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Shot Down Over France

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On May 29, 1943, 1st Lt. Theodore “Ted” Melvin Peterson was shot down near St. Quay-Portrieux in German-occupied France. He was rescued by brave villagers and the French resistance, spent two months making his way across France, and then hiked 11 days over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and freedom. In a remarkable twist of fate, Peterson and his rescuers would meet again in an emotional reunion 33 years later.

Theodore “Ted” Melvin Peterson

A member of the 8th Army Air Corps, 379th Bomb Group and 526th Bomb Squadron, Peterson was based out of Kimbolton Airbase near London. On the afternoon of May 29th, Peterson and his crew received mission orders. They were to fly their B-17 “Flying Fortress” and bomb the submarine pens at St. Nazaire. As they approached the French coastline, a volley of German anti-aircraft fire riddled Peterson’s plane, blowing a large hole in the wing. Several engines caught fire and they were losing altitude. Peterson ordered everyone to bail out.

As captain, Peterson was the last man out, and just 1,000 feet off the ground when he donned a parachute and jumped. “The ride to the ground took about 30 seconds. I landed by a small tree in an open field. I quickly pulled out my pocket knife and cut the shroud line. One of the procedures in attempting to escape from enemy territory is to destroy the evidence that you have landed,” said Peterson. The plane crashed into the bay moments after Peterson bailed out.

The Germans saw Peterson’s chute descending and were speeding towards his position when villagers quickly came to his rescue. They escorted him to a quiet, wooded ravine. “I had a few moments to contemplate my position. I remember being alone on my knees thanking my Father in Heaven for my life being spared,” he said. Villagers brought him a change of clothes and guided him to the center of a tall wheat field where they directed him to lie down and hide.

As darkness fell, Peterson heard the snapping twigs of someone approaching. To his surprise, a small boy about 2-years-old emerged from the wheat. He presented Peterson with a gift – a rose and a handkerchief. To the French, Peterson was a hero. The boy snuggled up next to Peterson and fell asleep.

Over the next two months, with the aid of the French underground, Peterson made his way to Paris and across France. By August, he arrived at the foothills of the Pyrenees. For 11 days, often without food or water, he was guided over the snow-packed mountains. Finally, on August 16, 1943, he made his way to Barcelona and hitched a ride on a Royal Air Force plane back to England. Peterson had become the 69th Allied aviator to escape occupied France.

Peterson’s French Identification Papers

The passing of time and the trauma of war dimmed some of Peterson’s memories. He’d returned home with the rose and the handkerchief as mementos from the war and kept them carefully stored, but had forgotten where he received them. In 1976, Peterson and his family returned to St. Quay-Portrieux. With the help of local people familiar with the Resistance, Peterson attempted to identify significant landmarks, specifically the field where he landed. Finally, at a loss, the Petersons’ pulled their car to the side of the road and got out to reevaluate. They hailed a passing truck to ask for assistance. The driver got out of the truck and immediately threw his arms around Ted in recognition, despite the many years. He said, “Do you remember my little brother, Gilbert? He came out to visit you in the field the day you were shot down. He fell asleep next to you and we searched frantically for him all night long! Did you get the rose and handkerchief my mother sent for you?” A sudden spark of memory flooded over Peterson as he remembered the boy presenting him with the gift. The two men embraced with tears streaming down both of their cheeks.

Peterson and his wife Ann in front of monument created from the propeller of his plane

As a tribute to young aviators like Peterson, the village of St. Quay-Portrieux salvaged the propeller of Peterson’s plane from the ocean floor and restored it to stand as a monument to Peterson and others who came to save France.

To learn more about WWII and aviators like Peterson, Search Fold3 today.

54 Comments

  1. What a wonderful story. A child, a rose and a delicate handkerchief… in enemy territory. Life is full of surprises. Lt. Peterson was in my same Bomb Group, the 379th, Kimbolton, England and our active duty in last half 1943, probably overlapped. We did not know one another.

    • Roland Martin, what an honor it is for me to thank you and your generation did for all of mankind. I was born Dec, 7, 1941 and was alive (albeit young) while you heroes performed a world shaking miracle and I’m grateful that I breathed air with the “Greatest Generation”!

    • Thank you for your service Mr. Martin!

