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A seaman's tale: Virgil Peters saw much of WWII from a minesweeper in the Pacific

Rick Wagner • Nov 14, 2017 at 8:45 PM

KINGSPORT — Virgil Peters saw World War II from a minesweeper in the Pacific.

Peters, from the Rock Springs section of Kingsport, is a 91-year-old Navy veteran who served on a minesweeper called the USS Climax, AM161, in the Japanese theater of the war.

“I was at Iwo Jima the morning the flag was raised,” Peters said of Feb. 24, 1945. He served in the Navy as a seaman first class. He served from 1943 to 1946 after volunteering at age 17, although his mother didn’t want him to go. Five of her seven sons served in the war; all returned home.

His life’s journey started in Southwest Virginia

Peters said he began his schooling in his native Southwest Virginia at Alley Valley Elementary School, a two-room building near where he was born between Gate City and Fort Blackmore in Scott County, before moving to the Kingsport area at age 10, attending Lynn Garden and Morrison City elementary schools. He never made it to high school.

“I went to work, and from there I went to the Navy,” Peters said.

Of the five Peters brothers who served in World War II, Virgil was the only one in the Navy and the only volunteer; the other four were in the Army and were drafted. Roy Peters worked at Mead Paper, Rayford Peters at Holston Ordnance, Harold Peters owned Pete’s TV and Appliance, Granville Peters was a minister and Virgil Peters an office equipment businessman. Brothers Herman Peters and Malcomb Peters did not serve in the military, but Herman worked at Mead and Malcomb was a coal miner.

Witnessing history from the deck of a minesweeper

“I have a picture gallery that I’ve developed down through the years,” Peters said. One shows a Navy ship back in a cove where a typhoon came through.

“We went to sea rather than stay in the (shallow) cove,” Peters said, adding that another ship’s crew was rescued.

During his service, the minesweeper went up and down the Japanese coast, trying to clear the area for battleships and aircraft carriers.

“We went in first,” Peters said.

He was there for the iconic raising of the U.S. flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. From the deck of the minesweeper, he was looking at a hill that appeared to have been hit by a tornado when someone spoke to him and he turned toward them.

“I was real close to the beach,” Peters said of the minesweeper’s position. “I looked up on the top of the hill and didn’t see anything,” Peters said. “I looked again, and there was the flag.”

The first flag was basically on a stick, he said. Soon a more formidable flag and pole were raised and captured in the iconic image. “I think I was there for both,” Peters said, adding that he didn’t realize the image would become iconic.

At the end of the war, he and shipmates wondered why they were being followed by a growing group of ships. It turns out that if the Japanese hadn’t surrendered after the dropping of the two atomic bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his minesweeper was to have led the way to an invasion of Toyko.

Pilot scooped from the water, thanks seamen with letter

During the battle of Iwo Jima, Peters said a scout plane kept flying overhead, trying to locate Japanese soldiers with artillery hidden in caves. The pilot was coming in lower every time. Peters was standing on deck and told someone the plane would be shot down if it continued to fly lower on each approach. Sure enough, the plane was shot down on the very next approach.

“The plane landed right in the back of our ship, really,” Peters said. He said the ship’s captain picked up the pilot, whose plane sank, and that the pilot wrote the seamen a four-page letter thanking the captain and crew for saving his life.

Traveling with Adm. Nimitz, actress Greer Garson

For a time, Peters was assigned to Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who was over the Seventh Fleet and commanded Allied air, land and sea forces. He said that duty included being on a boat for a visit from actress Greer Garson, who in 1942 had appeared at the grand opening of J. Fred Johnson Stadium in Kingsport to promote war bonds.

Life after the war but still in the Navy

After the war, he and four others remained on the minesweeper and continued their job, but this time with Japanese help.

“We brought a Japanese officer aboard ship, and he was telling us where the mines were,” Peters said.

In addition, he said five seamen in their early 20s decided they would volunteer for a short stint of “suicide duty” on an old tanker with oil drums tied to it. The 12-man crews would serve a short time and then be guaranteed a trip home for helping find magnetic mines, but the work was dangerous and the trip might be in caskets.

“We didn’t have enough sense to be scared,” Peters said, adding that the captain couldn’t formally discourage them but told them they would not be serving in “suicide” duty. “That’s the reason I’m talking to you today.”

However, that didn’t mean the group still didn’t deal with magnetic and others mines, and he and his fellow seamen learned how to set depth charges for submarines and mines in the dark. Too shallow and they’d blow themselves out of the water. Too deep and they’d miss their intended target.

“If you made the wrong click, you’d blow the ship up,” Peters said.

Marriage and career

After the war, Peters got married and had a daughter. He met his wife while cruising Broad Street in his 1936 Chevrolet. Later, he got free GI Bill training for office equipment repair and began working at Typewriter and Equipment Co. in downtown Kingsport in 1952.

He was married to Louise Peters for 70 years before she died in February. Daughter Linda Jones lives two doors down from him in Rock Springs in a barn he converted into a house, following up on his father’s vocation as a carpenter. He also does woodworking, has remodeled houses and has won Tennessee Walking Horse awards.

“I used to take care of your office machines where you work,” Peters said of typewriters, copiers and other equipment. He went from being an apprentice and service manager to co-owning the company when he retired in 1993. He will turn 92 April 19.

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