Veterans memorabilia vital part of treasured patriotic collection
GUNNISON—On the Gunnison Valley Middle School website, among the bell schedules and calendars, an unexpected treasure is buried under the heading “World War II Memorial.”
Preserved there is a historical record of more than 80 WWII vets and their family members.
It all came about not long after the school opened nearly 20 years ago when Principal Alan Peterson applied for and received a grant from the Utah Historical Society for students to do an oral history project.
At that time students went out into the community and sat down with the veterans and their families and made a record of their stories. Many of the participants were interviewed by their grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
“Twenty years ago, a lot of WWII vets were still with us,” Peterson said. “That number has now decreased significantly.”
As the project developed, it took on a life of its own as the veterans shared mementos and photos from that time in their lives. Peterson had the schools’ shop teacher at the time, Ralph Squire (who is now the South Sanpete assistant superintendent), build a display case, currently located in the library, to house all those treasures.
Although the oral history project concluded after a matter of months, the collection has continued to grow as veterans have more donated items.
In fact, some of the most recent donations, including a flag involved in the Iraqi war, have come from former students who have served in recent conflicts.
One of the school’s most prized possessions is a flag which was presented to the school by the late Sen. Bob Bennett that was flown over the U.S. Capitol just one day before the infamous 9-11 attacks.
“Gunnison Valley Middle School has always put a great deal of emphasis on good, old-fashioned American patriotism,” Peterson said.
Just last summer Peterson received a call from the widow of Gene Peterson of Salt Lake City who had served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. After her husband’s death, none of the family wanted his memorabilia from that time, and she was calling to see if the school would like it.
Peterson said when he drove to pick the items up he was very surprised by what turned out to be quite a collection including a journal Gene Peterson kept during those years and photos of his plane perforated by bullet holes.
One item was a silk handkerchief which was given to all flight personnel during WWII. The handkerchief would contain a map of the area the crew was bombing. If their plane was shot down, the crew could use the maps to meet up with the resistance and make their way to safety.
“That scarf was a vital part of their survival,” Alan Peterson said.
Another item in the collection is a photo of the U.S.S. Arizona burning and listing in the water after the Japanese attack on Park Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The photo was presented to the school just a couple of years after the project started by Ken Potts who was a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Arizona that day.
The donation led to not just a new item for the collection but to an enduring friendship between Peterson and Potts that has lasted to this day. Peterson said he calls Potts all the time and never forgets to call Potts, now 94, on Veterans Day to thank him for his service.
“He has become a dear friend,” Peterson said.
Every November the school holds its own Veterans Day program in association with the Centerfield American Legion Post 0105.
“It’s good to keep awareness in our young people,” Peterson said. “It may not be now, but at some point hopefully it will develop an appreciation of the generations that went before them and the sacrifices they made on their behalf.”
The original audio recordings from the project are stored in the school library, but the written record can be easily accessed on the school website.