Erik Petersen — a hero in war and peace

6-5-2017

By Michael Raffety

Before the El Dorado Center moved to Campus Drive off Green Valley Road it was housed in portable buildings along Ray Lawyer Drive. Everyone called it UBR – University Behind Raley’s.

Beginning in 1979 I taught photography there, first in a portable and then in a trailer that featured half a dozen enlargers, a film processing room and a small classroom space.

There was another 55-foot-long trailer that was all classroom space, which I used for lecture space at the beginning of the course. Many people took my photography course as their first college course. I made sure they learned to make a good print and guided them in making a successful composition. Everyone who finished the course came away with some black-and-white photographic prints that they were proud of. This success encouraged many students to take other classes after mine.

One year, in addition to teaching beginning photography I also taught portraiture and studio lighting. As part of that course Erik Petersen came in and demonstrated retouching and spotting (removing dust spots). Erik, a resident of Lotus, was a retired professional photographer who was very expert at retouching portraits and spotting .

He was also one of my personal heroes of the 20th century.

An obituary for Erik Petersen appeared in the May 19 Mountain Democrat. He had moved to Grants Pass, Ore., after getting remarried in 2008. He was 96.

What the obit missed was his service in World War II. It was because of that service that he came into my office in 1987 when the Mountain Democrat was downtown.

Erick brought in a National Geographic article in 1987 that said the Soviets liberated Plzen, Czechoslovakia. Eric was darned mad. He was a tank driver in Patton’s 16th Armored Division, which had liberated Plzen and western Bohemia May 3, 1945, when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered Patton’s Third Army to halt outside Prague. He was there. He knew who liberated Plzen. The town and the Army made a plaque commemorating the U.S. Army’s liberation of Plzen from the Germans. The Soviets later hid that plaque.

Erik persisted in his campaign about the truth of who liberated Plzen. Eventually we had a great photographic spread in our paper of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Plzen in 1995. Erik attended the annual celebration every year, going all the way up through the 65th anniversary in 2010. Furthermore, his enthusiasm seemed to accumulate friends who joined him for his annual May trek to Plzen. The town goes all out on celebrating its liberation in 1945, with everyone dressing up in period costumes and doing reenactments like this country does Civil War reenactments.

Among the friends that Erik swept up into his joyous liberation visits was George Patton Waters. Waters didn’t join the Army. He served five years in the Navy on a destroyer off the South China Sea during the Vietnam War. Then he started a real estate investment company that he operated in Louisiana. He also served on board of the Medal of Honor Foundation, which a little before 2008 issued a book telling the story of then-139 living and recently deceased Medal of Honor winners, with an introduction by then President George W. Bush and essays by Tom Brokow and Sen. John McCain.

His cousin Robert H. Patton –- grandson of Gen. George S. Patton — broke the family tradition and didn’t serve in the military. He became a novelist, then switching to nonfiction with a book in 1994 about the Patton family that relied extensively on letters and diaries held by the Patton family. The history includes service in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II and the Vietnam War. I read his more recent book called “Patriot Pirates.”

Gen. George S. Patton, a cavalry officer, decided the newly developed tanks were what he wanted to be part of in World War I. After attending French tank school he developed tactics and commanded the U.S tank battalion until he was wounded while walking in front of his tanks. He was promoted to colonel by the end of the war. Most people know about his WWII tanks and the speed with which his Third Army moved, relentlessly attacking and breaking the Battle of the Bulge.

Gen. Patton died Dec. 21, 1945 as a result of an auto accident.

Most recently I read a book about the cadre of generals that came out of World War I – George Marshall, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur.

I admire these generals, but the most inspirational hero I personally met was Erik Petersen.

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