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Russell Hamilton Peterson

West Virginia
Veterans Memorial

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Russell Hamilton Peterson
1920-1944

"Your son fought valiantly in a supreme hour of his country’s need. His memory will live in the grateful heart of our nation."

General George Marshall

Russell Hamilton Peterson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 3, 1920, the younger son of Nels Louis and Agnes Henrietta Nordlof Peterson. Russell’s birth certificate indicates that Nels [born c. 1880] was a tailor and Agnes [born c. 1886], a housewife. The couple were Swedish immigrants, who met and married after arriving in the States in the early 1900s. Russell’s only sibling Roland was four years older, and, in addition to his role as big brother, Roland would serve as mentor and during the teenage years as surrogate father.

The 1930s found Russell, Roland, and Agnes living in Illinois, where Roland took a B.S. degree at the University of Chicago in chemistry. Much of Roland’s analytical nature (he saved numerous letters from the various family members to each other, providing a detailed history, and he kept meticulous financial records) was passed to the younger brother. An early letter from Russell to his father, dated 1930, provides threads that would run throughout his correspondence: interests in matters financial and scientific, especially in entomology. Russell thanks his “Pa” for including a dollar in his last letter (but wishes it had been more) and goes on to say, “I have several types of Spiders in jars and a Garden Spider has an egg sack. It is rather thin but I think it will pull through.”
Russell Hamilton Peterson
Russell Hamilton Peterson.
Peterson Family Collection, WV State Archives.

Other letters from the 1930s provide additional glimpses into Russell’s life and interests, and his handwriting settles into the regular pattern it would retain for the rest of his life. Writing to his father on May 12, 1933, he says, “May 10, my manual training teacher asked the boys of my room to help the teachers by parading downtown and making signs with slogans on. I am not going because I prefer to live to a ripe old age.” He also recounts an incident involving his brother’s chemical experiments:

Rol is interested in chemistry and has quite a lot of chemical [sic]. He has gased [sic] us several times, has had two large explosions. The first time a glass of gunpowder was ignited (lighted) and there were sparks hurled six feet high. The second time he put pure oxegen [sic] in gas burner while the gas was going __ __ __ . Boy! That was some explosion! My ears were ringing for a half hour.

A longer and chatty letter to Nels dated October 19, 1935, thanks him for sending a one-dollar bill, describes his required swimming class, and talks about tulip and hyacinth bulbs he saved when people threw them away after Easter; Russell thinks most will survive and offers to send some of them to his father. He finally gets to his main subject of interest:

I am sending for some buletins [sic] from the Department of Agriculture on the Periodic Cicada or Seventeen Year Locust. It really isn’t a locust but it is related to the Aphids or plant lice. It looks like a large fly. The second buletin that Im [sic] getting is on the manly (?) art of mounting insects. If your [sic] interested in anything pertaining to agriculture why let me know, and as soon as I get a list I will send you a list of the bulitens [sic] on that subject.

Russell’s letter of January 8, 1936, to his Pa remarks on his swimming accomplishments and then delves more deeply into his interest in entomology:

Yesterday I swam 300 ft. in the school tank; 120 ft. breast stroke, 120 ft. trudgeon stroke, and 60 ft. side stroke. Am I good! 300 ft. or 100 yds., and I swam it all myself!

Last week a butterfly “hatched” on me and I got a beautiful black, yellow, and metalic [sic] blue butterfly. If you want to see what it looks like, go to the museum and asked to be shown a female Papilio asterias. If they don’t say, tell them you want to see a female Black swallowtail. You might try the library also.

Two weeks ago, I found three cocoons of the cecropia Silkworm moth (Samia cecropia) the largest and most beautiful of our native moths. Look it up. I am sure you won’t be disappointed in it.

