Alexander “Al” Peters celebrated his 90th birthday with his fellows at the Londonderry Senior Center on Friday, June 21, enjoying cake and the warm wishes of friends. The World War II veteran shared thoughts on his time of service as a paratrooper in the 509th Parachute Battalion, with whom he served in North Africa and participated in some of the most famous battles of the war.
“Not too long ago a friend of mine called me a refugee from the law of averages,” Peters said with a smile and a glint in his eye. “He knew my military background – I was in the paratroops during World War II and by all rights I should be buried in some country in Europe, but I’m still here.” Peters said that jumping out of airplanes was like “nothing else.”
“It’s not normal to jump out into empty space, and people usually ask me, ‘Gee, that first jump must have been bad,’ and I tell them, not really because you don’t know what to expect,” he said. “It’s the second, third and all the other jumps that are bad because now you know what can happen and you hope it doesn’t. When we jumped, we hooked up to a line in the plane and when we jumped out, we would count one thousand, two thousand and the chute had better open at three thousand or there’s a problem.”
Peters said he joined the 509th in North Africa and they would jump into Italy. One day they were told they were going to Italy, but they weren’t going to jump in. “General Mark Clark said he needed troops badly so we had a couple of days to train – instead of jumping from a plane, we were going to land in an amphibious assault at a place called Anzio,” he recalled. “The place was flat and the Germans had artillery up in the hills looking down on Anzio so we couldn’t parachute in, it would be too dangerous. So we learned how to go in from a boat.”
Peters said Anzio turned out to be like World War I. “What they wanted to do with Anzio was to take the pressure off the line,” he said. “What the Germans did was send three Panzer divisions from extreme northern Italy and that took care of Anzio. That was a stalemate for a long time. What made it like World War I was that you were in a ditch and foxholes.”
Peters said he joined the army and trained in 1943, then spent 1944 and 1945 in North Africa and Europe.
“I was in the Battle of the Bulge,” he said. “We were told that we were going and we asked where the (enemy) lines were and we were told that there weren’t any, that it was confused, so we had to go house to house, place to place. They were right, it was pretty confused.”
Peters said that while the Germans had white camouflage uniforms, the Americans had to make do.
“We would buy bed sheets from the locals and cut a hole for our head and arms, and it would trail along behind us and sometimes guys would step on it, but that was our snow camouflage,” Peters said.
Peters said he saw friends killed standing right next to him.
“We were near an abandoned farm house one time and it was so cold that one at a time, we would go into the farmhouse to warm up and come back out,” he said. “One day a German soldier came to us under a white flag and asked to use the house for the same purpose and we said OK, so we took turns using the house to warm up. We had an agreement with the Germans that they would go and use the house at a certain time of the day and then we would use it. You have to remember that the average German soldier had a family, that it was Hitler that was pulling the strings and he had the power behind him.”
He noted that Poles and Slovaks in the German army would surrender at the sight of Allied troops to get out from under Hitler. “At the end of the war, we were occupation troops,” he said. “I happened to be in an area where the people were stuck between both sides and they got it from both sides. One time we were bringing some German prisoners up to northern Germany and we had some Red Cross nurses with us. They said we were going to stop at one of the concentration camps to pass out food and blankets and asked if we would help them and we said, ‘sure.’”
Peters’ eyes turned red as he shared what came next. “You’ve seen pictures of concentration camps on television,” he said. “They came up to us, especially one, they were skin and bones, there was nothing left to them. One guy came up to me, he could speak English and he saw the American patch on my sleeve and he said, ‘I want to cry but I can’t, the tears won’t come down anymore. We’ve been waiting for you for years.’ We went through and looked at these guys. Oh, God. You know you see it on TV but when you’re there and you see it eye to eye, it’s completely different and it was very, very sad.”
Peters said, “A woman saw the American patch and said to me, ‘Sir, is there any hope for us?’ What can you tell them? ‘The war is just about over and you’re going to get better food and better blankets.”’
Peters said he never married, and when the war was over, he chose to live a life of adventure.
“I’ve always wanted adventure, to go where I wanted to go, although I’ve known nice girls that would have been wonderful wives, but it was just me, I walked away,” he said. “Marriage wasn’t part of my plan and here I am, still single.” While Peters may be single, he has many friends at the Senior Center. Seated with friends, he gave a little wave to well wishers who came in for his celebration.