Robert Peterson - 2nd Lieutenant
- Purple Heart
- WWII Victory Medal
- Korean Service Medal
Robert Duaine Peterson was born on September 17, 1925 in Lake Mills, Iowa. His father and mother, Wilmer and Ella, welcomed their first boy after a string of three girls. Sisters Esther, Arlene and Olive welcomed their baby brother and eight years after Bob came LaVonne. The Petersons were a happy and closely knit family of seven.
The Petersons moved to Ames in 1931 where Wilmer found employment with the Post Office.
Bob attended Roosevelt Elementary School in Ames and showed an early ability to write and assemble stories. Among school mementoes is a small, hand-lettered and stapled booklet containing a vivid WW1 prisoner-of-war story called “War’s No Fun – A True Story."
Bob was active in school and at Central Junior High he lettered in athletics and enjoyed a turn on stage as Allan-a-Dale in a play about Robin Hood. He was also active in Boy Scouts.
Bob was a mostly B and C student, but earned A’s in spelling and art. His activities continued at Ames High School. His close friend, Milton Pottee, told us, “We were friends at Ames High School. Bob was a good basketball player. He also played cornet in band and orchestra, and was our junior class president. After our junior year he started a small band. Since I had no musical talent, he made me the director. We only played one piece of music – “September Song." Needless to say, we never made any records!”
Sadly, the Peterson family’s world was shaken when Wilmer died in 1942. Esther, the oldest, was gone from home, but Arlene, Bob, Olive and LaVonne drew closer together to support each other and Ella. Mrs. Peterson was an excellent seamstress and took a job with Collegiate Manufacturing, a college pennant and accessories business in Ames.
Bob lettered in basketball and in March 1943, played forward on the team that won the State District Basketball Tournament.
World War II was well under way and Bob knew what was coming for him. In February 1943, he and his buddy, Milton, enlisted in the Reserve Corps of the Army. Bob was 17 years old and the papers listed his vital statistics - blue eyes, brown hair, medium complexion, 5’ 10” tall, 151 lbs.
On May 28, 1943, he graduated from Ames High. Notes in a diary from that period stated that he liked reading action stories, enjoyed classic and pop music, and liked sports and movies.
His love of movies grew considerably the summer after he graduated. He and a friend somehow got jobs as messengers at Paramount Studios in Hollywood! From June to August 1943, the two enjoyed all the excitement of spotting movie stars and seeing films being made.
Back in Iowa at the end of the summer, the “real world” waited. He turned 18 in September and on October 24, 1943 he entered the Army Air Corps in Des Moines and was sent to Sheppard Field, Texas, just south of the Oklahoma border.
Throughout training, from November 1943 to September 1944, Bob was faithful at keeping a diary. It was well-written and includes a lot of detail. He may have been aware that others might read it and seemed to be writing for an audience.
Air Force Physical Training,called PT, was tough. Even for someone who was athletic, the rigors were such that he thought he might not make it. He joked that PT stood for “physical torture”.
Enlistees were tested to determine what they would become - pilots, bombardiers, navigators or “washouts." On November 15, Bob boarded a bus for Stillwater, Oklahoma for five months of continued training. They were told by trainers that “here they were primarily interested in making them officers and gentlemen.”
Bob took classes in history, physics, geography and math, and made good grades, often earning points that gave him leave from camp, called “open post." One day he attended an Oklahoma Aggies basketball game and wrote, “With bands, crowds, civilian kids and the loyalty song, it made me sort of homesick so I left at half and walked back across the quiet deserted campus by myself, just thinking of school and home."
In the diary, he notes receiving letters from friends and family, and rare long-distance calls from home, as well as a number of boxes with necessities and treats and – sweetly – a visit from his Mother in Texas that made him “terribly homesick & lonely when he went back to the barracks."
He continued to play basketball often, sometimes choosing a game over open post. He often mentioned attending what he called “GI Parties” and other entertainments. He took in movies as often as he could, mentioning them by name in his diary and noting the ones he had seen in progress at Paramount. From December 1943 to August 1944 Bob saw over 55 films – a testament to his love for movies, as well as Hollywood’s extraordinary productivity during the war years!