As were all the Petersons, father Nels—who had remained in Milwaukee—was a regular, though more succinct, letter writer. In a letter dated November 24, 1936, he encloses a five-dollar bill and indicates he will send more to Roland when he gets a job, commenting without self-pity on his loss of employment the previous week. Noting that Russell needs eyeglasses, he writes, “It is too bad. . . . I have been wearing them for years now, it is not fun. Sometimes I break them. Well, we have to do the best we can and that is all.”

Upon receiving his degree from the University of Chicago, Roland gained employment as a chemist with Union Carbide in Charleston, West Virginia, where Russell and Agnes would follow him. There Russell graduated from Charleston High School with the January 1938 class. It appears that some of his friends expected him to follow in his brother’s footsteps and attend the University of Chicago, and he also investigated the possibility of going to Cornell. For several months, he drifted through indecision. But in his 1939 Christmas letter to his father, he explains:

Roland probably has told you of sending me to the local college [Kanawha College, later to be absorbed into Morris Harvey College]. So far I’ve taken a more or less general course; last semester I took zoology, psychology, German, English and sociology; this semester I am taking chemistry, botany, college algebra and economics. The psychology, sociology and economics come under the classification of general cultural subjects; designed to broaden the viewpoint—something which I evidently needed. Starting next semester I plan on taking those subjects which have a more or less direct bearing on the field I am trying to enter. I should like to know what you think of the idea.

Report cards for several semesters at Morris Harvey show Russell to be between an A and B student, though he occasionally took an “Incomplete” in a course and then failed to remove it. Among Russell’s papers carefully saved by Roland is a budget document showing his anticipated income and expenses (both totaling $200.15 for the period from October 1 to December 31, 1941)!

Russell Hamilton Peterson
Russell Hamilton Peterson.
Peterson Family Collection, WV State Archives.
But then World War II intervened. With the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, by early 1942 Russell had enlisted in the Army and was first stationed at Fort Thomas, Kentucky. He would later train at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, and wind up at Camp Gordon, Georgia. On February 17, Roland wrote to him indicating that Agnes didn’t like his enlistment but was taking it pretty well; he would let Russell inform their father. Roland inquires about Russell’s health, talks about going to the police shooting range to practice with a rifle and pistol, and notes that Russell has an advantage in that “uncle will pay for your shooting.” In a lighthearted vein, Roland goes on to say, “Saw ‘Here Comes Mr. Jordan’ finally at the Custer. See by all means if you have a chance to do so. It has a flavor reminiscent of ‘Lost Horizons’.”

By March 1942 Russell had become part of the Chemical Warfare Service (83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion). In a letter to his mother from the Edgewood Arsenal, he asks for the following supplies:

1. a can of cleanser (don’t send me anything like Bon Ami!)
2. some white typing paper and yellow second sheets.
3. a 12” ruler (I believe mine is still around the house. It’s also called “Eyesaver” ruler)
4. Organic Chemistry by Lucas.
5. a brush about 4” long for scrubbing clothes.

1943 V-mails to Roland and Agnes demonstrate Russell’s ability to tailor his correspondence to what the recipient wants to hear. In September he writes to his mother,

I received your letter dated August third today. I’ve put off writing you until I could get your new address.

What have I been doing? I’ll be very brief (if I’m not, I’ll never get this letter mailed and you won’t know what happened to me.) I’m in Sicily—have been in action but have come through without a scratch. At present I’m going nuts dodging flies and bambinos asking for caramella.

However, an October V-mail to Roland finds him to be both articulate and more long-winded. He says he doesn’t know the exact date but is sure it’s beyond the seventh, which means he owes his brother a birthday greeting:

Twenty-eight, isn’t it? I can understand the gray hairs. But they say a man’s as young as he feels—which, if your letters are any indication, means you’re getting younger rather than older. Or am I wrong? Are your shoulders weakening from the responsibilities of marriage? Tell the truth now, for I (in common with a good many others in this man’s army) have every intention, when I get back to the states, of marrying the first girl foolish enough to have me and having half-a-dozen kids in nothing flat so I won’t get caught in the next (heaven forbid!) war.

