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Shot Down Over France

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.

86 Comments

  1. Thank you everyone past, present and figure for your service. I do concur about the current government. We all have to get along and respect each other.

  2. So excited to see this email! This is my son in laws grandfather! My youngest grandchild, born last year to my daughter and this son in law is named after one of those French rescuers!

    • Yes, Cathy, our dear Henri!! I just met him for the first time in person tonight when Allison and Rob came to visit. We are truly blessed to continue to bear the legacy of the remarkable French people!

  3. What a beautiful story. I wish that it had included information on what happened to the rest of his crew. In any case, this was a great story with a very happy ending.

    • Ken, my grandfather is Lt Paterson. For many reasons, the author was not able to include all the details of this story. If you are interested you can read more, including what happened to the rest of the crew on our family website petersonwendrichfamilylegacy.com.

  4. Wonderful story … brought tears to my eyes.

  5. In Paris was he with the Comet group? He may have met Virginia d’albert- Lake

  6. Tail gunner Gideon August (Gus) Brown from Leavenworth, Kansas 1921-1986. Pictured in the group photo—front row, first on the left. What a story!

  7. What a wonderful story about one of the heroes of the war. And what respect the people of the voyage showed to a courageous hero.

  8. Great story.
    My uncle one day in 1944, walked into the family living room as I sat on the floor.
    Noticing him I viewed him from his shoes to his chest noticing his Army Air Force uniform, pilot wings and the rows of service ribbons beneath He served in India and Burma keeping open The Burma Road, vital to containinging the Japanese at bay.

    He truly inspired me at 8 yrs of age to join the military as well as soon as I became of age.. He wore the U.S. Army and U. S. Air Force uniform for 25 years. I wore my Air Force uniform for 35 years.

    One never knows what SEEDS they plant in OTHERS. Seeds which flourish and blooms.

    My sincere THANKS to ALL WHO HAVE SERVED.

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  10. What about the heroic Resistance men and women who saved him and so many others? Read The Nightingale, about the women who hid these pilots and then guided them across the Pyrenees to safety

  11. What a great story, we in the Netherlands are still thankful to those brave men. We just had a great Memorial Day ceremony at Margraten cemetery, the only US cemetery where since 75 years all graves are adopted by civilians.
    Our family adopted the grave of Glen Gilmore from Celina Ohio, we last visited his wife and daughter in 2015. His wife Hope passed away last year at the age of 101…. For an impression see “Margraten cemetery” adoption plan or “faces of Margraten” in the internet. The picture of Glen Gilmore we brought with us
    from our visit to Celina. Thanks to everybody.

  12. Because of navigator error, my friend, Don Olson and his unit parachuted at night into a wrong location and landed very close to a German unit. Under the hail of gunfire, he too was rescued by French villagers.

    My dad, James E. Feldmayer, flight surgeon in India, ran into a burning bomber taking off and pulled 3 crew members to safety. He was awarded the Soldiers Award for Heroism.

    They just may have been “The Greatest Generation”!

  13. how can I add a story??

  14. Viva le France…..!!

  15. My father was 22 years old and a Master Sargent with the 13th Armored Division, 124th Armored Engineers and landed on Omaha Beach in 1941. He passed away in April 2010 just short of his 92nd birthday. He never spoke of that day except to say that he landed on the beach in the mud and the blood.