Individual soldiers and sailors, however, might offer a variety of other days that they consider to have been the “greatest,” depending on where they were serving and what they were doing at the time. For some, it might have been their involvement in the Doolittle raid on April 18, 1942. For others, it might have been the invasion of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Or it might have been the day of one of any number of many invasions, bombing runs, and other military actions across the numerous theaters of World War II. The soldiers who invaded Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians certainly thought that they were involved in a momentous event, although those invasions are little known or discussed today. It’s sort of like they say of surgery: It’s minor surgery when it’s performed on someone else; it’s major surgery if you’re the one going under the knife!
My Uncle Dillon’s “greatest day” didn’t come on June 6, 1944. He didn’t arrive on Omaha Beach until June 24, D-day + 18. He came ashore with the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Armored Division, that day and then entered the fighting in the bocage region the next day. A tank driver, he took forward observers to the very front edge of the front lines so they could identify German targets and call in artillery fire against them. The fact that he didn’t participate in the June 6 landings in no way minimizes the greatness of his contribution toward winning the war.
But June 6 has another significance for me. On that day in 1844, my great great grandfather, Joshua Peterson, was born. If not for him, there would have been no James Peterson, no Blaine Peterson, no Ralph Peterson–and no me!
Joshua was the son of Hiram Peterson and Nancy Mashburn and was the grandson of Tobias Peterson of Kjolen, Sweden, and Maria Silva of Portugal. Joshua’s grandfather Tobias reputedly was the first white settler along Poplar Creek in the Toe River Valley of North Carolina.
Joshua either enlisted or was drafted into the Confederate Army. In the mountains of western North Carolina, both the Union and Confederate armies enforced conscription. If one army didn’t get you, the other one probably would. Many men from that area, owning no slaves and being predominantly Whig in political sentiment, had “no dog in the fight,” so they often served briefly in whichever army had drafted them, then they deserted and hid in the mountains. To them, it was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” and they really wanted nothing to do with either side. They just wanted to be left alone to farm their steep hillside farms, provide for their families, and worship their God in peace. Such might well have been the case with Joshua.
But wait! There’s more! Joshua’s son James, my great grandfather, died on June 6, 1941. He was born August 12, 1867, and died eight years after his father at age 74. I know perhaps less about James than any other of my known ancestors, except perhaps Charles Mathias Peterson, the farthest back I can trace my lineage. He lived in Sweden, and I’ve been unable to find anything about him.
Neither Joshua’s nor James’s life was something that history books mention even in passing. They were not involved in earth-shattering events at which future generations would marvel and discuss ad infinitum. They were not famous in the general sense of the term. They were just common people–common in their appearance, their upbringing, and their lifestyle–yet, they were anything but ordinary. Rather, they were of strong stock, and, as Jean Thomas wrote, they “held safe and unchanged the simple beauty of the song of their fathers, the unsullied speech, the simple ideals and traditions, staunch religious faith, love of freedom, courage, and fearlessness. Above all they . . . maintained a spirit of independence and self-reliance that is unsurpassed. . . .”
And their lives were crucial to my own life and the lives of others of their progeny. So June 6 has multiple meanings for me. Dig into your own family’s past and find a member of your own “greatest generation.”