For the Americans serving with the famed “Eagle” Squadrons in the Royal Air Force, World War II began well before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Chesley “Pete ” Peterson is the highest decorated and among the most successful of these airmen who felt a sense of duty to help Britain in her “gallant hours.” Aided by an altered birth certificate, he first entered pilot training in 1939 with the US Army Air Corps; however, he was found to be under age and soon dismissed. Undaunted, 19-year-old Peterson made his way to England in mid-1940, joined the RAF as a pilot officer in the original No. 71 “Eagle” Squadron, and flew Hurricanes at the end of the Battle of Britain. He later transitioned to Spitfires and, shortly after taking command of the squadron in November 1941, he was decorated by King George VI for “high courage and magnificent leadership.”
With the build-up of US forces in England, the three “Eagle” squadrons transferred into the USAAF as the 4th Fighter Group on 29 September 1942. Peterson was soon promoted, becoming at age 23 the youngest full colonel in Air Force history, and given command of the group. With this unit, he had the distinction of leading the first American P-47 combat mission in Europe. While flying over 200 combat missions with the RAF and USAAF, he achieved nine confirmed and seven probable victories, and survived two bailouts over the English Channel, one of which resulted in a 500-foot plunge headfirst into the water when his parachute failed to fully open.
His skill and courage in combat were recognized by the award of America’s Distinguished Service Cross and Britain’s Distinguished Service Order–each country’s second highest decoration of valor. He was the only American fighter pilot ever so decorated. In the post-war years, he served as military air attaché in the Union of South Africa and in a wide variety of staff and operational command positions. The “boy colonel” retired from the Air Force in 1970 as a major general. Today, Chesley Peterson is actively involved as Chairman of the Utah Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee.