Colorado WWII veteran recalls his time helping defend China as a member of the Flying Tigers

This Veterans Day, William “Pete” Peterson is thinking about all the support people who made it possible for him and the other members of the Flying Tigers to carry out their mission to defend the Chinese during World War II.

The 95-year-old Wheat Ridge man has “12 or 14 medals” awarded to him personally or as a member of his outfit. They include a Bronze Star and the China War Memorial Medal, which he received in 2018 for his service with the 375th Heavy Bombardment Squadron defending China against the Japanese.

While Peterson is proud of his service, he believes those who supported him — a tail gunner on a B-24 bomber — and the rest of his crew deserve similar recognition.

“I never saw a cook that cooked for us overseas get a medal. I never saw a person who folded our parachutes get one, or an MP (military police). The MPs guarded our camps. We didn’t have an Army battalion guarding us,” Peterson.  “How about the guys who put in the gas, who made sure the gas was right, so we don’t have bad gas? And the guys who loaded my guns?

“Don’t ask them how many combat hours they have because they have more than anyone, as far as I’m concerned. If they don’t do their job, we can’t fly the plane.”

Peterson, who joined the U.S. Army Air Corps when he was 17, flew on bombing missions and over the Himalayas with supplies into India. He notched 205 combat hours and was a buck sergeant when he left the corps.

But he figures he and the rest of the crews couldn’t have done what they did without support from the people on the ground.

“My hat’s off to them. My heart’s out to them,” Peterson said. “I wish some senator or somebody would say ‘That’s a good idea. let’s give all those people medals.’ Boy, I would love to see that.”

However, he’s not sure how many of those people are still alive. Peterson said he was in the second wave of service members who went to the Republic of China to fight the Japanese, and he’s not sure how many people in that group are still alive, either.

Peterson was born and raised in Milwaukee. He and his buddies liked dancing and nice clothes. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and the others in what he called the “Rat Pack” decided to quit school and join the service. In 1943, Peterson joined  the U.S. Army Air Corps, the aerial branch of the Army, like his older brother, Robert, did. He went through training in Texas, Nebraska and Idaho before flying on to Bermuda, the Azore Islands, Morocco, across Africa, Iran, Iraq and India.

When he was at a camp in the jungle in India, Peterson contracted malaria. He spent several months in China. He thinks about the conditions during the war and in China, where many of the people lived in shacks and had little to eat. The service members gave food and candy to the children and got to know some of the people.

Although relations between the U.S. and China have become rocky, Peterson has a fondness for the people. He recently participated in a Zoom call with people in China who wanted to talk about the Flying Tigers, the nickname the Chinese gave to the fighter squadrons. The Chinese said the planes, which sported a shark’s mouth painted on the tips, darted around like flying tigers, Peterson said.

A park and museum in Guilin, China, are dedicated to the people who helped defend the country during World War II. A picture of Peterson’s crew hangs in the museum.

“They wanted me to come over there two years ago. They wanted me to be in their parade. They love the Flying Tigers,” Peterson.

But he refused. Except for some flying lessons that ended abruptly when he hit turbulence, Peterson hasn’t been on an airplane since the war. “I will never fly again. I don’t even step in a plane. Absolutely not.”

Going through wind and ice storms in the bomber and stalling out over mountains, Peterson said he “got scared to death.” The turbulence he hit during flying lessons shortly after getting out of the service “brought all these memories flashing in front of me from over there.”

Peterson moved to the Denver area in 1953. His brother was stationed at the former Lowry Air Force Base and his mother had moved to Colorado. Peterson met his future wife at United Airlines, where they both worked.

“I’d take messages for the pilots. I’d have to take them down to communications, where there were all these lady typists. There was this redhead, with long hair. Beautiful, beautiful,” he recalled.

Peterson and Ardath were married in Iowa, where she was from. They had five sons and were married for 71 years. She died in May of this year.

In his 70s, Peterson received a high school diploma through Operation Recognition, a program offered by the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs and the Colorado Department of Education.

Peterson still works at his insurance business. He has two offices in his house that are equipped with computers, phones and scanners. Since the coronavirus pandemic started, Peterson said his children “watch him like a hawk.” He sticks around the house.

But Peterson still carries on with his mission to keep the history he lived through alive for people through Zoom calls with school children and others.

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