Ray Peterson was a navigator of a B-17 bomber that flew over Europe. Bomber crews were vulnerable to deadly flak and Luftwaffe fighters. The odds against 12-mission survival were only about 5% because the aircraft lacked the 30,000-foot maximum altitude of the B-24. No U.S. aircraft were air-conditioned, and only the B-17 model 6 version was pressurized enough to reach 15,000-foot altitude. The crew needed pure oxygen to breathe at maximum altitudes. The only insulation was flight jackets insulated with cattail seed pods (kapok). The cabin temperature was below zero F at high altitudes.
Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) interviewed him at an 8th Air Force Historical Society meeting. MPR aired his presentation during prime-drive-time on the next Veterans Day. He is now deceased. Here is my recollection of his story.
“The German military made a desperate attempt to inflict all the damage they could to avenge their military losses to the Allies during the final days of WWII. We called it the Battle of the Bulge. The bombing damage of Germany’s oil refinery source and war munition manufacture was so severe that Luftwaffe aircraft pilots were ordered to ram U.S. aircraft if they ran out of ammunition.
“Our crew was the minimum required to complete our mission of mercy. Our bomb bay was loaded with bread and survival food to prevent starvation of the people trapped in and near the city now known as The Hague in the Netherlands. It was winter, with deep snow on the ground. That snow would cushion the cargo enough to survive a low-altitude drop without parachutes.
“An ME-109 approached our aircraft. I jumped from the navigator seat to the left gunnery position and aimed the barrel directly into the cockpit of that ME-109. It veered off and flew away. I found out later that the machine gun was on safety. We dropped our load and flew out of there as fast as we could.”
MPR received a phone call the next day from a survivor of that town. He saw a small child who witnessed the B-17 food drop. They wanted to thank Ray for saving the lives of his family and townspeople. Ray received the message from MPR.