November 10, 2015

WWII history bursts from pages of Hudson Falls teacher's new book

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
veterans day
Caption: Alvin Peachman and Matt Rozell. Photo provided.

On April 6, 1945, retired teacher Alvin Peachman was a radioman on one of six Navy destroyer escort ships attacked by Japanese kamikaze off Okinawa.

"Two of them came out of the skies and we fired like mad and got the first one. The other was coming straight for us and we had him on fire. He hit into the engine room, fire room and kitchen. He blew out about half the ship with a thousand-pound bomb in the plane," Peachman said in an interview he did for a newly released book, The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories of the WWII Generation.

Hudson Falls history teacher Matt Rozell, also a member of the Hudson Falls TA, wrote the book with a focus on the Pacific Theater action during WWII. Peachman, now 93 years old, was his history teacher in the very same school.

If you don't know history, said Peachman, then "you don't know how you got there; how to interpret things."

From 1951 to 1983, Peachman shared that creed with several generations of history students in the small village of Hudson Falls, north of Albany.

His own history was nearly crushed that day on the ship. Most of the radiomen on the other ships were killed because the kamikazes aimed for the communication part of the destroyer escorts. The bomb that hit The Witter landed above the area where Peachman was stationed.

"I was lucky," he said on the eve of this year's 2015 Veteran's Day, when many homes will light up with green lights to honor veterans. "A great deal of our crews died."

His service in the Pacific Theater also included invasions in the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal, near the equator—which he crossed many times. He was also part of the New Guinea attacks and was sent to New Caledonia. He traveled thousands of miles in the vast Pacific Ocean during his three-plus years in the service of the United States.

Peachman's story is now far beyond Rozell's book. When it was published in August, Rozell was contacted by Japan's largest news wire service, which he said has more than 50 million subscribers worldwide, publishing articles in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. The news service wanted a veteran's point of view at the approach of the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Rozell had them interview Peachman, a member of the Allied Forces.

Peachman said he told the news service that he felt the atomic bomb was necessary to end the war, though he felt that, prior to its use, President Roosevelt should not have demanded unconditional surrender – where losing countries would be completely at the mercy of the victor.

The Japanese looked on their emperor as many here look upon God, he said this week, and they would not want to relinquish that.

And so the war went on another year after the demand for unconditional surrender, Peachman said — a year of soaring high death tolls. And then the new president, Harry Truman, ordered the bombs.

"I have questions about how and when the bomb was used," Peachman said. "But make no mistake, the coming land invasion of Japan would have been a bloodbath." It is country of rough terrain and "the mountains were honeycombed with weaponry."

According to the World War II museum, there were 15 million combat deaths; 25 million wounded; and 45 million civilian deaths in the six-year war.

Growing up in Appalachia, "from a long line of coal miners," Peachman said he left the poverty-stricken area after high school and headed for New York City to work on the docks. He unloaded 137 pounds of coffee, he said, which came in on ships filled with 165,000 sacks. "I was a young guy. I was glad to have a job. I could rip the pier apart!" he said.

"I was just doing good when the war started," he said. He was distressed when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese and signed up for the service.

"Since the war, the Japanese have reformed," he said. He and his wife traveled there seven years ago and visited the Yasukini Shrine, which honors the Japanese who died in war.

"I have a great deal of affection for the Japanese people I met … and a profound respect for their culture," he said. "I believe in the Lord's Prayer …. 'forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…'"

After the war, Peachman graduated from New York University in the Bronx and then accepted a teaching position in Hudson Falls. He was married to Gretchen for 65 years until she passed away a year ago. They have three children, seven grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well.

Without her, he feels "very lonesome." Each year, for 28 years, they spent winters in Hawaii, and they also traveled to many places in Europe and to New Zealand, where Peachman had made friends while he was part of a New Zealand infantry attacking the Japanese in the jungles and rainforests of Treasury Islands.

If he was scared, Peachman said of his time in the service, it came on before or after an attack – but not during one, because then, he said, "You're fighting for your life."

Peachman's story is part of a collection of interviews in Rozell's book, which began as a school project 20 years ago. In The Things Our Fathers Saw, he has compiled their first-person accounts of more than 30 survivors who fought the war in the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor to the surrender at Tokyo Bay. The interviews were conducted with veterans by both Rozell and his students for oral and written history projects, some individually and some in groups. The written histories were used for a series of annual publications for the Washington County Historical Society. Then the book came into being.

"The POW diary of Joe Minder is published almost in its shocking entirety for the first time," Rozell said. "He passed about 10 years ago. A few came from the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga."

All of the interviews are at the museum in their raw form for posterity, Rozell said.

"There is a lot of interest in the community and elsewhere," Rozell said this week. " I did a four-hour book signing event Sunday that was non-stop." He said that, when the book first came out in August, the WTEN news channel Facebook had 1,000 shares.

This Sunday, Nov. 15, Rozell will be at the Hyde Museum in Glens Falls from 2-4 p.m., when all veterans and military be admitted for free.

"The book is about the Pacific War, which — outside of Pearl Harbor and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — very few Americans have any real conception of," Rozell said. " I learned a lot in writing it and my narrative is the connecting tissue between the chronological unfolding of this war, through the voices of the veterans — men and women — who were fortunate enough to return, though not unscathed."

Rozell, who has been traveling to promote his book, recently spoke to Toronto school children about Holocaust remembrance. He was a museum teaching fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and, in 2012, was awarded the National Society of the Daughters of American Revolution Lockwood Medal for Education.

The high school teacher will also be writing a book about the liberation of concentration camp survivors, a project with which his students have been involved as well.

In a fall breeze, the pages of his new book ripple. Every page that is flipped by the wind opens another link to history with the story of another brave veteran who left home and family, risking life itself, to stop tyranny.


Video

In this video from 2014, Hudson Falls Teachers Association member Matt Rozell and Hudson Falls High School senior Emma Kitchner talk about the history of Veterans Day and keeping history alive through the "power of the narrative story." Producer/Editor: Leslie Duncan Fottrell; Videography and Photo Restoration: Andrew Watson.