Pete Peterson

James S. Peterson, Sr. developed a fascination for planes early in life. Born November 7th, 1920, he spent his childhood in Antonio, Texas, where his family lived near Kelly Field. As he grew older, he began building model airplanes and remained captivated with flying. World War II brought his opportunity to fly the planes he couldn’t afford to take the lessons to learn. The Army Air Corps accepted him, and his two years of college education was interrupted.

Peterson’s training started in Sheppard Field, Texas and continued throughout the southeast part of the United States, including Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina. At Spence Field, Georgia, he earned his wings and traveled on to Wilmington, North Carolina for Gunnery in the P-47 Thunderbolt.

After this, Peterson ended up at Duxford, England, home of the 78th Fighter Group. Assigned to the 83rd Fighter Squadron, he had a few weeks of familiarization and then embarked on his first flight over the English Channel ferrying some war-weary “jugs” to the 9th Air Force in France. It was on this first flight that three of the sixteen planes that started in horrendous weather conditions had to belly in due to the 50 to 100 foot ceiling, low fuel, and loss
of sight of the air strip. Peterson was one of those three. Quite
the introduction!

One day a Thunderbolt, the next, a Mustang. In January of 1945, the 78th converted to the Mustang, of which Peterson got two whole hours of practice in before heading out on a mission. Many of Peterson’s missions were escort missions, but, he experienced plenty of flak. He relates, “It was a very emotional feeling to see the bombers fly into that—after the IP and on the bomb run, they could not divert and were helpless targets. I watched many a bomber go down—something I shall never forget.”

February 14th, 1945, Peterson was nearing Chemnitz, the bomber’s target area when his element leader dropped out of formation, losing power. Instructed to provide him cover, Peterson realized he was heading for the North Sea and took lead taking up a compass heading to Poltava, a shuttle base primarily for bombers. The element leader indicated he had to get down fast, and they spotted an air strip under Russian possession. Peterson damaged one landing gear plowing through an unseen mud puddle, and the element leader got down safely. Peterson’s P-51 was beyond repair, but parts were salvaged to repair other planes. From here, Peterson was transported to a site where two B-17s had crashed landed, and one had been repaired. He was flown out on the B-17 Bomber, “Stardust,” and back to Duxford.

Peterson returned to flying status, and compensated for his mishaps by destroying a “target of opportunity,” Fw-190 and a locomotive. After this, he was elevated to flight leader and promoted in rank to Lieutenant. After VE-Day he volunteered for Pacific action but was sent to Germany briefly, never to participate in the Pacific Theater.

After the war, he returned to college to get a B.S. in Geology, got sidetracked into geophysics and oil exploration, and bounced around the country and in foreign operations. To his regret, he was unable maintain flying status.

He married in 1954, and he and his lovely wife had two sons. Now, a retired widower, Peterson is active in the Colorado Chapter of the 8th Air Force Historical Society and tries to pick up some flight time when possible.