a guinea pig in an atomic blast so long ago.
After a 25 year career in the military he retired in 1961 as a major. A short time later he joined the Treasury Department and spent two decades with the IRS before he and his wife, Gracie, retired to Punta Gorda in 1978.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005 and is republished with permission.
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