By Christine Bryant
George Peto led a life few can imagine.
The central Ohio native lived a fascinating life, from early childhood to the time he spent overseas fighting in four famous Pacific campaigns during World War II.
Even after war, Peto seldom had a dull moment, so when Reynoldsburg resident Pete Margaritis began hearing his stories, he wanted to share them with the world.
This year, Margaritis released a new book called “Twenty-Two on Peleliu,” which shares the memoirs of the “Old Breed” Marine. The two collaborated on the project to tell the stories of the celebrated war veteran who was inducted into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame.
Although Peto died July 4, 2016 at the age of 93, Margaritis vowed to finish the book as a way to honor him. The Eastside Messenger interviewed Margaritis, a retired Naval Reserve chief petty officer with an extensive military background in communications and naval intelligence, how serving in the military helped shape the types of stories he told in the book, and the friend he wants readers to know and remember.
How did you first meet George Peto, and what inspired you to write a story about his life?
“In the spring of 2015, I entered a U.S. Naval Institute 3,000-word essay contest. The theme was some significant event that occurred in U.S. Marine Corps history. I finally decided on the controversial 1944 Peleliu invasion. A friend suggested that I consult with a local expert, a 93-year old Mr. George Peto, one of the “Old Breed.” George had actually landed at Peleliu, as well as three other major Pacific campaigns.
Mr. Peto and I immediately struck up a friendship, and I invited him to co-write the essay with me. We made a good team since I am an experienced researcher and George not only had actually been there, but had an amazing memory about his experiences and enjoyed retelling them.
During our research though, as I shared lengthy conversations with this charismatic, charming, genial old man, I realized that not only were his wartime experiences remarkable, but there also were quite a number of unusual events that had taken place in the other times of his life. As he told me tales of his youth – again, I marveled at his consistent, detailed memory of things that happened over seven decades before – I realized that a much better book to write would be about his life. He good-naturedly agreed, and so we were off.”
How long did the writing process take?
“In July of 2015, we began. Once a week, I would drive to George’s house on the north side of Columbus and interview him for three or four hours. We finished our first draft about a year later. Then on the Fourth of July, after watching the fireworks display in Worthington, he went home, went to bed, and died in his sleep. I vowed to finish the book for both of us.
In December, Casemate Publishers agreed to publish the book the next August. After about three months of editing and rewriting, it was finished. A dust jacket was designed, and at the end of July 2017, it was released.”
What did the writing process look like for this book as you both collaborated?
“Every Wednesday or so, I would drive to George’s house with a dozen donuts – he loved Krispy Kremes. He would make us coffee, and sitting in his kitchen as we munched on donuts, I would interview him. Often with a twinkle in his eye, he would tell his stories, as I busily transcribed them into a laptop. Every week, as we reviewed the stories, he would often think of one or two details that we’d initially missed, or recall a related story.
We would laugh at some of the scrapes that he got into, and sometimes I would swap tales with him. In contrast, I sympathized with him when he recounted some of the terrible moments; such as when his friend Henry was killed on Okinawa, or when an enemy artillery shell hit their ammo dump and took out nearly half the men in his platoon. At those moments I could see the sadness in his eyes as he spoke. Several times, listening to the incredibly dangerous situations he lived, I would somberly tell him, ‘George, you have absolutely no business being alive.’ And he would smile, shake his head, and say something like, ‘You may have a point there.’
We sometimes took breaks so that he could show me some photos or letters, or to feed Trixie, his faithful, long-haired, dachshund companion.”
What types of George’s experiences do you cover in the book?
“The book covers his entire life, although it mostly centers around World War II. Growing up in Akron during the Great Depression, this happy-go-lucky kid was like an early day ‘Forrest Gump,’ touched on so many unique facets of American 20th century history. He grew up living around early dirigibles in Akron, fished and trapped on the Erie Canal near a gangster’s hideout, and worked in the CCC out west, where he started a riot on his 16th birthday. He and his brother joined the Marine Corps in August 1941, four months before Pearl Harbor.