Bob started flying lessons in February 1944 and received his heavy sheepskin jacket, pants and shoes, commenting that they were “really neat.” Despite his eagerness, flying was difficult for him and he could not relax at the controls. He was told that his score as a pilot was low and that he had a better chance of being a bombardier or navigator than a pilot so he chose bombardier. In his diary he wrote, “Hope I did right.”
On March 14, 1944, he left for intensive training at bombardier-navigator pre-flight school for nine weeks in San Antonio, Texas, finishing in May and moving on to Harlingen Texas for seven weeks of gunnery training. At Harlingen there was, “a nice mess hall but lousy food. He said, “I’m counting the days ‘til I leave this place!” He described gunnery training and stated over several weeks that he did poor, did terrible and did lousy, but learned to disassemble and reassemble his gun blindfolded wearing heavy gloves.
Trainees began orientation flights in a B24 Liberator bomber. He sat in the tail turret and called out positions as mock attackers came in. He wrote, “We used throat mikes ‘cause the roar of motors was terrific. The “24” is huge but pretty cramped inside because of the equipment& mechanisms.”
On July 12, his diary chronicles a scary story, “We had an experience today that I’ll never forget. Went over to the flight line and took off in a B-24 at around seven-fifteen. I fired first from the waist and waited until everyone was done and then we were going up to high altitude. We noticed our number four engine was feathered but we just thought our pilot was teaching something to our co-pilot because he was new. I laid back and went to sleep. Next thing I knew a cadet who had been sitting back in the tail was shaking me. He motioned for me to get up on the half deck with him. We were only a few hundred feet off the ground and lining up for the airfield. We looked out and saw the number four engine smoking badly. We reached the airfield and noticed the crash trucks out. Then we came in for a landing. We looked out and saw the wheels come down and then we noticed one of them failed to lock so the pilot raised them and then it locked so only one wheel came up. We were going to circle again but we couldn’t get proper power.
We were all worried. We were now out over the country and suddenly the command gunner tore off his headset and prayed out loud. I realized then that we’d probably crash. He dashed back toward us and then we hit. There was a jolt as we hit and split a high tension wire and then all hell broke loose as we hit the ground. The noise was terrific, the air was filled with dirt and I was tossed all over the half deck. Equipment broke loose and was flying around.
When we stopped moving I was half covered and my thought was that I was pinned in and would smother. Then I thought of fire and somehow got to a waist window and half jumped and half fell out the waist window.
I picked myself up and ran for about a block before I stopped. I came back to the plane & helped the command gunner who was lying in the road. The crash trucks and ambulances soon arrived and in a few minutes we were in the hospital. Everyone had injuries – mine being the least. The plane was completely smashed – it was a miracle we all got out alive.”
The crews were scheduled to fly again the next day. Bob said, “Those that were able went up, but a motor blew out and we came in again. The crash trucks were out for us and I was really sweating blood! They wanted us to go up again, but not this kid! Pitt and I went to the flight surgeon. He told me I was suffering from nervousness and shock and he grounded me for 2 days.”
Gunnery school graduation was two days later and next came 18 weeks of advanced bombardier school in San Antonio, Texas. There he studied bombing theory, Norden bombsights, Computers, Bombsight Maintenance and Weather.
The famous Norden bombsight gave American flyers a distinct technological edge and if a plane was downed, crew members were required to destroy it to keep it from the enemy. It was described as “a mass of gears, prisms, cams, lenses and mirrors that solved bombing equations instantly.” The Norden calculated the lag between a bomb’s departure from the plane and its landing spot.
Upon graduation on November 18, 1944, Bob was commissioned a 2LT with 197 flying hours. He was in the 56th fighter group, the highest scoring P47 Thunderbolt group in the 2nd bombardment division.
A news report from December 1944 said, “Another class of twin-threat bombardier-navigators was graduated today at San Angelo Army Air Field, Texas, having completed one of the most rigid courses in the Air Force Training Command’s program.