    • Thank you, Mr. Martin, for your service to America. I would love to hear your stories! I bet you have some good stories, some good, and some you most likely want to forget.

      God Bless you!

    • Roland thank you for your service. My Uncle Harold Stoddard was in the bomb group. He was shot down in France and saved by the resistance and shot down over Germany and rescued by the Russians. Any chance you might have crossed paths?

  2. Wow! Truly a great story! Thank you for your service, Lt. Peterson.

  3. I had tears thinking of that child and the horrors he and his family faced if caught helping the enemy. A wonderful story.

  4. As the widow of WW2 Air Force pilot 1st Lt Kirby Eddleman, I am grateful to God for your safe return to your family
    as well as the return of my dear husband. They say God looks after his favored sons, God bless you and keep
    you safe always and Thank you for your sacrifice for which we should all be at your feet and humbled.

  5. Truly a tribute is deserved for all men and women who served and honored the USA and what America meant to so many and because of their dedication and perseverance we, too, can be proud. Heartfelt Thanks!

  6. My hearts and courage to our great country we stand for

  7. Wonderful.
    I’ve often thought that every single WWII veteran has individual stories, views of what they saw, experienced. Every one. Think about that.
    But I always think, too…how beyond sad it happened at all.

  8. A great story and a rememberance of times past of real heroes, thoughtful men and women that gave so much for the survival of not only France, but the world. To those who served for freedom, thank you god our current and future lives.

  9. Thank you for your service and a wonderful story. God Bless

  10. God’s hand can be seen in this and other examples. Bless you , sir.

  11. Awesome to hear of such a reunion it reminds me of when the saved through Christ JESUS will be reunited on the other side of the Jordan in Heaven i have a request my father Walter Keith Earley SGT Major retired passed away when i was 11 years of age is there anyway i can get a record of His military History for my own I have wonderful memories of him as a child but would like to know more

    • Hello Bryan: Yes, you can request copies of your deceased father’s military records as well as replacement medals. (I have done this for both my deceased father and my deceased husband.) You can request them online (eVetRecs), by mailing or faxing a form (SF-180), or by sending a letter. To make the request online or obtain the form, go to:
      http://www.archives.gov/veterans

    • Dear Bryan,
      You have several avenues to get your fathers service record. You can contact your local VA office or hospital, an Army recruiter, Army Base, or even your US Senator and or Congressman.

  12. Part of a great and dwindling generation.
    The whole free world owes them for the existence that we enjoy today. May God bless and reward each and every one of them.

    • Well said!!
      Perhaps the best said of the many comments and thanks for our brave men.
      Lt Peterson’s story certainly speaks highly of our men and women who have lost SO much and been through SO much. Hard to find a way to thank them for their service.

  13. I’m surprised that no one else asked the question, while the story of Lt Peterson escape to Spain and back to England is heroic, I always wonder when I read an account like Lt Peterson’s, what happened to the rest of the crew? Peterson was the last of the crew to bail out, did anyone else survive, even if they ended up as a POW? A friend of mine’s father survived the crash of his bomber and several of the crew survived as well. Unless you flew a single seat fighter, you didn’t fly alone.

    • Lt. Peterson is my grandfather. Yes, the entire crew survived, although all but 3 were captured and spent time as POW’s. The three not captured escaped through the underground. The French people who helped them escape are also truly hero’s!

  14. Great story. Thank you for your service.

  15. My cousin Gorman “Buck” Neel (1924-1969) was shot down behind Axis controlled Italian lines while in his P47 as a part of the 65th Fighter Squadron. He parachuted to the ground and was aided by locals to the safety of Allied lines.
    Also, I have a newspaper photo of him alongside a German fighter plane that mistakenly landed onto a US controlled air-field!

  16. Came to save France?

  17. Nothing is random.❤️

  18. A moving story indeed. But nobody ever mentions the Spaniards who also gave up so much to help the Allies after their own country had already been taken over by fascists and remained so for 37 years until Franco’s death. They too were killed or imprisoned for helping RAF and USAF airmen and others, yet we know next to nothing about them or the escape routes or how they operated. One bit of history that got swept under the carpet, alas.

