Loved ones remember WWII vet
Friday, August 3, 2012
MERRIMACK – Eva Chojnowski knew that ever since her brother Felix Philip “Doc” Peter played baby Jesus in a parade many years ago he was destined to be “the guiding light” of their family for his entire life.
Peter, of Merrimack, died July 25 at age 90, with many friends and family by his side. The decorated, yet modest World War II veteran left a lasting impression on everyone he came in contact with. Most notable were his generosity and ability to make people feel special, his sister and daughter said.
“He was always, always, always upbeat, no matter what was thrown at him through life,” Chojnowski said. “He was a wonderful example. ... I just can’t rave enough about him. I have a wonderful family, collectively, but there was just something special about him.”
The youngest of Peter’s five children, Lila Kee, said her dad was remarkably unselfish and always able to put people at ease. He also had an unlimited capacity to provide unconditional love.
“(He) always tried to make you feel like you were center stage,” Kee said. “Everybody had their own connection with him.”
This included people Peter didn’t even know.
“He always was there for someone in need. He would give a stranger the shirt off his back,” Peter’s daughter, Janet Haouchine, said.
Kee said her father never complained about working 60 hours a week to provide for his family, even though he was in constant pain from injuries he sustained while in combat. But when he came home, Peter was ready to be “Dad,” playing with his children and making sure he spent time with each of them, she said.
“He was such a good dad in a time where many dads were behind the scenes. He was just so engaged with us kids,” Kee said.
“He taught us kids to have a great appreciation for everything we had in life,” Haouchine, added.
Kee said her parents moved to Merrimack roughly 35 years ago, and her father was finally able to immerse himself in nature, having been a city boy his entire life.
“They had this lovely home overlooking Horseshoe Pond,” she said. “We would just sit there and have family meals and have board games and card games and backgammon. We would look out that window. ... It was just beautiful. I think Merrimack and New Hampshire were such a lovely closing chapter for my parents.”
The guiding light
Chojnowski said their parents, the late Louis and Alice Peter, were of Lebanese decent. She noted that while her brother’s real name was Felix, everyone called him Phil, save for his friends from the service. When her brother was born, the family lived in Lawrence, Mass. The Lebanese residents decided to create a float with a live Nativity scene.
“The Lebanese people thought about it and said, ‘Well, Jesus Christ himself walked on our land in Lebanon, so why don’t we do that?’ So what they did was they got real sheep and real lambs and put it on this float,” Chojnowski recalled, retelling the story she heard many times over the years. “My mother was the Virgin Mary and she had the cloth on her head. And who do you think baby Jesus was? It was my brother, Phil.
“I swear to God, he has been blessed, brought back from the service, lived his life in the most Christian way. A lot of people talk about love. ... He never gushed about love, he just proved it in his actions,” she added. “I do believe if I have any faith at all that portraying Jesus way back then, (he) has been our guiding light.”
As for the way Peter saw it, Kee said her father formed his own faith.
“My father’s religion was his family,” she said.
For Kee, her father was her personal hero and she especially admired his strength. Haouchine noted that their father was a hero to all five of his children.
“I used to say my dad was tough, but tough was the wrong word,” Kee said, noting that tough sometimes carries negative connotations. “He was the strongest, most sensitive, most aware, most unselfish man I know. I know I am biased in that, but it’s how he interacted with everyone, whether it was a family member, the gas station guy, or friend or former war veteran. He had this way of understanding where you were coming from.”
Service to his country
It was Peter’s strength that got him through his four years of service during World War II. He completed a tour in the Pacific Theater, serving during the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima. He was deployed with the Marine’s Company B Fourth Engineers as a hospital apprentice 1st class as a Navy-trained pharmacist mate.
Chojnowski said her brother was like many men of his generation who served in the war – he didn’t talk about what happened overseas, not until later in life.
“He had so many horrendous experiences on the front lines of Iwo Jima and Saipan. He saw the worst of the worse. I would say hell and back actually,” she said. “I think his feeling was those who died paid the ultimate sacrifice and who would I be to talk about ‘Oh this was hard’?”
