Tragic Accident Gave AF Base its Name
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — In the summer of 1942, Colorado Springs Army Air Base was a busy place.
The base was under construction, having been activated the previous May. At the same time, a photographic reconnaissance training center was organizing and training new reconnaissance squadrons for combat duty overseas. These squadrons were needed quickly, so there was lots of urgency as ground and flight training took place around hangar, classroom, and barracks construction.
In July 1942, 1st Lt. Edward J. Peterson, a pilot and Colorado native, reported for duty as operations officer for the 14th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron. Like his fellow pilots, Lieutenant Peterson eagerly prepared for combat with his squadron and their F-4 “Photo Lightning” reconnaissance aircraft. The F-4 was the reconnaissance version of Lockheed’s P-38 “Lightning” twin-engine fighter, which was introduced before the U.S. entered World War II in 1941.
Lieutenant Peterson was born Nov. 16, 1917, spending his childhood years in Loveland and Berthoud, Colo. In 1931, his family moved to Englewood, where he graduated from high school in 1935. He ranked number five academically in his class and was an all-conference stand-out in football and track. He went on to the University of Denver, graduating in 1939 with a degree in education. He went on to earn a master’s degree in 1940, working three part-time jobs as he worked on his degree.
During this time, Ed Peterson became actively interested in aviation. He enrolled in a Civilian Pilot Training Program flying school at the Denver Municipal Airport. Created before World War II, the CPTP was a U.S. government program to create a trained pool of potential military pilots in case of war. While earning his civilian pilot’s license, Lieutenant Peterson met his future wife, Ruth Wallrich. Ms. Wallrich was from Alamosa, Colo., and also a licensed pilot.
In March 1941, Lieutenant Peterson enlisted in the Aviation Cadet program and reported to Stockton Field, Calif., for military pilot training. He completed training and received a commission as an Army Air Forces second lieutenant the following October.
As the squadron operations officer, Lieutenant Peterson had more hours in the P-38 aircraft than his fellow pilots. This experience also made him the squadron test pilot. On the morning of Aug. 8, 1942, Lieutenant Peterson prepared for a routine test flight for an aircraft with an engine change.
Everything appeared normal before take-off, but eyewitnesses saw something terrible as the aircraft lifted off the runway. Just as landing gear came up, smoke came out of the left engine, and the engine quit suddenly. The left wing dropped and hit the runway, igniting a fuel tank and engulfing the aircraft in flames as it crashed to the ground.
A base fire truck was on the scene almost immediately. Three enlisted soldiers, Tech Sgt. Albertis Hilbert, and Sgts. Walter Boulier and Thomas Deutsch, risked their lives by running through the massive fire to get Lieutenant Peterson out of the aircraft. They lifted him out of the cockpit by his parachute straps and carried him to a waiting ambulance, which set out for a hospital in Colorado Springs.
Lieutenant Peterson was badly burned on his legs, chest, and head. But, at the hospital, he remained conscious and repeatedly asked those around him if he would regain his sight and be able to fly again. His fellow officers admired his fortitude. Lieutenant Peterson was very popular with all the 14th Recon Squadron members, officer and enlisted. Despite that fortitude, Lieutenant Edward Peterson died from his injuries later that afternoon.
At his wife Ruth’s request, Lieutenant Peterson was cremated, and his ashes were scattered over Colorado. To honor his love of flying, a P-38 aircraft scattered the ashes in flight. A letter to Ruth from Gen. Henry Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Forces, said “Courage, determination, and devotion to duty characterized Lieutenant Peterson. He was an officer of fine character and high ideals who commanded the affectionate respect of all his associates.”
Lieutenant Peterson was the first Colorado native to lose his life in the line of duty at Colorado Springs Air Base. On Dec. 13, 1942, base officials renamed the base to Peterson Army Air Base in his honor. The Edward J. Peterson Air and Space Museum displays a large collection of memorabilia related to Lieutenant Peterson, including his service dress uniform, his pilot flight logs and identification card and a memorial letter signed by President Franklin Roosevelt. In that letter, the President honored Peterson as one of “…the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that Freedom might live and grow.”
Links to Peterson AFB
His little dog, “Sergeant” Honey Peterson, who used to fly in the P-38 with her master, became a sponsored War Bond Drive celebrity at Army Air Corps bases across the nation. We’d sure like to get a photo of “Sarge” if anyone has one!