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World War II vet Giles to lead Rincon parade

POSTED: November 21, 2013 7:50 p.m.

Peter Giles Jr. was 16 years old and cutting up wood so his mother would have some fuel for the fire. The news came that day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Two years later, Giles swore his oath to defend the United States against all enemies and enlisted in the Navy. Now, nearly 70 years later, the Rincon native will lead the annual Rincon Lions Club Christmas Parade in his hometown.

"To me, that’s an honor, to be the grand marshal of the parade in my hometown," Giles said. "This is where I was born and raised."

Giles, in fact, lives not far from where he grew up in Rincon.

"I live a block and a half from where I was born and about a block and half from where I was raised," he explained.

But for a few years, Giles was far away from home. He was assigned to the USS Nevada, which had been run aground at Pearl Harbor so that it wouldn’t sink and clog the ship channel, allowing other ships to enter and exit the docks.

The Nevada was refloated, refitted and assigned to convoy duty in the Atlantic. Its big guns also hammered away at German positions during the D-Day landings in Normandy.

While on the Nevada, Giles made four crossings of the Atlantic Ocean.

"I joined the Navy on my birthday," he said. "I was 18 years old."

The Nevada also took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Giles was aboard ship for that invasion but by then had been transferred to a transport ship. He had been sent to amphibious training to take part in landings in the Pacific, and he was assigned to the USS Queens, a troop transport, in January 1945.

While aboard the Queens, he was "about half a mile, more or less," he said, when Marines raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, an event captured on film and one of the indelible images from World War II.

The ship used small craft to ferry supplies, "every hour, on the hour," Giles said, to the Marines fighting the deeply-entrenched garrison of nearly 23,000 Japanese on Iwo Jima.

"You can’t throw men on an island and leave them. You have to support them," he said. "Whatever they needed was taken there by the small craft."

Giles and his wife Inez have two sons. "They think well of me," he said.

The city honored Giles four years ago by naming its park on the town’s Westside after him. He has served on the city’s planning and zoning commission and worked with the Sons of Allen, an African Methodist Episcopal group that involves itself in the lives of young men.

He also served as the grand marshal for the 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in Springfield.

Giles was one of 30 African-Americans from Rincon to serve in World War II. Back then, minorities, especially in the Navy, weren’t allowed to have combat roles. All of those men survived the war. Giles, though, is the last one remaining.

"We all came back home," he said. "They all passed away. I’m the only one still living."

To him, his honor as grand marshal isn’t just for him. It’s for his comrades who won’t be there to see him ride at the head of the parade Saturday morning.

"I’m here for them. Anything I do, I consider it for those 30 guys," Giles said. "I’m trying to hold a light for them, because they’re gone."

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