Early January 1944—the ninth—finds Russell in Italy, where he writes to his mother to thank her for packages, though he asks her not to send him any more “nostrums.” He adds, “From the tone of your letters you must think I’m a bit shocked by the war. It’s certainly no picnic, but it’s not as bad as I had imagined before I saw action. So, chin up, I’m making out all right.” Seventeen days later, all would change for the Peterson family, as Agnes receives the following telegram from the Adjutant General:

The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Corporal Russell H. Peterson has been reported missing in action since twenty-six January in Italy. If further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified.

A follow-up telegram of July 3 states that the “missing in action” status had been changed to “killed in action.” Like many other mothers of men in uniform, Agnes Peterson was unwilling to accept this information, and she sought vainly to find some clue indicating her son was still alive. Her denial meant that for some time she refused government benefits due her as Russell’s named dependent and beneficiary. An August 19, 1945, letter from Major Gordon Mindrum, commanding officer of the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion, surely dashed any remaining hope, when it included the following:

Cpl Peterson was aboard a ship sunk by enemy action off the coast of Anzio, Italy. The action took place during the night, and although extensive rescue efforts were made, some casualties did occur. The beaches and all ships in the area were also searched, but Cpl Peterson could not be found. Since all prisoners of war have been liberated, if you have not been notified of your son’s release from enemy hands, it must be presumed that he was lost in this action and his body never recovered.

In Bastard Battalion: A History of the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion in WWII (Charleston, WV: 35th Star Publishing, 2009), Terry Lowry recounts the story of the sinking of LST 422. In mid-January 1944, plans for an amphibious invasion of Anzio and Nettuno, Italy, were underway, and by January 22, the beaches adjacent to these two cities had been cleared. The 83rd was heavily involved in this operation.

Midnight of January 25-26 saw Companies C and D of the 83rd Battalion on the LST 422, offshore Anzio. Under the direction of British LST Lt. Commander Colin Broadhurst, the naval vessel, which had been built in the U.S., but lend-leased to the British, carried not only members of the 83rd, but also sixty-five British officers and crew, twenty-three men of the 2nd Battalion of the 68th Coastal Artillery Regiment, a number of vehicles, and a great deal of ammunition.

What happened that night has been called one of the greatest naval tragedies of the war. Although some accounts indicate there was an explosion not long after midnight, and it was originally thought the ship had been hit by a torpedo, the most accurate account is probably that of Broadhurst. He reported that around 5:20 a. m. the ship was blown into a minefield and struck a mine. Survivors remarked that they had noticed a sulfurous smell, which is consistent with a mine strike. By 5:25, Broadhurst had given the order to abandon ship (though this fact is sometimes disputed by those who indicated that the ship’s communication system had been knocked out).

A variety of naval vessels—many of them minesweepers—began rescue efforts, and in the chaos of the rescue, LCI 32—searching for survivors—also hit a mine. While a number of men were rescued, the horrid weather conditions—wind, cold, hail, and rain—probably accounted for many of the deaths; those not killed immediately by explosions, fire, or drowning would have become subject to hypothermia. Russell H. Peterson would be one of the many unlucky men not rescued that night.

Lowry says: “Although it came at a high cost, and certainly not by intent, the 83rd had once again led the way in innovations, this time impacting future naval rescues” (p. 162). He points out that rescuers (and survivors) noted the inadequacy of the life belts and jackets on the LST and of the lifesaving devices. Also stressed was the importance of rapid rescue in rough and icy waters and the need for better training in first aid.

Cpl. Russell H. Peterson’s name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at Nettuno, Italy. For his service, Russell received the Purple Heart.
Sicily-Rome American Cemetery
Sicily-Rome American Cemetery
at Nettuno, Italy.
Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission.

Information and pictures obtained from the Peterson Family Collection (Ms2009-008 and Ph2009-008), West Virginia State Archives. Article contributed by Patricia Richards McClure, with assistance from Terry Lowry.

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