Bill Peterson came from Sebring, Fla. without graduating from high school but eventually found his niche at the controls of a P-51 Mustang fighter plane in the Pacific during World War II. He finished the war as among the Americans in Toyko after the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
For a kid who didn't finish high school Wilhelm Herbert "Bill" Peterson ended up with a college degree and eventually in the seat of a P-51 Mustang fighter plane in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Peterson was born and raised in Sebring, Fla., during the Great Depression. "The population was about 2,000 so everybody was your neighbor," he said.
Although Peterson's older brother quit school after eighth grade he was accepted by the University of Florida. His brother continued his studies through the U.S. Navy and he was sent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a doctorate degree in physics.
"I didn't finish high school either, but the University of Florida accepted me too," Peterson said. Taking the max in credit hours year-round, Peterson was a college senior by age 18. But World War II raged and graduation would have to wait.
The Army Air Corp sent Peterson to Miami Beach where resort hotels were converted into barracks. For Peterson, Miami Beach was the first of many assignments. Peterson studied meteorology and mechanical Engineering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He learned to fly Stearman Biplanes in Americus, Ga., BT-13s in Greenwood, Miss., and the AT-6 advanced trainer in Dothan, Ala.
"We trained constantly. I flew the P-40 Tomahawk in Montgomery, practiced aerial gunnery at Eglin Field near Pensacola, then ground gunnery at an island off the coast of St. Petersburg," he said. Peterson was eventually assigned to the 506th Fighter Group in Lakeland, Fla., and he qualified on the P-51 Mustang before being sent to Iwo Jima.
"We sailed into a bad winter storm, nearly rolling over like in the Poseidon Adventure," Peterson recalled of the trip from Seattle. "The ship didn't have much ballast so large waves would force the rear of the boat out of the water. We could hear the propellers whirling in the wind."
After two months at sea the 506th landed at Iwo Jima. Their mission: protecting B-29 bombers on their raids over Japan.
To fly over 750 miles to Japan, the Mustangs used a lean mixture of aviation fuel which tended to foul up the spark plugs. If fouled enough, the engine suddenly stopped, which happened to Peterson on one mission.
"Remembering my training, I put the Mustang into a dive and initiated full RPMs plus a rich mixture of fuel," he said. Thankfully, the engine restarted, but Peterson's squadron was disappearing in the distance.
"I regained altitude and caught up with them," he said. "That wasted precious fuel. Thank God I had enough juice to return to Iwo after the mission."
Upon returning from their first mission, Peterson's squadron couldn't locate Iwo Jima and almost lost their entire group.
"Iwo was a dot in the Pacific," he said. "A small cloud could hide it."
Luckily, with little fuel remaining, they spotted Iwo. Peterson said, "After that a B-29 was assigned to escort us from our rendezvous when departing Japan and navigate us back to Iwo."
Late in the war with an American invasion looming, the Japanese began hoarding aircraft to protect their sacred homeland.
"Jap fighters were scarce but I still managed to flame one in a dogfight," he said.
The 506th was ordered to strafe airfields, power plants, high tension lines, trains, fuel dumps and warehouses. Peterson said the low-level strafing was dangerous work. Antiaircraft fire downed a lot of planes.
On one mission six Mustangs rocket attacked a power plant. Three pilots received wounds and two P-51s were so badly damaged the pilots had to bail out. Peterson's Mustang wasn't even hit. He said, "I was the lucky one."
The ejection seat was ignited by four shotgun shells. "We didn't trust our butts to shotgun shells, so we'd turn the P-51 upside down and just fall out, and pray the tail didn't hit us," Peterson said.
Peterson survived the war, being the first American to enter Tokyo after Japan's surrender. He had accompanied a plane flying medical supplies into Atsugi Airfield, caught the hospital truck into Yokohama, and got on a train to Tokyo -- all by himself.
Eventually, while walking the perimeter around the Imperial Palace, Peterson saw a jeep convoy approaching.
"A jeep stopped and a captain said, 'You must be a released prisoner of war,' to which I replied, 'Nope, I'm just here sightseeing.' The captain said, 'Sightseeing! We're supposed to be the first American troops in Tokyo!'"
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.