CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Peter Book was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in January, 1922. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the nineteen year old Book stopped at Butcher’s pool room in Perth Amboy on his way home from church. He was at Butcher’s when the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor broke. “Everybody knew we were in it and most of the guys [at Butcher’s] were ready to volunteer to fight right there and then. I was young and my father wanted me to wait until I was a little older.” Book’s father had lived in Austria-Hungary during World War I and, although he had not served himself, had lost two brothers in that conflict.
Despite his father’s cautions, Book enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Corps in July 1942. He stated that while growing up he was “always enamored with airplanes. I built models and went to different airfields for air shows.” After enlisting, however, Book recalled that “they kicked us around while we waited for an assignment,” and that he was sent to a succession of bases, including Fort Dix, New Jersey, Mitchell Field, New York, Bainbridge, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee, before being processed, classified and assigned to San Antonio, Texas for training.
Book remembered that he spent a lot of time marching under a hot Texas sun during pre-flight training, and was thrilled with his first flight in a single engine trainer called a PT19. His dream of becoming a pilot would not materialize, however. He “washed out” of pilot training and recalled that it was “the saddest moment” of his life and was “the first time I got drunk and the first time I smoked.” He then applied for navigator training but was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and sent home for a month to recover. On his return he was assigned to Navigation School in Hondo, Texas and graduated from that training in November, 1943.
Book had expectations and a desire to be assigned to the Eighth Air Force in England and “bomb the hell out of Germany.” He was issued winter equipment and clothing that led him to believe that was where he was going, but his orders were changed at the last minute, and he was sent to Fairfield Air Base in California, from where he shipped out to the Pacific. He ended up on an island about eighty miles south of Tarawa, where the temperature was always about ninety degrees, and the parka he had been issued was unnecessary.
Book became the navigator for a twin engine DC-3 [aka C-47] transport plane that flew up and down the Gilbert and Marshall Island chains. He recalled the aircraft, which had a four man crew including pilot, co-pilot, engineer and navigator, as “a very durable and forgiving airplane.” He also remembered the islands he flew over as “beautiful” but regretted that “we were in a war and guys were getting killed.” He remembered the sameness of the weather — “sunny and with a cool breeze.” For some, the weather “became very monotonous… but we were lucky to be flying all over the islands,” he recalled.
Book’s plane landed on Saipan in June, 1944, shortly after the airfield was secured by an American invading force. His unit was based on Saipan for a year, and he recalled that Navy Seabees worked day and night preparing the island’s airfield for the arrival of the big B-29 bombers that would be used to bomb Japan. [The first B-29 arrived on Saipan on October 12, 1944.] With Saipan cleared of the enemy, the men stationed on the island became lax in their security. One morning a lone Japanese bomber flew in and bombed an American plane and fuel truck on the runway. The next day, Book recalled, everyone, including a colonel, dug foxholes.
After that incident, Book related: “We didn’t have any more raids until the next Christmas , when the Japs pulled a sneak raid. We were celebrating, all the lights were on, and they hit a navy barracks.” Following the raid Book went over to the barracks to check on Archie Kopchak, a friend from Perth Amboy who was living there. Kopchak told Book that he had his hand on the doorknob and was about to enter the barracks when the force of the explosion knocked him back about twenty feet onto some coral, resulting in a number of minor cuts and bruises. “I told him he should report to sick bay and get a purple heart. Archie refused to go and said later that after all the guys who got killed and banged up, his wounds were nothing. He never bothered getting a purple heart,” Book recalled.
Book remembered USO troupes performing on Saipan, including some with Hollywood celebrities like John Wayne and Betty Hutton, who he described as “a real pepper pot,” as well as some old vaudeville acts. He also noted that he saw the famous actor Tyrone Power at the base theater watching some of his old movies “with the rest of us.” At the time Power was a Marine Corps lieutenant and transport pilot who flew supplies into Iwo Jima and wounded Marines out to Saipan.
While stationed on Saipan, Book’s unit continued to fly supply missions in support of the island hopping war in the Pacific. He recalled that on one occasion his plane was one of thirteen ordered on an ammunition re-supply run to Marines fighting on Iwo Jima. He was the lead navigator and had a Marine on board in radio communication with Marines on the ground. Book’s plane circled several times around Mount Suribachi and then flew over the airfield, kicked out pallets of mortar shells at 500 feet elevation and then returned to Saipan. Book recalled that some time after the Iwo Jima mission photographer Joseph Rosenthal was on board his plane and had several pictures with him, including the one he took of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi.