After fighting in four famous Pacific campaigns with an elite unit, the First Marine Division, he was discharged in November 1945. He married shortly thereafter. Even after the war, George seldom had a dull moment, once fighting for what he believed right up to the Supreme Court – and won. Later in life, he began to speak on occasion at middle schools and high schools about his wartime experiences.”
You served in the military – how did that help shape the stories you wanted to tell about George?
“My own time in service over some 22 years gave me a comprehensive understanding of the military way of life – on discipline, its demands, command and the concepts of war. My experiences in naval intelligence gave me a keen perspective on an amphibious operation and what it entails. This included – despite the “congenial” animosity they openly display for each other – the close coordination and inter-cooperation the Navy and the Marine Corps have with each other when they conduct a landing on a hostile shore.”
Was there one story that George told that made an impact on you?
“I think the mortar attack George directed near the end of the Okinawan campaign stands out for me. Using just one mortar because their ammo was low, his spot-on observations, which unbeknownst to him were being viewed from above by a four-star general, directed fire that took out an entire company of enemy soldiers. It is a high point to me in the book, because it shows how this stubborn, once insouciant although perspicacious young man had become an efficient, deadly Marine, a competent platoon leader, and a hero.”
What do you think George would think of this book and his stories forever in print?
“After all the sacrifices George had endured during the war, he was somewhat disappointed when in 1945 he was summarily given a discharge and a cursory handshake and told to just go home. He rarely spoke of his wartime service for years, only writing a couple short stories about them. Decades later, though, when he began speaking to students and saw their eagerness to hear of his experiences, he began to open up.
The idea of doing the book just to document his stories – he never gave a hang about money – immensely appealed to him, and as the project continued and his enthusiasm increased, he began to crack jokes. Sometimes he would muse on who would play him in the movie, and once in awhile talk about going onto talk shows, especially Fox News. The thought of us on ‘The O’Reilly Factor,’ though, terrified me.”
Why is it important to you to share his stories and for people to gain insight into his experiences while serving his country?
“George Peto, like so many of us, was just a simple happy guy forced to go to war. Like most Americans, he was an ordinary man who was thrust into an extraordinary life of combat. He was a man who first-hand not only saw the horrors of war, but had to inflict it on others to survive as he watched so many of his comrades perish at his side.
George to me typifies the American fighting man, although he also lived an astonishing life. For instance, his daughter told me a story about how he had driven his wife and her to Yellowstone National Park to camp and sightsee. He was always wanting to go somewhere. They had at the time a Ford station wagon. They stopped in the park on a beautiful day for a picnic. George got out, went around to the back of the station wagon, and flipped down the tailgate to set up the food. He started laying out the food on the open door. His wife was off in the woods with a roll of toilet paper.
His daughter Nancy, about 8 years old, standing next to him, spied a big old brown bear approach the car behind them. She called out, ‘Dad! There’s a bear behind you!’
Now George had been teasing Nancy for days about seeing mountain lions and bears in the park, so he of course assumed that she was razzing him, as they so often did. So he commented with a grin, ‘Yeah, sure.’ The bear came closer. She said it was huge in size. Again she warned him. He just smiled and shook his head. She took a couple steps back and opened the back door on the passenger’s side. ‘Dad!’ she yelled.
He finally got a look on his face as if, hmmm… she can’t be serious, can she? He shook his head, straightened up and turned around. And there it was, reared up on its hind legs, about six feet away. He whirled around, his eyes popped open, yelled at Nancy to get in the car, tossed the containers into the back and slammed the tailgate door shut, throwing the food all over the place. He jumped into the car, they roared over to where his wife Juanita was, rushed her into the car, and took off like a bat out of hell.
Nancy ended the story with, ‘It was always like that with dad. We never had a vacation. It was always an adventure.’
That’s the guy I want the readers to get to know.”
“Twenty-Two on Peleliu” is available on Amazon, as well as at Wal-Mart and the Barnes and Noble stores in Easton and Pickerington.