He will tell you that although his name is Leroy E. Peters, you can call him Pete. He will tell you that although he is 81 years old, he still likes to fly planes. But it is mostly what Pete does not say out loud, that rings in your ears like an unsung lyric of the Star-Spangled Banner. Pete is an ordinary man that lived well and long despite having flown fighter jets in active duty in World War II. Pete is a father and husband that describes his tight-knit clan as pretty “well-tuned”, like one of the many engines his hands have worked on. Pete is an American hero, and this is a story that I feel honored to write about.
Pete was born, raised, married, widowed, re-married, and grew old in and around Helam, Pennsylvannia. His date of birth falls in this month of January on the 16th, in 1925. It was not until he was drafted in 1942 at the age of 17, that Pete left his corner of North America to travel the globe. Pete was drafted into the Air Force and began aviation training in Burlington, North Carolina.
The training down South ended sooner than he had thought. But not before his high school sweetheart Leona and he were married. Barely out of his groom’s suit, a uniformed Pete picked up a B29 in Witchita, Kansas. He would serve his country in WWII as a gunner and engineer. His active tour took him from Kansas to Florida, then Puerto Rico and South America. From there Pete went to the Gold Coast of Africa and then Egypt and Pakistan. His final destination was the China Burma Theatre battle and the Tinitian Island. Tinitian Island is one of three islands of the Marianas Islands. It was here that Pete and the B29s’ were based during the war.
On base, life was exotic for a young man from Pennsylvania. The men swam amidst coral. Pete remembers rigging up windmills to dry their clothes in the constant ocean breezes.
Pete flew three air missions. There were 11 men per plane and they talked and joked over the intercom system. The men quieted when, after the five hours of flying brought them over target. The black hole of a sky that had seemed to go on forever erupted with light flashes of anti-aircraft missiles that looked like fireflies swarming. Pete was a tail gunner. He speaks plainly about the anxiety he felt over the target with all the shells bursting around them trying to bring down his plane. Pete seems to be one of those blessed with the grace of acceptance. Fighting in WWII was a fact of his life.
I on the other hand, listening to Pete’s retelling, am a woman that has lived through the aftermath of Vietnam and the many troubled, political battles since. The stories of Pete’s WWII, was a different type of war than I knew. As his steady voice cradled the phone in my hand, I rested upon a cliché that I had heard so many times from the grownups that I would marvel at as a child. “It was a simpler time,” was repeated over and over. What did that mean I always wondered? Thirty years later listening to Pete, I understood.
The war ended, and Pete returned home to Pennsylvania where he has lived ever since. His experience with planes helped him to get further education in auto mechanics and eventually to get a teaching degree at Penn State. Pete wrote and taught a course in collision repair at a local, technical school. With his wife Leona, Pete raised two daughters and a son. After his first wife passed, Pete remarried his second wife, Miriam. When I asked Pete some details, he calls to his “Mim” as his second memory.
Pete is an extraordinary man. What is tremendous about his life is that he has lived these past eighty-one years with a quiet strength while people and the world around him acted a little mad. I no longer look to rock stars and athletes with momentary glory as my role models and heroes. As a wife, mother, community member, and professional, those icons do not serve me. Now in my mid-years, I look to those who have endured the years and kept going despite everything. Thank you, Pete. May I too hold up the victory wreath of survival as I blow out a cake full of candles. Thank you, and Happy Birthday!