York County vet witnessed formal end of World War II


Seventy years ago Wednesday, Don Peterson was riding in a bomber that swooped low over the USS Missouri, giving him a view of what he knew would go down as a historic moment.

As the plane flew by the ship, he could see the tables on board where the leaders of the Allied forces were accepting the surrender of the Japanese to end World War II.

"It's just an instant you get to see it," he said. "So I keep that vision in my head."

Sgt. Peterson, of West Manchester Township, who will turn 90 on Saturday, remembers the day well.

The West York grad said Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied forces in the Pacific, wanted a big final show of force — a victory lap, of sorts — as he and the other Allied commanders accepted the Japanese surrender, drawing the bloody war to a close. So MacArthur ordered many B-29 bombers to fly up to Tokyo Bay, where the leaders would be meeting, and "buzz" the ceremony — make close passes overhead.

Ground crew: Peterson, stationed on the Pacific island of Tinian, wasn't a pilot, or a gunner, or anyone else who would regularly go on flight missions. He was a radar mechanic, part of the ground crew who worked on the bombers.

But his commanding officer excused any gunners who didn't want to make yet another flight up to Japan, and ground crew were allowed to sign up to fly instead.

"I got to go in place of the gunners," he said.

Was he excited?

"Oh, yeah," he said, smiling.

He flew in a plane that had the words "Time's a wastin'" on the side, painted under a picture of a scantily clad woman and next to little images of bombs. Each bomb represented a mission the plane had flown, Peterson said; in the photo he still has of the plane, 18 little bombs are visible, with more likely out of the picture.

Enola Gay: Maybe the most famous of all the B-29 bombers took off from the same island.

The Enola Gay left from a different airfield on Tinian before dropping an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, the first time an atomic bomb would be used in combat.

The second and only other time such a bomb would be used in that situation happened a few days later, when B-29s again left from Tinian before dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9.

Japan announced its surrender a few days later, on what was Aug. 15 Japanese time, Aug. 14 in America.

Peterson remembers when a different squad of Allied soldiers arrived at an old Japanese airstrip on the island and fenced it off, and then kept it separate from the rest of the forces there.

"Us guys already on the island — we knew something was going on," he said.

There's been a debate among policymakers, academics and the public ever since the nuclear bombs were dropped over whether or not President Harry S. Truman should have ordered that to come to pass. After all, the two bombs caused massive loss of civilian life and countless more cases of radiation poisoning.

But there hasn't been a debate in Peterson's mind.

The non-nuclear option would have been an all-out invasion of Japan, which Peterson said almost definitely would have meant that he and many of his fellow ground crew members would have been switched over into the infantry.

"I say every day in my life, 'Thank God for Harry Truman,' because I might not be here today," he said.

— Reach Sean Cotter at scotter@yorkdispatch.com.