Reflections on Working with General Peers on the OSS Detachment 101 Exhibit
by Eric Saul
I had the distinct honor, and I should say pleasure, to work with General William R. Peers. Together with Colonel Carl Eifler, we produced a tribute exhibit honoring OSS Detachment 101, which they commanded in Burma during World War II. The exhibit opened on October 6, 1985.
General Peers was a helpful and inspiring mentor for me and the Museum. He was appointed to the Fort Point and Army Museum Association Board of Directors in 1977.
During his tenure on the Board of Directors, he would often be at the Museum, encouraging us in our task of depicting the history of the United States Army in the Pacific during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He served as technical advisor on a number of exhibitions.
One of General Peers’ greatest contributions to the Museum was placing the exhibits Go For Broke: The Story of the Japanese American Soldier in World War II and Yankee Samurai: The Story of Japanese American Linguists in the War in the Pacific in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Shortly after we opened the Go For Broke exhibit in 1981, General Peers asked me if I thought the exhibit should be placed at the Smithsonian Institution. I told him that the Smithsonian rarely takes outside exhibits. He said, however, that one of his junior officers in OSS Detachment 101 was currently the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. His name was S. Dillon Ripley. Ripley had been attached to the Japanese American unit assigned to OSS Detachment 101. Peers added that Ripley and he were close, and that he remembered Ripley being enthusiastic about his wartime service with Japanese American soldiers. Peers then wrote a letter to Secretary Ripley, who promptly replied that he would like to install the exhibit in the National Museum of American History as part of the Smithsonian’s commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. constitution. The exhibit was assigned to Roger Kennedy, then-Director of the American History Museum. Ripley informed us that the exhibit would be finished and dedicated on September 17, 1987. The exhibit was called A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the Constitution. The exhibit was installed in the third floor military gallery of the museum in a spectacular installation. The exhibit was originally only a temporary exhibit, but was on display for more than 20 years. A commemorative version of the exhibit was installed at the museum in 2017. The Smithsonian considers this to be one of its most important exhibitions of all time. Director Roger Kennedy was quoted in his obituary as saying that this was his proudest accomplishment as Director of the American History Museum. Hundreds of Japanese American veterans and their families attended the opening ceremony. The exhibit, A More Perfect Union, inspired the creation of both the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), in Los Angeles, and the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS), in San Francisco. I had the honor of being a founding curator of NJAHS and a consultant on the More Perfect Union exhibit. I collected hundreds of photographs from original sources that were used in the exhibition, as well as numerous artifacts. The More Perfect Union exhibit’s installation coincided with the Japanese American redress and reparations movement. The exhibit was used by Japanese American political leaders in support of the Congressional bill HR442. Japanese American Congressman from San Jose, Norman Mineta, and 100th/442nd veterans Senators Spark Matsunaga and Daniel K. Inouye, also used the exhibit to persuade their colleagues in the Senate to support the reparations bill. The bill passed Congress with an overwhelming majority of support. The Japanese American community will be eternally grateful for General Peers’ contribution to the More Perfect Union exhibit and inspiring its adoption by the Smithsonian. (For more information, see the book Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress, by Mitchell T. Maki, Harry H. L. Kitano and S. Megan Berthold, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 157-158, 159.)
Shortly after becoming curator of the Museum, I became aware of the illustrious history of OSS Detachment 101. This was one of the most interesting units to serve in the Army in the Pacific. It was a unique guerrilla force that was trained to operate behind enemy lines in the most primitive and dangerous circumstances. It operated in the China-Burma-India theater of World War II.
The Detachment was activated on April 14, 1942, under the auspices of William Donovan, who was then serving as Coordinator of Information (which later became the Office of Strategic Services, in June of that year).
This unit was a prototype of many future units of special warfare that are still being implemented by the U.S. Army today. Detachment 101 utilized the native Kachin tribesmen in Burma. They were fiercely anti-Japanese and were integral to the success of Detachment 101.
The unit was deactivated on July 12, 1945.
