A Survivor's Story
By Marcia Goodrich
Robert Peterson was born into hard times.
During the bleakest days of the Great Depression, the Petersons and their seven children were, he remembers, “the poorest family” in the hardscrabble town of Ironwood.
Before he was old enough to shave, Bob shot rabbits and partridge to put meat on the table. The only cash money his parents had was what he and his brother could earn shoveling snow and setting pins in a bowling alley. Sometimes they went hungry.
“I often wonder what my mother felt, not having food for us kids,” he muses.
Peterson, 89, now lives in Omega House, a hospice on the outskirts of Houghton, and as he looks back on his extraordinary life, he suggests that this tough childhood might not have been such a bad thing. It gave him some preparation for far greater trials as a prisoner of war.
Peterson was a student at Michigan Tech, playing football under the direction of legendary coach Don Sherman, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. “I had just turned 19, and I wanted into the war,” he says. Along with three of his brothers, he soon got his chance. In 1942, Peterson was called into the US Army Air Forces as a bombardier.
Peterson flew bombing missions out of England over Nazi Germany in a B-24 Liberator. “I was in Jimmy Stewart’s group. He was the nicest guy and a great American,” Peterson remembers. “He would lead the whole 8th Air Force on missions. Two hundred bombers, and there he was, up front.”
By the end of the war, casualties in the 8th Air Force would be staggering. Over 26,000 airmen died, and an additional 28,000 were shot down and made prisoners of war. The odds were two to one that a man serving in the 8th Air Force would die, be wounded in combat, or captured by the enemy.
Peterson, however, wasn’t worried. “Very honestly, it wasn’t scary for me. I just felt it wouldn’t happen to us,” he says. “But it certainly did.”
On February 24, 1944, a fleet of B-24s took off for the city of Gotha. Their target was the Messerschmitt Bf 100 aircraft assembly plant, which was a full seven-hour round trip deep into Germany. Eleven bombers were shot down before they even reached their target. “We made it, but on the way back, we got hit bad,” Peterson remembers. “All the pilot said was ‘get out.’”
He and the navigator prepared to parachute from the pair of nose wheel doors, which opened inward at the front of the plane. The navigator went first, inadvertently snagging one of the doors and shutting it, which locked it in place. “I went to jump, and I was trapped,” Peterson says. “My parachute and my body were too wide for the opening.
“It was the only time in the war that I was really scared,” he says. “There was no way to get out. I thought I was a dead pigeon.”
“So what do you do? I prayed. I kept saying, ‘Lord help me, help me God,’ and the next thing I know, I’m out. I do believe in miracles.”
Floating toward Earth, he saw his plane hit the ground and explode in a fireball. He wasn’t the only one watching. “There was a German in a fighter plane following the bomber down, probably to get pictures so he could get credit for the kill,” Peterson says. “Then the pilot came up and circled me a couple of times. I thought, ‘God, don’t let him use me for target practice.’
“He was so close to me, I could see his eyes clear as day. He saluted me, gave me the high sign, and took off.”
Peterson had a hard landing, crashing through the branches into a leafless forest. “I knocked myself out,” he says. When he came to, he had no idea where he was, so he just took off through the thick snow, using tricks he’d learned as a kid in Ironwood to cover his tracks. “But after an hour, an hour and a half, the Germans finally caught up with me,” he says. “And you know what? I was damn happy when they did. It was cold, with up to three feet of snow, I didn’t know where I was, and I was just happy to be alive.”
They took him near the German town of Herbstein, where he and five other members of his crew were paraded in front of a crowd of women, children, and old men and ordered to dig a ditch. Then a guard put a rifle to Peterson’s forehead and pulled the trigger. “Click! I didn’t blink,” Peterson remembers. “I think he wanted to show them that the Americans weren’t tough; he wanted me to beg for mercy. He got mad and hit me with a rifle.”
Then they had Peterson climb up onto a horsedrawn hay wagon. “I always felt they picked on me because I was the biggest one,” he notes. “They motioned me to dig. I came across something black. My first thought it was a dead dog. I tried to lift it out and all I got were two handfuls of burnt flesh.”
It was the tail gunner from his outfit. Peterson reached down again, and pulled up the airman’s remains. “His limbs were blown off, it was mostly just the torso.”