Kee said her father decided to open up about his service during World War II because as he got older, he saw that life was finite.
“I don’t want to say he was ashamed of it, he didn’t like war,” Kee said. “He was a true patriot, but he was like ‘You don’t know what the reality of that means.’ ... He wanted to share the sacrifices, not his sacrifices, but the fallen soldiers and the ones who came back with him.”
She said her father became OK with being proud of his service, and her family was certainly proud of him. In February, Peter shared some of his experiences he had while on Iwo Jima with the Merrimack Journal.
“On Iwo, the enemy would get us from up high – in the caves. You could be 10 feet away from someone in the company and he’d get a bullet. I’d be helping one guy and running back to loosen a tourniquet on another,” he said during that interview. “You were vulnerable to bombs or bullets any place you went.”
He was speaking from first-hand experience. Peter was wounded more than once during his four-year tour, including sustaining two injuries while on Iwo Jima, according to his lifelong friend, Armando “Milo” Palmieri, who served alongside Peter during this battle.
“To most people he was a nice guy, he was a great guy. But for Marines, he was more than that. ... The Marines in that company were proud of him, they respected him even though he was in the Navy,” Palmieri said. “He was somebody who was there to help and that is what he did, no matter what the conditions were or how dangerous it was for him. And it was very, very dangerous for him.”
Palmieri said Peter earned the nickname “Doc” during his service. In fact, the two men met when Peter was bandaging Palmieri’s foot on the ship while they were headed to Iwo Jima. The pair discovered they both grew up on the south end of Boston, roughly one-tenth of a mile from each other, and their circles of friends overlapped. And the rest is history.
“After that, he was with me through the whole battle, except when he got hurt. ... My idea of Doc is he’s become my best friend,” Palmieri said. “I can’t say enough good things about him. I could depend on him always. He was almost like a brother to me.”
In his interview with the Merrimack Journal, Peter said he was blown out of a bomb crater, hit by a bullet in his hip, which was deflected by his canteen, had hook worm and also contracted Dengue Fever.
“He got back in again. He didn’t want to leave us, that’s the way he was,” Palmieri said. “They would take him on the hospital ship and he would say, ‘No, no, no. Just bandage me up or whatever and I’ll go back.’”
During his years overseas, Peter earned several service medals, the highlights of the Medal of Honor, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. For one of the Bronze Stars, Peter became the third link in a three-man chain, holding two Marines over the mouth of a cave. The closest soldier threw grenades into the cave to take out Japanese snipers who were picking off American soldiers trying to climb Mt. Suribachi.
Peter was tending to fallen soldiers on the summit of Mt. Suribachi as five Marines and one Navy Corpsman – the same position as Peter – climbed up the rocky surface of the volcanic mountain and planted the American flag. A recreation of this scene was made famous by Joe Rosenthal’s photograph and later created into a sculpture, located near Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
The later years
Since Peter and Palmieri lived near each other after they were discharged, their friendship continued to blossom. Peter had married his wife, Dolly, in 1947, and the couples would often go on double dates.
They also would meet with other members of the Fourth Engineers at annual reunions. But as their group grew smaller, the two men got together once a month for dinner at each other’s homes. “We kept that bond together ever since the end of World War II,” Palmieri said.
“They have been the best of friends all the way through. He was with the family at his death bed,” Chojnowski said about Palmieri. “We each had a chance to say goodbye to him. All I could think of to say to my brother is ‘Thank you, thank you for your generosity. Thank you for setting a wonderful example to the family.’ But I turned around and I saw his Marine buddy and he gave him a Marine salute, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, how fitting.’”
Kee said her father didn’t want a memorial service or ceremony immediately after his death. That is why the family chose Aug. 11 to host a remembrance.
“He said from Day 1, ‘I want it to be a celebration of life. Not until a month after I die because I don’t want you guys all moping and crying,’” Kee remembered.
“He was always so practical, even after his passing, he was always going out of his way thinking ‘How can I make it easier for somebody else?’”
Erin Place can be reached at 594-6589 or email@example.com. Also follow Place on Twitter (@Telegraph_ErinP).