Detachment 101 was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation by General Dwight Eisenhower, who stated: “The courage and fighting spirit displayed by its officers and men in offensive action against overwhelming enemy strength reflect the highest tradition of the armed forces of the United States.”
Detachment 101 eliminated 5,428 Japanese soldiers and rescued 574 Allied soldiers. General Peers was the original training officer of the Detachment, and was later promoted to commanding officer after Colonel John Eifler sustained serious head injuries.
Peers was commanding officer of the Detachment until 1945, when he became commander of the overall OSS operations south of the Yangtze River in China. There, he led a nationalist Chinese parachute commando force to Nanking. After his service in the war, Peers was recruited to the CIA and established its first training program.
In Korea, Peers commanded secret operations utilizing Chinese nationalist soldiers in a mission covering the southern portion of the People’s Republic of China.
At the beginning of the Vietnam war, Peers became the Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Special Operations. He soon was appointed Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities for the U.S. Army’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In January 1967, Peers was appointed commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division, as a Major General. In March 1968, he was promoted to Lieutenant General, commanding the I Field Force in Vietnam. First Field Force was headquartered in the Vietnamese central highlands and was comprised of the 101st Airborne Division, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Under his command, U.S. Army forces, along with two elite South Korean divisions, defeated North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas in the major battles of Dak To in November 1967 and the battle of Duc Lap in August 1968.
In 1969, General Peers was tasked by the U. S. Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor and Army commander in Vietnam William Westmoreland to investigate the My Lai Massacre. The massacre occurred on March 16, 1968, in the coastal village of Song My, which was located in north-central South Vietnam. After a thorough investigation, Peers issued his 20,000-page report on the massacre on March 17, 1970, called the Peers Commission. In the report, Peers stated that it was a “tragedy of major proportions.” He was highly critical of senior officers at the brigade and division levels who, he stated, participated in a coverup of the massacre by minimizing the number of victims. His criticism of commands was not well received by the Army command or the Nixon administration, but was well regarded by others because of its thoroughness. The final 260-page report was later released. The Secretary of the Army at the time of its release, Howard H. Callaway stated, “The release of this report concludes a dark chapter in the Army’s history. This is a story which is not a happy one.”
General Peers retired after completing the report, after serving 35 years in the Army. General William R. Peers was born in Stuart, Iowa, on Jun 14, 1914. He graduated from UCLA in 1937. Peers entered the Army as a Second Lieutenant in 1938, serving at the Presidio of San Francisco. General Peers’ service decorations include a Distinguished Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters, a Silver Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
General Peers passed away at the Letterman Army Medical Center at the Presidio of San Francisco on April 6, 1984.
Peers died before the opening of the OSS Detachment 101 exhibit at the Presidio Army Museum. I remember working with General Peers on the exhibit, which we had planned for a number of years. I interviewed him about his military experience and came to admire him greatly.
While working on the exhibit, Peers presented me with a large, oversized, leather-bound photo album with numerous photographs of Detachment 101 in the field in Burma. These spectacular combat photos, many of them unpublished, formed the basis for the photo exhibit. Many of the photographs were taken by eminent Hollywood director Admiral John Ford. Admiral Ford had been assigned by General Donovan to document the history of Detachment 101. John Ford presented the photos and album to General Peers shortly after the war. Ford and Peers remained friends for the rest of their lives.
I also worked closely with Colonel Carl Eifler, the first commanding officer of OSS Detachment 101. I remember visiting his house in Salinas, California, and viewing his collection of historic photographs and memorabilia, which we also used in the exhibit. While studying his home office, I saw two framed, autographed photographs. Both of them were inscribed to Colonel Eifler. One was of Lieutenant General Joseph A. Stillwell and the other was of John Ford in an Admiral’s uniform, with the inscription, “With great admiration.”
General Peers co-authored his memoirs, with Dean Brelis, about his World War II experiences, Behind the Burma Road, which was published in 1963. He also wrote his memoirs of Vietnam and of the My Lai Massacre in My Lai Inquiry in 1979.
General Peers and I were working on an exhibit to honor the enlisted soldiers of Vietnam at the time of his death.