He carried his dead comrade to a nearby shed and laid him down, only to find the bodies of the pilot and navigator. “They had their uniforms on, and they looked like they were sleeping,” Peterson says. “I could see no external damage. Both of them had a trickle of blood from their nose and mouth.”
Near them was a parachute shot through with big holes and burn marks, probably acquired as the bomber was under attack, before it opened. “I realized that they had bailed out and come down like a rock.”
Those two deaths still haunt him. After the war, the families of both men asked Peterson how they died. “I told them I didn’t know,” he says. “No way could I tell them they died of faulty parachutes.”
The six survivors were locked in a tiny cell with bars—no glass—over the only window. After five freezing days of no heat and no food, Peterson had had it. “I complained to the Germans about how hard up they must be to not feed us,” he says. “I thought they would take me out and shoot me, but instead they took me up to the top of the jail. I almost passed out. There were hundreds of hams and sausages.”
They then took him, ham-less and sausage-less, into the kitchen, where the cook and her young daughter were preparing a meal. He snuck a loaf of bread inside his shirt. “The woman saw me, but she didn’t say anything. I brought it back to the cell and shared it with the other guys,” he says. That night, the cook slipped a blanket to the prisoners through the bars on the door.
After eight days of captivity, the Gestapo came to take them to a POW camp. The cook and her daughter were there to say goodbye. “She was dabbing her eyes,” Peterson recalls. “Both she and her daughter shook our hands. I always wanted to go back to Germany just to see that lady. She had compassion for us.”
They were sent to Frankfurt for questioning, and Peterson and the copilot were loaded on a boxcar with about thirty other POWs and sent to Barth-on-the-Baltic, where they were imprisoned in Stalag Luft 1.
“The first year was OK,” he says. “About every two weeks we were given Red Cross parcels that came from Sweden, which was neutral, and they had enough food to supplement what the Germans gave us, which was bread, potatoes, or rutabagas.” By comparison, the Red Cross parcels had corned beef, powdered milk, instant coffee, peanut butter, jelly, sugar, P ration chocolate bars and crackers, raisins, cheese, oleo, and five packs of cigarettes.
Then in January 1945 the parcels stopped coming. Daily rations fell to one quarter of a rutabaga or a slice of bread per man.
“I was the official bread cutter in my room with thirty guys, because I could cut it thin enough to give out two thin slices, which made you feel like you were getting more to eat,” Peterson says. “When I was cutting this bread, here are twenty-nine guys surrounding me like vultures.”
“We were starving,” he remembers. “I lost sixty pounds.”
Five months later, with the Russian army advancing, the German guards took off. To keep the POWs from running off and possibly getting killed, the highest-ranking American officer in the camp made MPs out of a number of men, including Peterson.
“We were allowed outside of the barbed wire,” he says. “My buddy and a couple other guys who were MPs went into a huge building and found thirty thousand Red Cross parcels that we never got. Thirty thousand.”
They made another discovery, a concentration camp on the fringe of town. “Twenty to twenty-five of these poor souls died while my buddy and I were just walking around,” Peterson remembers. “I’ve never in my lifetime seen anything more horrible.”
The Russians brought food for both the concentration camp and the POW camp and offered to help get the GIs home, but fleets of bombers arrived from England to ferry them to camps in France. From there, Peterson finagled a flight to London, where he and a buddy kicked up their heels for a few days before returning to the US.
Ultimately, Peterson received a dozen medals for his military service. Most of them don’t mean much. “They give you a medal if you sneeze properly,” he notes wryly. One, however, has a place of honor: a Presidential Unit Citation, recognizing the valor of those who flew in that raid over Gotha.
Peterson re-enrolled at Michigan Tech and completed his BS in Civil Engineering. He also married Rita Bishop, whom he’d met when he was a freshman renting a room in her parents’ home. They were married nearly sixty-seven years.
He’s still awestruck that she picked him. “I came from one of the poorest families in Ironwood, and she had dozens of guys after her,” he says.
Peterson turned out to be a wise choice. He started a successful company near Detroit, and they raised four wonderful children, he says. When Rita contracted Alzheimer’s and eventually had to live in a nursing home, he visited faithfully, feeding her lunch and dinner every day. “She was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “I have been blessed.”
The love of his life died September 9, but the couple was able to spend their last weeks together at Omega House. “What a miracle that was,” says Peterson, who knows a thing or two about answered prayers.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.