“Thousands of fighting men have already received their training as bombardiers and dead-reckoning navigators at this School and will be assigned to every combat enemy-occupied [zone] in continental Europe. This new air fighter is the most deadly man in the world. In America’s fast medium bombers he can, by dead-reckoning navigation, direct the ship to the objective, then man the bombsight to the release the “eggs." In the giant four engine ships and the super craft to come, he’ll be the relief man for the celestial navigator in the event of a mishap.”
Bob enjoyed a 15 day furlough that he spent in Ames and was then assigned to the Columbia Crew Depot, South Carolina. He did not receive an overseas assignment and with the end of hostilities, he was honorably discharged from Army Air Corps at Lincoln Air Base, NE on October 14, 1945.
Bob’s friend, Milton Pottee, was Hoverseas for 13 months in the South Pacific. Milt said, “After we were discharged in 1945, Bob and I attended Iowa State College together. We both pledged Beta Theta Pi fraternity, where we experienced some good times. We later transferred to the University of Iowa, and because we spent so much time together we were known as the “Gold Dust Twins.” We even dated some twins, from Strawberry Point, Iowa.”
In October 1947 in Iowa City, a friend of Bob’s named Jim W. asked him if he’d go out with a girl visiting from Drake, a friend of Mary Jane, the girl Jim was dating. Bob agreed.
Here’s the story the way Mary Jane told it, “I was attending the University of Iowa and a girlfriend who was going to Drake wanted to visit Iowa City for the weekend. I had a date with Jim W., and asked him if he would get a date for my friend. He agreed and chose his friend, Bob, who had a car. Later, weekend plans were again made in Iowa City, and this time Jim asked me if I could get a date for Bob. I said, “Yes! .. Me!” After that last date, it had been love at first sight – I was smitten from day one!”
Things moved fast with Mary Jane and Bob. She knew he was the one and he must have felt the same way. In this whirlwind romance, Milton lost his Gold Dust twin!
In April 1948, Mary Jane and Bob eloped and married and then lived in Iowa City while Bob got his degree. In the spring of 1948, Bob graduated in economics and they moved to Clear Lake where Bob was employed as a field representative by GMAC (General Motors Acceptance Corp). His boss there stated that, “Bob gave an excellent account of himself and impressed those with whom he came in contact for his untiring effort. He developed a reputation as a sincere and hard worker.”
On November 22, 1949, Bob and Mary Jane became parents with the birth of daughter Dana Lynn.
In December 1949, while living in Clear Lake, Bob applied for extended active duty with United States Air Force and in the summer of 1950, he was recalled to train for Korean.
In August 1951, Bob flew to Hawaii and Guam on his way to Korea. A letter dated August 23 said, “I’m already homesick and hate to think of still going away from home instead of coming towards home.”
Like his WW2 diary, Bob wrote about his experiences, but this time they were in letters to Mary Jane and Dana.
On August 29, he wrote, “We had a thrill before we left Guam yesterday. We took off at 8am for [Okinawa] and during take-off, our number two engine went ‘POW’ and oil shot all over. McNeeley immediately started feathering it but it wouldn’t feather – talk about sweat! Anyhow, we made it back to Guam all in a day’s work.”
On September 3, he revealed his thoughts in a letter, saying, “Well, today someone tried to kill me, figuratively speaking, of course. In any event it is no pleasant feeling. We flew our first combat mission. It took 10 ½ hours. Our target was the Chonju marshalling yards in northern Korea.
We got up in the wee small hours and took off in the dark heading north. We assembled with our formation and picked up a fighter escort. Boy, it feels good to see those fighters swarming around the bombers and not letting the enemy near. There was flak - it’s quite a strain and right now, I’m pooped.
It also makes me feel kind of funny and maybe a little guilty to think of the damage and destruction and misery those bombs cause on the ground. Undoubtedly some innocent people suffer. This war is enough to make anyone feel sick.
What I’m doing here, sitting in a tent, eating bad food and risking my life in such a useless war is beyond me. Maybe it has a purpose that I don’t see.
