Ray Peterson, B-17 Flight Engineer

Ray H. Peterrson on 2-9-2011 describing where he was when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Ray Peterson and Jim Rasmussen at Air Expo 2015

Ray H. Peterson, T/Sgt, B-17G Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, United States Army Air Forces, Eighth Air Force, 305th Bomb Group, 366th Bomb Squadron, Airbase: Chelveston, England. 26 missions. Time in Service: 1943-45.

Early Life

Ray Peterson was born and grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From about 11 years of age, he had always planned on going into the Air Force. As a kid, Ray built model airplanes anywhere up to 86 inches in wing span. Mostly they had three classes--A, B, and C--the largest being the Class C models. He used to build a lot of B and C models and fly them with gasoline engines. At that time everything was free flight. The model planes didn’t have any control systems like they have now, but they were working on it. They were starting to put timers on the model airplanes and drop parachutes with little imitation human beings on them. They were starting to work with some of that when WWII started.


Ray enlisted when he was 17, and the Air Force, or Army Air Corps, as it was called at that time, let him finish high school. If you were drafted, the Army took you right away. He graduated from Central High School in 1943 and he had never flown in an airplane.

He took his Basic Training, did some schooling at the University of Minnesota, and then he went to Preflight School at Santa Anna, California.


When he was tested at Santa Anna, during two weeks of testing, they found that in his left eye, one of the eye muscles would not coordinate properly with the right, so they said he could have his choice of either being an armorer, which would be handling bombs, or else a flight engineer. He could see fine out of his right eye to shoot a gun, but he just couldn’t pass the eye test to be a pilot. At the time he thinks they had a lot of pilots anyway. He always was interested in airplanes, even when he was a little kid, so he took flight engineering.

Flight Engineering

In 1943, flight engineering was about six months of schooling, and he took that at Amarillo, Texas. When he got through school as a flight engineer, he had a wide knowledge of the mechanisms and functions of a B-17. He knew and understood all parts of the plane, such as the engines, landing gear, wings, and fuselage. He went to school eight hours a day, five days a week. It was also his job to operate the top turret guns.

The flight engineer was more or less responsible for the enlisted men. He was a Tech Sergeant and he always carried extra equipment, such as an extra parachute, oxygen masks, medical kits, and so forth. If they flew to somewhere other than their own air base, it was also his job to see that the plane was fueled properly and everything was checked before they took off again. He covered the whole system of the airplane. For instance, on a B-17 there were only two hydraulic items on the airplane and those were the brakes and the cowl flaps. The rest of the operations were electrical. .

During the preflight the pilot and flight engineer would check the plane over completely. They would start out from one side of the plane and cover the wings, checking them, and make sure everything was fastened tight. They used Zeus fasteners on the different parts of the plane,. For instance, the top of the wings was where they fueled each fuel tank and they had a little Zeus fastener they would remove and then they could remove the fuel cap and check the fuel. They just went over every part of the airplane, although they knew the crew chiefs had done the same thing thoroughly. Ray didn’t think there was anybody more thorough than the crew chiefs in the Eighth Air Force.

When flying, they had to deal with fires in the air. There were things he could do like slip an amplifier in the proper place, and take the old one out. Usually if you had a runaway prop that would control the propeller.

After flight engineering school at Amarillo, Texas and gunnery school at Las Vegas he did his overseas combat training at Gulfport, Mississippi.

The Gulfport Crash

The first plane that they flew in the States during final training in Gulfport had a malfunction in the landing gear while they were shooting landings and they bellied in. They were landing at between 95 and 120 mph at night in the dark. The plane was on fire when the oxygen system caught on fire, but they all got out safely. The plane was destroyed. They managed to put the fire out, but the plane was damaged so badly that the next day they just dragged the plane away and crushed it.

They later did research and interviews for about two weeks on the plane. They thought they were landing with wheels down--the indicators showed that--but the wheels were up. They evacuated the plane in not more than 30 seconds. Ray and the radio operator went out through the fuselage to the back entrance. The pilots either went out that way or out the front windows in the cockpit.

The crash landing was one of the worst days during his time in the service. Two days after this happened they were back in the air flying and every time he would take off and land his legs would just shake fiercely. He had no control over them until they got in the air. He couldn’t stop them. As soon as they got in the air it would stop. In about two weeks it was over with. He never had any problem after that.