  19. Another great Air Corps story. Wish it had continued a bit after the meet up on the highway. The little kid, then in the story timeline an adult. More on the photo of Peterson and his wife in that photo. Figuring his crew…9 men were captured and became POWs. Will have to do some research on Peterson and his ship and crew. My dad, Lt. Ernest Anders Erickson flew B-17s with the 95th Bomb Group out of Horham Airfield in England from February to August 1944. He often wondered what happened to buddies that flew on other ships that were shot down during missions that ended up POWs. They often got word if they did, or the sad news of MIA. My dad enjoyed films like the Great Escape, Stalag 13 etc, where he imagined that all his buddies, survived their time in POW camps and went home. Here’s some photos documents on my dad’s time in the Air Corps. http://markerickson.com/Family_History/Ernest_Erickson/

    • Lt. Peterson is my grandfather. Much more of his story including what happened to all the crew, everything we know about the French people who helped him and more is on our family website: petersonwendrichfamilylegacy.com

  20. SIMILAR STORY; SAD ENDING. My husband’s first cousin, 2nd Lt. LINCOLN DELMAR BUNDY, was was born February 12, 1918, Arizona Strip, Mohave, Arizona. At 11:00 a.m. on June 10, 1944, after he and his squadron had just strafed a group of trucks. Lincoln’s P-51 Mustang was shot down by a German MIG 109, piloted by Ludwig-Wilhelm “Lutz” Burkhardt, German Luftwaffe fighter ace (credited with 66 aerial victories, 16 on the Western Front). Lincoln parachuted near the village of Crulai, (Mailleraye-sur-Seine), Normandy, France onto a field owned by Doctor de Goussencourt. After being patched up, Lincoln continued, per orders, to WALK to Spain. In south/central France, he was found by the son of a Resistance Fighter, 15-year old Serge Guillon, whose father soon “hiked” Lincoln by bicycle to rendezvous with 40 SAS British paratroopers. Long story short, the group was found out and executed that night, July 7, 1944, Forêt de Saint Sauvant, Poitiers, Poitou, France — AFTER being made to dig three large holes for their own corpses. In December of that year, dogs of a hunter “locked onto” the graves. All of these men are now buried in Rom Cemetery, Rom, Poitou, France. Lincoln’s whereabouts remained unknown for FIFTY YEARS, when the family was finally notified of his tragic demise.

    In 2002, my husband and I, with five other family members, as honored guests of the French government, went on a pilgrimage to the sites of the ROAD OF LIBERTY. We actually SAW the fuselage of Lincoln’s downed plane in l’Aigle, met with a man who had an entire binder of the event of Lincoln’s downing AND met with the now 70+ year old teenage boy, Serge, near Poitier, who shared a “compass, hidden in a button of Lincoln’s jacket” that Lincoln had given to him! What an honor… Google “Lincoln Bundy” or read FAR FROM CACTUS FLAT for more information. QUESTIONS: [email protected].

  21. I have just finished the book ” The Nightingale” which describes a French woman taking these men across the Pyrenees. It was quite a difficult journey. This book is going to be made into a movie and I can’t wait to see it. Many sacrificed so much!

    • I read it also. It was a very moving book.

    • Another interesting book you might like, Etta, is A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell. It’s about Virginia Hall, an American woman working for the British as a spy in France. She was considered by the Nazis as the most dangerous enemy spy. She set up many resistance cells, organised terrorist attacks and helped many to escape – some over the Pyrenees to Spain. And she had a prosthetic leg after losing one in an accident when she was a youth! Fascinating story.

    • Thank you for the suggestion.

  22. For all you non believers out there……there are no coincidence in this world. I looked up coincidence I can’t spell 2 good. this was the example “like you and a kid from your class at school both visit the Grand Canyon on the same day”. Exactly I hadn’t seen her for 40+ years, Grand Canyon on the same day. sitting at the next table?

  23. What an incredible story of bravery–1st Lt. Peterson, the French Resistance and that little 2-3 year-old boy whose mother sent those momemtos to give Peterson as a gift of gratitude while the Nazis were hunting him down! It’s so true that there are no coincidences- only miracles in them. When the human race is faced with such evil, it brings the best out in our humanity! Thanks to all who risked their lives so we can live FREE!

