In July a great man departed this mortal time and space, and left the company of devoted family and friends. He passed on just eight weeks short of his one-hundred-first birthday. I considered him a dear friend, and during the all-too-brief time I knew him he allowed me the privilege of rendering two portraits his likeness. I would like to honor his memory in this post.
He was Lieutenant Colonel Bruno Peters, U.S. Army Air Corps, (Ret). I met him and his wife Patti in 2004, through their daughter, my friend Mohini Wendy Peters.
Pete and Patti were always warm and welcoming to me from the day I met them in Torrance, California. When I first spoke with Patti and referred to her husband as “Mr. Peters”, she immediately corrected me, “Pete”. Since then I always felt welcome in their presence.
The portraits portray him at stages in his life exactly seventy years apart. In The Quiet Man (1) I envisioned him as the twenty-seven year old fighter pilot, Captain Bruno Peters, flight leader of 355th Squadron. In The Quiet Man (2), he’s just Pete as I knew him, still blowing notes on his saxophone. I painted this as a gift for his ninety-seventh birthday.
He flew (and crashed) all kinds of fighter aircraft during World War II, and piloted transport planes during the Korean War.
However, he was most renowned as an aviator with the 354th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force — the Pioneer Mustangs, the first unit to fly the renowned North American P-51, in both their B and D models.
I was privileged to attend a couple of veterans’ reunions of the 354th. It was obvious that he was held in high regard by everyone, as a pilot and as a man.
Although much has been said and written about his heroism as an aviator – all of it well-deserved — I was always most impressed by his humility.
During the time I was taking night classes while working full time, I was assigned the writing of an essay and then to speak about its topic before a live audience. My choice of topic then was what’s been referred to as “The Greatest Generation”. This included interviews with Pete regarding his WWII experiences. He was reluctant to make much of them. To him, he was just doing his job. He seemed to have more enjoyment recounting the times he had crashed various of his planes in non-combat situations, than recounting experiences in actual combat.
I loved his saying that “all I ever wanted to do was fly airplanes and play in the band”.
I’ve excerpted portions of his obituary below:
“…Bruno was born on September 12, 1917 in Minneapolis, MN, to Bernice Dabravalskiai and Alexander Petraitis. Bruno was the oldest of five children. His father and mother emigrated from Lithuania, in 1906 and 1913, respectively. The family settled in the Detroit, Michigan area where Alexander worked for Ford Motor Company. Bruno became an accomplished violin musician at an early age and often performed with his father at Lithuanian celebrations. Bruno left home at the age of 14, and graduated from High School in Royal Oak, Michigan.
He joined the Army Air Corp during World War II. He flew more than 100 missions in the P51 Mustang, out of England and France with the Pioneer Mustang Group. Most of his missions involved escorting bombers to and from their targets. He is credited for downing one of the first German jets, the ME262. During the war, he took up the saxophone, which he played for most of his life. After the war he continued his career in the Air Force and retired as Lt. Colonel in 1968.
Bruno met and married Patti Helen Ruth Moore (April 29, 1926 – July 29, 2010) on August 22, 1944. Due to his career in the Air Force, the family moved all over the United States, and also lived in France for 3 years. After retiring from the Air Force, Bruno and Patti settled in Phoenix, AZ where he worked for the Gannett Newspaper. During that time, Bruno and Patti enjoyed antiquing together, and acquired hundreds of collectables. Bruno led the Pete Peters Swing Band, playing for special events and for fun. He and Patti enjoyed traveling and went to many reunions of the 354th Fighter Pilot Group.
In 1997 they moved to Torrance, California. Shortly after the death of his wife Patti, in 2010, Bruno bought a home in Santa Cruz where he lived with his daughter, Wendy, until his death…”
The photo below is from last September, when we celebrated him at his 100th birthday.
Photo Courtesy of Ken Peters
The obituary credits him with shooting down an ME262A. However, it’s probable that he actually took down a second, an ME262-1, though it was not officially confirmed. His wingman, Lt. Ralph Delgado took down a third — totaling three ME262s in the area of Fulda and south of Kassel region of central Germany.
There are many books on the exploits of the Pioneer Mustangs, which were the first to fly the P-51D, the bubble canopy Mustang that had the engine power and fuel capacity to escort and defend bombers all the way to the Third Reich’s territory. The acclaimed Redtails of the 332nd Fighter Group — the Tuskegee Airmen — were P-51Ds as well.
The most succinct and inexpensive book I’d recommend to the casual reader is An Ordinary Day in 1945, by Peter Kǎǎsák. With photos and illustrations it tells of all the action seen by the 8th and 9th Air Force during one day, March 2, 1945. That was the day that Capt. Peters and his wingman Lt. Delgado took down the ME262s. (Barely six months later, Bruno would marry his beloved Patti.) A Google search on “Bruno Peters” would produce many excerpts on him, and more vintage fighter pilot photos as well. You can see Bruno Peters and hear him speak on a YouTube video from a series on the 354th FG. Even as he speaks of his experiences, his humility and self-deprecating humor are clearly evident.
His memorial was held this July 28th, which I attended. I spoke of him fondly as I do now, but it was difficult holding it all in. In the early evening, we boarded a whale-watching boat out of Capitola for his burial at sea amidst the dolphins. Mohini’s brother Ken released into the waves an eco-friendly urn in the shape of a sea turtle containing Bruno’s ashes and those of his wife Patti. We cast yellow roses in the wake.
There’s much more — a whole lot more that could be said about him – his quiet valor, kindness and wry humor… It’s certain many will speak of him for some time to come. In closing, though, I’d include in my personal remembrance his big-hearted generosity.