Leaving for Europe

The flight engineer was right behind the pilots. He stood most of the time in between because one of the things the flight engineer did on all takeoffs and landings was call the airspeed. That was very important when you were landing.

He went to eight different locations in the United States. He left Savannah, Georgia and flew on up to Goose Bay, Labrador, Iceland, Ireland, and ended up being assigned to the 305th over in England. When they flew from the Savannah, Georgia to Goose Bay, Labrador they started at a temperature of 70 degrees and it was 30 below when they got there. Previously he had checked the shocks on the landing gear and when they landed they had close to two inches of clearance on their shock, whereas the rest of the planes did not do this, so when they landed they were pretty much landing with their shocks metal on metal--they weren’t pumped up enough.

The 305th Bomb Group

Of the over sixty bomb groups, the 305th was one of the oldest. Curtis Lemay, later a General, was a Colonel at the time that he trained them and took them over to England in around perhaps January of 1942. He started them out and his group flew a total of 480 missions. Very few bomb groups flew that many.

Ray was lucky enough to fly the last part of the war. He flew 26 missions. He got over there in early January of 1945. His first mission on February 15, 1945 was to Dresden, Germany. His last mission to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia was around the 25th or 26th of April, 1945. That last mission was the last of the war.

Flying at Chelveston, England

When flying a mission they would be called at 1 o’clock, then the truck would pick them up, and they would eat at 2 o’clock at the mess hall. Then they were briefed on the mission and they never knew where they were going until they told them then. They drew their equipment, went out to the plane, checked the plane over, checked the guns over, and at 5:30 the first plane would be taking off. They took off thirty seconds apart, so in eighteen minutes they had thirty-six bombers in the air. In the 305th Bomb Group there were four squadrons and three squadrons flew a mission, so twelve in each squadron would fly. That’s thirty-six. They carried quite a few spare airplanes because there were always some that were shot up or else couldn’t fly because there was some malfunction, and so forth.

Ray was busy flying during those months. When they weren’t flying missions, the flight engineer and a skeleton crew of two pilots, the navigator, and radio operator were “flying engines.” If an engine was worked on, it had to have three hours in the air before the airplane could go into combat, so they did a lot of flying, especially at night. Over in England they would be flying when it was daylight, then in the dark, and they would get back to the base when it was daylight again.

Ray was based at Chelveston, England, which is about thirty miles from Cambridge. The first mission to Dresden, Germany was about nine hours long. His missions averaged about 8¾ hours. The longest one was 10½ hours.

The First Dresden Mission

On the Dresden mission, there was no flak or fighters until they got over the German area. Later on he found out that during the evening preceding them the English had flown missions over Dresden. The Americans flew in the daylight and dropped incendiaries and there is “quite a bit of talk” about the tens of thousands of people that were killed. “There’s so many stories about it, you really don’t know who to believe.”

His first mission to Dresden was on the 15th of February 1945. At that time there were usually thirty-six airplanes taking off in a bomb group. His squadron was taking off in quite a bit of fog that morning, and he got into the air safely. They were thirteenth out of thirty-six airplanes.

The plane behind him crashed into his barracks and wiped out the site. The plane was loaded with bombs and gasoline and the whole thing exploded and blew apart. One of his buddies was sleeping in the barracks and hadn’t flown a mission and was killed. The next two airplanes behind that one crashed and blew up outside the airbase. So the next three airplanes behind him crashed.

This was one of the worst days during his time in service. Non-combat crashes were not common but they occurred. He didn’t know of the crashes until he came back. . Ray believed that the accidents were probably due to the fact they had a lot of fog, so it was a lot of instrument flying on takeoff. Afterwards he was told that the rest of the planes did not take off. He doesn’t know if that is true or not. When they got back that night they had no place to sleep. A friend of his who was a photographer took pictures after the accident, which Ray has a copy of. The photographer also included a picture of two planes at another time crashing over the air base. All that can be seen is just a black powder in the air because they literally blew apart. As Ray puts it, “It was kind of a dangerous occupation, flying.”

The Top Turret

At that time of the war, unlike at the beginning, when they went out for a mission the guns were all prepared and loaded. Those that had turrets would check their guns. What they did was check their solenoids to make sure that they were firing. The only thing was, they had to be sure they had no ammunition in the feedway before they checked them. After you made sure there was no ammunition in the feedway, then you could turn on the switch and check the solonoids.

