Benelux WWII vets experienced own 'Pacific'
May 3, 2010
CHIEVRES, Belgium - Two of Hollywood's biggest names teamed up to produce a fictional tale of American troops in the Pacific during World War II, currently airing on HBO and AFN.
"The Pacific," a 10-part miniseries produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, focuses on the lives of three young characters as they fight their way from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. It's based on material from four books written by WWII veterans as well as original veteran interviews.
Lesser known than Hanks and Spielberg, however, are Charles Wilson and Ernie Peterson. The two Benelux-based retirees were part of the real version, circa 1945.
"I've been privileged to serve with some of the most dedicated and earnest people you'd ever want to know," said Wilson, who served 18 months in theater as a C-47 and C-46 pilot and operations officer toward the end of the war. "What the troops accomplished there helped change the course of history."
While flying cargo missions in the Southwest Pacific, Wilson was a very young second lieutenant. The Texas-native signed up for aviation cadet flying training within months after graduating high school and became a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps a year later.
In just a few months, Wilson was captaining a C-46 at 500 feet above Hiroshima two weeks after the bomb drop, staring at utter destruction. He was 21 years old.
"We were on a cargo run from Okinawa to Japan, and I had the idea to divert course over to Hiroshima," he said. "Since I was the captain, everyone agreed with me. We flew over at 500 feet. It was the most devastating site. We weren't worried about radiation at the time, we just wanted to see it."
Wilson retired as a major general 30 years ago in April. Details about his time in the Pacific - in both the Second World War and Korean War - are scarce, as the spry 86-year-old deflected focus to his fellow service members' contributions.
Wilson, like many veterans, is reticent to talk about his experience in the war, said retired Lt. Col. Charles Westpheling, president of the Association of Retired Members of the U.S. Armed Forces in Belgium.
"Those who have the most to talk about, seldom talk about it," he said. "The only reason I can think of is that nobody so much as a fellow veteran of that can really understand what they're talking about."
Both Wilson and Peterson recanted their war memories at the annual luncheon for ARMAF-B the past two years. Wilson shared his story in March, while Peterson keynoted the 2009 luncheon.
"In 1945, I took part in the war in the Pacific," Peterson said last year, recalling his memories at first in as few words as possible.
"I was then assigned to an assault boat and took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima," the retired petty officer 2nd class said. "I made about fifteen landings on Iwo Jima under enemy fire. The sight of the Marines dying on the beach will never leave me as long as I live."
Peterson's full account of his World War II memories is published in the Benelux Edge's Spring 2009 edition.
"World War II was a succession of terrible experiences for the teenager I was back then," Peterson said at the luncheon. "I am glad my children have never known them. I hope they never will.
"Sometimes I feel that all the pain, all the suffering, all the agony that we endured then have helped build a better world," he continued. "But I also get the impression, at times, that all we did has long been forgotten and has come to nothing at all. Yet I went all over the world and came across all sorts of people during the war. It taught me to be tolerant to other ways of life, and I made a point to pass down my attitude to differences to my children."
"The Pacific" is not the first time Spielberg and Hanks have teamed up to portray the heroics of World War II veterans. The team also produced "Band of Brothers," which is based on the war's European front, and they collaborated on "Saving Private Ryan."
"If there was ever a contribution to a nation ... it was your strength and your courage that defined the greatest generation," Spielberg said to veterans at the National World War II Memorial in Washington in advance of their new series in March. "You said America can be built by ideas if you have the courage to act upon those ideas. We, the baby boomers have tried to live by your example."
(Information from Army News Service was used in this article)