Book returned to the United States in August 1945 aboard the J. Franklin Bell, a luxury liner converted to troop transport for the war. He landed in San Francisco, where he recalled he and his comrades were hailed as heroes. He was granted a thirty day leave, and the day before he arrived home the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a science fiction fan in high school, Book was aware of the potential power of atomic energy, and, once he heard about the bomb, was sure the war would soon be over. He was in New York City to celebrate President Harry S. Truman’s August 15, 1945 declaration of the Japanese surrender. On Book’s return from leave he was stationed at Greensboro, North Carolina until discharged in December, 1945.
Looking back on the war, Book recalled that after Pearl Harbor “there was a burst of patriotism. There was no such thing as ethnics. We were all Americans. Everyone wanted to serve and forget about their fears. Some guys had operations to correct any defects they had. You forget about your own fears. We were so well trained in what we were doing that the success of the mission and the welfare of our comrades were paramount. I can understand how some guys gave their lives for their country because you lose yourself in it, because your survival is not the most important thing. You may call it brainwashed, but that is how we were trained.”
After his World War II service, Book attended law school in Newark, New Jersey, but stayed in the reserves. He felt that his luck, which had brought him through the war unscathed, remained with him, as he missed taking a train home to Perth Amboy one day and the train was involved in a spectacular wreck. [This was probably “The Broker” a Pennsylvania Railroad train so named because so many New York stockbrokers rode on it, which went off a trestle in Woodbridge, New Jersey on February 6, 1951. More than eighty passengers were killed and 500 injured.] He thought his luck had run out though, when he was called back to active duty for the Korean War and assigned to fly in a B-26 bomber. The luck held, however, and he was reassigned to a B-29 squadron, which, he recalled, was “a piece of cake” compared to flying in the B-26.
Book’s Korean War unit, the Thirtieth Bomber Squadron, was based on Okinawa. “I only saw Korea from thirty thousand feet,” he recalled. By the time he arrived on Okinawa, the island had been considerably rebuilt following its World War II devastation. Book remembered that “there were roads, clubs, hotels and our facilities were very good. For six dollars a month we had maids that kept our living quarters in pretty good shape.” Book remembered that most of the B-29 pilots, navigators and engineers were World War II veterans and the gunners and enlisted crew members mostly younger men. “We were like older brothers to them,” he said.
Although B-29 duty was safer than other flying over North Korea, it was not without risk. Book remembered that he dreaded clear moonlit nights because that was when Chinese and North Korean MIG fighter planes would come up to attack the bombers. “The worse the weather the better I liked it. It kept them away,” he said. Book’s luck continued to hold when he missed a mission one moonlit night, when three of nine planes were shot down “while I was drinking beer in the club.” Not everyone was so lucky. One major brought his family with him to Okinawa and “we had a big party for him and he got shot down on his first mission. That was the fortunes of war,” Book recalled.
All in all, though, Book noted that the B-29 crews “had very few casualties. We flew at night and dropped our bombs on North Korea, and that was it. There wasn’t much to hit so we hit railroad bridges and power plants,” he recalled. He remembered that the bombers flew right up to the Manchurian border on the Yalu River and that the crews could see MIG air bases across the river, but were not allowed to attack them.
Book summed up his war experiences by saying “so I flew my missions and somehow survived,” and paraphrased Winston Churchill’s famous quote “… the most exhilarating moment in life is to be shot at — and missed.” He added that his “good feelings have always been tempered by my guilt feelings. My contemporaries, guys I grew up with, went to school with, played ball with, were cut down even before they got a chance to live.”
Book believes that he, along with all the other veterans who were not killed, maimed or blinded, benefited greatly from World War II. “It changed the country, the world and of course all our lives. We got out of a depression and got an education. The war profoundly changed everyone for better or worse. He still has mixed feelings about the Korean and Vietnam Wars and believes “our [foreign policy] blunders had set them up.”
Book returned to the United States from Okinawa and was discharged from the Air Force as a captain in December, 1952.
Following his service, Book joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and stayed in touch with many of his wartime comrades. He did not go to many reunions, but thought they were important to men who could talk with each other about what happened in the war and exorcise their demons. He believes that people today are generally self-centered and need a jolt like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 top become more patriotic, although he noted that “the patriotism since 9/11 seems to have slackened off [by the date of his interview, 9/23/2002].”
Peter Book completed law school after his Korean War service and married shortly afterward. At the time of his interview he was still living in Perth Amboy, where his father settled after emigrating from Europe following World War I. Book said he is glad to be an American, and concluded his interview with the statement, “And God bless America and God bless us.”