George J. Peters was a private in the United States Army who received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” for action in Germany during World War II.
George was one of seven children born to Portuguese immigrants in Cranston, Rhode Island on March 19, 1923. He had three sisters and three brothers. George was a kind, unassuming young man who lovingly teased his mother and looked after his younger sisters. He was the only one of the children who enjoyed helping his father tend the family’s backyard garden. At the time he was believed to be in love with a neighborhood girl. George did not attend high school but went to work at the Cranston Print Works when he finished classes at Hugh B. Bain School in Cranston. Going to and from work he often witnessed tearful goodbyes in front of the local police station as groups of young draftees departed for military service.
Peters was drafted in 1943 and, after having seen many a tearful goodbye in Cranston, decided to go to the Providence train station for his trip to begin his military service. During his basic training George volunteered to be a paratrooper. When he returned to Cranston after completing his airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia, his family was surprised to see he was wearing his paratrooper jump boots as part of his uniform. According to his sister Isabelle, “George hated heights and was nervous on a roller coaster.” The young paratrooper assured his family that his additional monthly $10.00 jump pay provided him with more money to send home to them.
Peters shipped out for duty in Europe as a member of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 17th Airborne Division. Plans for an Allied airborne assault (Operation Varsity) into Germany had been in the works since the end of the Battle of the Bulge in January of 1945. The airborne drops would be combined with the simultaneous crossing of the Rhine River by the Allied forces to gain a foothold for the final push to Berlin. On the morning of March 24, 1945, approximately 10,000 American and British soldiers headed to Germany. It would be the last major airborne operation of World War II and the first for the 17th Airborne whose divisional motto was “Down to Earth.”
The 507th troopers were dropped near Fluren, a suburb of Wesel, Germany. No sooner had Private Peters, a radio operator in one of the platoons of Company G and ten other paratroopers hit the ground in a clearing bounded by a nearby wood line than they were taken under heavy German machine gun fire from the woods. Unable to get to their separately dropped weapons and equipment, the paratroopers were pinned down, unable to maneuver and return effective fire. Suddenly, without being ordered to do so, Private Peters sprang to his feet with his rifle and hand grenades to attack the German positions. About halfway to his objective Peters was felled by a burst of fire. Moments later he got back on his feet to continue his assault. He was struck a second time by a burst of fire, but before he died, he managed to pull the pin on a hand grenade and throw it into the German machine gun nest silencing it and killing two enemy soldiers. The remaining defenders retreated into the woods while Peters’ fellow paratroopers collected their weapons and assumed the initiative.
Private George J. Peters’ posthumous Medal of Honor was presented on February 8, 1946, with the Medal’s citation signed by President Truman. At the time of his death, Peters was 22 years and 5 days of age. He is buried at the American Battle Monuments Commission’s Cemetery at Margraten in the Netherlands. Until the end of the war Private Peters’ grave was attended to by a Dutch family named Peters.
A Memorial Square at the intersection of Phenix and Atwood Avenues in Cranston, Rhode Island is named for Private George J. Peters.
On August 30, 1946, a year after commissioning as the USAT (U.S. Army Transport) Lock Knot, a Spare Parts Depot Ship was re-named Pvt. George J. Peters in honor of the fallen paratrooper. During WWII Lock Knot was assigned jointly to the Signal Corps, the Medical Corps, and the Chemical Warfare Service in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater. She served until being laid up on March 2, 1949, in the National Defense Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay in Berecia, California. Her final disposition, fate is unknown.
In its editions of Tuesday, October 26, 1976, The Providence Journal published a photograph of a tree planting ceremony during the Bicentennial (ri76) at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Providence. Pictured are John Peters one of George’s brothers together with another Medal of Honor recipient, Captain Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. of Devotion fame. Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice is a book written by Adam Makos and published in March of 2017. It tells of Hudner’s attempt to rescue his downed wingman from a crash landing near the Chosin Reservoir in Korea on December 4, 1950. Hudner’s wingman, Ensign Jessie Brown was the United States Navy’s first black aviator and the first black naval officer to lose his life in combat. A motion picture also titled Devotion based on Makos’ book was released in November of 2022.
On Veterans Day, November 11, 1979, after continuous pressure from local veterans’ groups, the West View Elementary School on Mayberry Street in Cranston (still in operation as of 2023) was re-named the George J. Peters Elementary School in honor of Private Peters. The re-naming ceremony was reported in The Providence Journal editions of November 12, 1979, without comment or detail as to why the school re-naming honor for Peters in his hometown of Cranston took more than 34 years to accomplish after his death.
On the same day that Private Peters died, March 24, 1945, another American paratrooper gave his life in action “above and beyond the call of duty.” Private First Class Stuart S. Stryker of Company E, 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division from Portland, Oregon led an attack by his platoon which had been pinned down by heavy fire from a strongly defended building held by the enemy. Stryker was killed 25 yards from the objective, but his courage and initiative provided a diversion which allowed other elements of his Company to seize the building, capture 200 enemy soldiers and free three American airmen who had been held prisoner by the Germans.
Aged 26 at the time of his death, PFC Stryker’s posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor was presented to his next of kin on December 11, 1945. As a testament to the intensity of the combat during Operation Varsity and the determination of the Germans to defend their Fatherland’s soil, on the same day Private Peters and Private First Class Stryker lost their lives, Corporal Frederick George Topham, a medical orderly from Toronto, Ontario, Canada serving in Operation Varsity with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion received the Victoria Cross for tending to wounded airborne troops and saving the lives of several during the height of the fighting. The Victoria Cross is the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth Forces. The Victoria Cross was established on January 29, 1856, by Her Majesty Queen Victoria to honor acts of valor during the Crimean War. A few days after the deaths of Private Peters and Private First Class Stryker, another American participating in Operation Varsity was awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism and gallantry in action” during the airborne campaign in Germany. Technical Sergeant Clinton M. Hedrick of West Virginia, a glider infantryman in the 17th Airborne Division received his Congressional Medal of Honor for action near Lembeck, Germany on March 28, 1945. He was 26 years of age at the time of his death.