  24. My uncle, Tsgt. John Battaglia, was a right waist gunner on a B 24 named Didlin Dolly. While flying a mission to bomb a submarine base, they were shot down and he was wounded but survived the jump. He then spent 366 days in the infamous Stalag 3 prison camp ( scene of the Great Escape ). As the allies were approaching the camp, the Germans forced marched the prisoners, in the cold snowy weather, some without any winter clothing. My uncle and a P 47 pilot managed to escape and made it back to our lines. He spent a long time in the hospital before returning to the states. He was my hero and the main reason I made a career in the Air Force.

  25. Thank you Lt. Peterson for your service – this indeed was a heroic story. I was just 8 years old when you flew the heroic mission and I greatly appreciate the effort you and others made to defend our country. Thanks to you and the French Resistance that made this possible.

  26. Thank you for this wonderful story. It’s a shame we don’t have more of these stories for the future generations to read. Thank you for your devoted service to these United States.

  27. As secretary for our church for twenty years I requested that the veterans in our congregation write stories of their experiences during their time of service. One of our gentlemen had a similar experience except he came down on a rock fence and his back was broken. He was taken to the home of a family who hid him for the three months of his recovery. Years later he visited the family and the lady who cared for him was able to visit him in the United States.

  28. that was a time of consolidation .. when we loved each other and fought against the real tyranny .. I wasnt in that war but in the service before the Civil rights stationed with half my company with African Americans and we got along just fine without a single racial incident that i can remember as a fmr white sgt serving with 13 Black sgts and promoted to the rank by my Black Commanding officer who i will never forget …

  29. My best friend’s husband had a similar story. Louis DelGuidice is in a book “Their Deeds of Valor”. Absolutely facinating stories.

  30. Read this new book about the French resistance and you will know how they helped during the WW2. Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson.

  31. What an incredibly beautiful story! I was born a few years after the end of WW II (1949) but the war and its stories were still very much alive.

    In my opinion it is important that we all preserve our memories of those times, whether we served or not.

  32. As a veteran to young to be in WWII. I was a junior in 1945 and 17 year when WWII. I have relatives in the The Revolution, the war of 1861-65 Union Side, father and two (2) uncles in WWI and one uncle in WWII I like stories like this Story. I am a Veteran of the War in Korea.

  33. Incredible story more than likely never to be repeated in the times we live. I retired in 2006 from the ANG flying F-16C/Ds for 9 yrs. 127 combat sorties flying CAP and ground attack missions. Nothing like these guys. I can’t imagine the bravery and guts they had during that time. We rely on training and instinct to survive what we did but these guys were real heroes in a time when our country needed them. Honor and integrity meant something. Not so much any more. What an honor it is to meet these guys and there aren’t many left. Heroes every one.

  34. Thank you for this lovely true story. My Dad was in the Navy in WWII and my late husband in the Koran War. I was not born until Jan 1944. So this story was before my time. Again thank you Fold3 for your many stories and for the great research that you do for all of us to read and know what happened back then. Keep up the good work.

  35. Great read!
    One responder was a classmate of mine at Marion High School Illinois

    Jack T 1953

  36. Loved the story very interesting.

  37. What a beautiful story, and thank you Roland Martin and others in America, for contributing to this article. As a Brit’, I grew up near Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire (it’s not that close to London!) in the 1970s and ’80s and heard many stories of the brave Yanks in the USAAF who came over to help save Britain from defeat by the Nazis. USAAF / RAF Chelveston was nearer me and Polebrook, Grafton Underwood and Hannington American air bases nearby too. They flew B17s and B24s. In 1944/45, my mother was dating some of your aircrew, so had she married one of them, I might have been born American! She told me numerous stories about her experiences of that time. Mum eventually married a former RAF bomber pilot. Thank you once again.

  38. What a wonderful and poignant account , and with such a beautiful ending.A true hero Sir xx

  39. Thank you Lt. Melvin Peterson for your service, and to all those who served. My Uncle David Edward Peterson also served and was one of the great Merrells Marauders. We honor all of you who served! Hero’s for sure!

  40. An incredible story. Several men in my extended family served in WWII. Some barely survived, some didn’t. My heart and spirit are crushed when I see these Nazi and white nationalist punks rallying in the United States. What was it all for?

  41. Ted –
    Thank you for your courage and determination to survive. As a “cold war” vet I practiced and rehearsed for war based on your experiences.
    My Dad wrote many letters about his life on the ground in the 2nd Army and everyone who was there deserves our heartfelt thanks!
    Jay Davis (LTC USA, ret)

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