Nineteen-year-old Alvin Peachman was playing pingpong when he heard about the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His heart might have skipped a few beats, like a ping-pong ball skittering across the table. But it didn’t take too many heartbeats after that for him to enlist in the Navy.
“We heard the news on the radio. There was no TV then,” he told students at Hudson Falls High School recently. The idea of the U.S. Navy being so outrageously attacked seemed unthinkable.
“We thought it was a joke. Then, we heard President Roosevelt ask Congress for a Declaration of War. And I knew that I’d be in it,” Peachman said. “There was war fever. There were posters to inflame your patriotism.”
Always interested in history and geography, he said he knew right where Pearl Habor was. Information about Pearl Harbor Day can be accessed in a free lesson plan at the American Federation of Teachers’ “Share My Lesson” site.
“I volunteered for the Navy. You had to be in perfect physical condition,” Peachman said.
At the time, he was working on the docks in New York City, where he’d come to find work away from the coal mines of Appalachia, where he grew up. He unloaded coffee on the piers. “I could rip the pier up!” he boasted.
It’s been a long time since Peachman was in front of a classroom, teaching students about history. But, at 93, he still lives just down the street from the small and rural Hudson Falls High School where he taught from 1951 to 1983. So he came on over recently to spend several hours with two classes of students, talking about his experiences during WWII. He fought in the Pacific Theater, which spilled out on a map behind him for students to see. A white-haired man with sparkling blue eyes, he sat comfortably in front of the students, wearing a brown cardigan, telling them how he slept in a hammock on his ship with 50 men in a room the size of their classroom.
He showed them a metal chunk from a kamikaze plane that attacked the U.S.S. Witter, a destroyer ship off Okinawa. Peachman worked as a radio operator and barely escaped death. Students marveled at the piece of history.
Peachman earned $21 a month for his service in the military, but he had to pay $6.50 of that for insurance because, he recalled, “If you got killed and didn’t have insurance, your mother got nothing.”
His service included fighting in the Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands and New Zealand. When fighting on land, he said his helmet served as a wash basin to shave and wash. Many comrades got malaria or other tropical diseases. “You’d get dysentery and be so sick, you wish you were dead,” he said.
Sometimes he was “10,000 to 12,000 miles away from anywhere on the ship,” he said. He crossed the equator a half dozen times and lived through a typhoon, where waves slammed the ships sideways. People had to be tied down so they didn’t get washed away. More than a thousand lives were lost during the two-week storm, Peachman said.
Those weren’t the only challenges.
“I saw no girls for two years and that bothered me,” he said, as students laughed with him. “You go nuts!”
He got out of the service on a Friday and enrolled in college in New York City the following Monday. “I studied like a bulldog,” he said. He worked on Wall Street and then for Western Electric, but his commute was long and he found the city crowded. He went to New York University to get his history degree, and then found a listing for a teaching job in Hudson Falls.
“When they told me the train fare was $15, I almost collapsed,” he said, breaking out into a huge smile.
His host for the day at the school was Matt Rozell, who used to be Peachman’s student. Now, Rozell has written a book, The Things Our Fathers Saw (The Untold Stories of the WWII Generation from Hometown USA — which includes interviews with Peachman and many other veterans. Peachman also passed around a book with photos of his bombed out ship and pictures of his comrades.
“This book will help to remind those who are young and who are living in today’s confused world, that freedom is not free,” Peachman said.