Theodore Argyres “T. A.” Petras was the first person to aerially explore one of the final frontiers of Earth–Antarctica–taking off and landing where no one had been before. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1929 and served briefly in Haiti before attending flight school. Notably, Petras was one of many enlisted pilots to serve the Marine Corps in the 1930’s. He returned to Haiti as a naval aviation pilot, flying the OS-2U in support of Marine operations, primarily transport missions. After the Haiti operation shut down, Petras transferred to Quantico, Virginia, where he flew throughout the country participating in races, aerial formations, and acrobatic shows.
In 1938, Admiral Richard E. Byrd selected then-TSgt Petras to participate in his third Antarctic expedition. Petras moved to Wichita, Kansas, and watched Beechcraft build the aircraft that would serve him in the severe polar weather, a Beech Model 17 Staggerwing powered by a 350-horsepower Wright engine. In spring 1939, he packed his aircraft onto the USS North Star, and departed for Little America III, Antarctica, where he was “frozen in” for 22 months. He was Admiral Byrd’s primary pilot, flying numerous mapping missions. He also worked closely with Doctor Paul A. Siple, Byrd’s second-in-command. While on a mission with Doctor Siple, they discovered an unmapped Antarctic mountain range. Siple named two of the mountains after Petras’ wife and daughter, Josephine and Betty Jean. Petras completed the expedition in 1941 and was awarded the US Antarctic Expeditionary Medal by the Secretary of the Navy for his efforts–one of only 59 such medals.
He served next in the 1st Marine Division as the pilot for the unit’s commander, General A. A. Vandegrift. He flew Piper Cubs, on loan from General MacArthur and the US Army, on numerous reconnaissance and supply missions in the Pacific theater during WWII and piloted the first allied aircraft to land on New Britain. During his service in the Pacific, he earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight Air Medals, three Presidential Citations and the Bronze Star with Combat “V.” When General Vandegrift was named Commandant of the USMC, he again asked Petras to serve as his pilot. Petras continued to fill this position under General Vandegrift’s successor, General C.B. Cates. He later served in Korea, flying the C-54 Skymaster and the C-47 Skytrain. The 22 aircraft under his command delivered over 5.5 million pounds of cargo each month to the forward battle area. After the war, he returned stateside and held several commands. He culminated his career as the Air Operations Officer at the USMC Air Station at Beaufort, South Carolina. He retired in 1959 after 30 years of service, having logged over 10,000 flying hours.