Anyway, I’m here and I’ve got my work cut out for me for the next few months so I’ll make the best of it. Time will go fast and I’ll soon be back with you and Dana. Keep writing me and loving me and I’ll be home before you know it. Don’t worry about old Peter – he’ll get along.”
On September 5, he wrote “We’re working our tails off. This is the 4th time we will have flown in the last five days and we worked from 7am to 8pm on the ground today.”
On September 8, his letter said, “Flew another combat mission today. I had quite some time since some bombs hung up in my forward bomb bay and I had to try to trip them out. I did manage to get a couple out. The rest I finally took the fuses out of and we landed with them. So far I have had six missions."
The next day’s letter said, “Our group flies a mission every other day now since the 19th is out of combat. Before, it was once every three days."
News from his September 11 letter seemed to carry a premonition, “I want to tell you something. If ever you should get a telegram that I’m missing in action, the first thing you’d better do is send a wire to the commanding officer of my squadron and ask for details because it might be that we have bailed out or crash landed and they may know it.”
His last letter was written on September 12, “Well, it’s a night mission tonight, so while I have a few minutes, I’ll dash off my note daily note. No mail reached the base today so I haven’t heard from you for four days. I sure miss you gals – Hope Dana doesn’t forget her “pop” and hope you don’t either.” Bob also talks and asks about financial matters and advised, “Try not to drive the car unnecessarily for that really costs, as you know.”
That nights mission was a bombing run in support of front-line troops. On the return trip, the B-29 bomber was running low on fuel and one engine was out so the pilot decided to land at the K-2 Airfield in South Korea, not their usual field. It was about 4am and in the dark, while attempting an emergency landing, the plane hit a mountain. The whole crew died. Bob had been in Korea scarcely two weeks. It was September 13, 1951, just four days short of Bob’s 26th birthday.
A letter to Mary Jane from the widow of another crew member stated, “They must have had that same old plane that they took across. Yesterday and today I received back one package and six letters that I had sent. Now I know [my husband] didn’t get any mail before he went on that mission. It is so hard to get those letters back.”
In one of Mary Jane’s letters that was returned after he died, she, too, commented on the poor condition of the planes they were flying – equipment left over from WW2. A letter from another crew member’s widow said what all the families felt, “I still can’t make myself believe that they are gone. I can’t imagine the years ahead without him. We were all so happy – all of us with our dreams and hopes for the future."
1LT John Hurley wrote to Mary Jane, “Bob had been with us only a short time on this overseas tour, but he was well known in our unit because he had been in flying school with many of the men. Bob was immensely popular with all of his old and newly made friends. His fatal accident came as a terrible shock to all of us. Perhaps it will give you courage for the future to reflect often that Bob gave his life so that you and Dana could live safely in our beloved country. You two were Bob’s life, and Bob gave that life for your protection.”
Bob was also remembered by LT COL John Carroll, who said, “Robert’s loss is felt keenly in this organization. He was an excellent officer who performed all assigned tasks in a cheerful and efficient manner, winning the commendation of his immediate superiors and the respect of his comrades.
Bob’s funeral service were held in Ames and he was buried near Lake Mills, Iowa, with military honors. He received the WWII Victory Medal, Korean War and United Nations Service Medals, a Purple Heart and an Accolade signed by President Harry Truman.
In the year 2000, on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, Mary Jane received a letter from the president of the Republic of Korea, Kim Dae-jung:
“I would like to offer my deepest gratitude for your noble contribution to the efforts to safeguard the Republic of Korea and uphold democracy around the world. At the same time, I remember with endless respect and affection those who sacrificed their lives for that cause.
We Koreans hold dear in our hearts the conviction, courage and spirit of sacrifice shown to us by such selfless friends as you, who enabled us to remain a free democratic nation. The ideals of democracy have become universal values in this new century and millennium. Half a century after the Korean War, we honor you and reaffirm our friendship which helped to forge the blood alliance between our two countries.
We resolve to work with all friendly nations for the good of humankind and peace in the world.”