When they got over the channel, Ray always used to get permission from the pilot and then check his guns to make sure they were firing. All he had to do was fire a very short burst to make sure. All crew members were at their stations when they hit the combat area. When they got into combat they would also check their guns.

In his crew, they were anywhere from 18 to 22 years of age. The navigator was the “old man.” He was 22. The pilots were 21. The rest of them were younger. Ray was 19 when he flew his first fourteen missions. The next day he flew another mission and he was 20 years old.

The Top Secret Disney Bombs

The B-17 carried a total bomb load of 6000 pounds. Twice they did carry two secret bombs that weighed 4500 pounds apiece, so they were carrying 9000 pounds on an airplane that was built to carry 6000 pounds. They were called Disney bombs. Even the people that flew, but didn’t fly a mission with them, didn’t know about the bombs because they were secret. The only one on his crew that knew about the bombs was his pilot. Nobody at the air base knew anything about them, unless you had flown with them or were one of the armament people.

The crew all found out when they got out to the plane and saw the 4500 pounders hanging externally on the wing, one each side of the fuselage. They would not fit in the bomb bay. They were about fourteen feet long. They had a steel nose, and a charge, and a rocket in the back. So when they dropped them at a given angle the rocket would kick in and fire them. They could not fly higher than 12,000 or 12,300 feet. On one mission they flew at 11,500 feet and on the second mission 12,300 feet. Usually they flew at 25,000 feet.

There was a lot of flak and they dropped these bombs on Vigasac (sp?) which was a town in Germany, and Hamburg. What they were bombing were submarine pens. The submarines were underneath, with thirty feet of concrete over them. They were trying to penetrate that concrete. Ray didn’t know if they succeeded or not.

They only carried the Disney bombs twice and that was enough. Their runway was 6000 feet. (At the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan airport the shortest runway is 6500 feet.) It was a little scary taking off because they only had a 6000 foot runway and all that weight: the bombs, a full load of gasoline or 2700 gallons, a minimum of 6800 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition, plus ten men and equipment. To this day, Ray has not found anybody else that ever saw or flew a mission with a Disney bomb. He doesn’t know why they were called Disney bombs.

Other Missions

Besides Dresden, he flew missions to places like Boland (sp?), Ruhland, Castle, twice to Berlin, Hamburg and a lot of names people never heard of. On his first mission to Berlin, they were told after the mission, they bombed the Hitler High Command, but of course, he was not there. Most of everything they found out, they found out later on.


Saving his pilot’s life and Dear Mom

On one mission Ray saved his pilot’s life. The copilot was flying off of the right wing, so he wasn’t looking at the pilot. You couldn’t move around with your eyeballs when you were busy flying formation. They flew very close formation. They used to say they could just about walk from wingtip to wingtip. It was very close.

Ray was in the top turret, as usual in combat, and he looked down and he saw the pilot slumped over, unconscious, so he went down and took the pilot’s mask off. It had frozen up. Ray always carried three extras, so he put one on him, gave him some pure oxygen and luckily his pilot hadn’t been unconscious for more than a few seconds so that he came to. He finished the mission, but they later got all shot up. They were told in their training that without oxygen at 25,000 feet, in 30 seconds they would be unconscious, which the altitude chambers proved was true. Without oxygen at that altitude, in two minutes you would be just plain dead. Ray never had any trouble in his turret with his oxygen line disconnecting. Looking back at his time in service, saving his pilot’s life is perhaps the thing he is most proud of. He said he just went about his business and did what he was supposed to do. It didn’t get him upset. He thinks they all were pretty much that way. They might think about it later on that it was kind of scary, but once you got your training completed, you did the job. There was no hesitation.

After the pilot came to they went on to the target and dropped their bombs. They got a partial direct hit in the nose, and ammunition was going off in the nose. Ray has a casing from one of the shells that exploded in the nose, and the navigator was wounded. On the way back they were lost and out of fuel because they didn’t have a navigator and they were all alone. They started dropping down in altitude and came out of the clouds at 3000 feet with their parachutes on, ready to bail out. They were pretty much out of fuel and as they came out of the clouds, “lo and behold, there was a fighter base below them and that’s when they found out they were over France and it was an American air base.”

They immediately fired up a flare and came in and landed. They took the navigator away and they went in to eat. Ray asked the ground crew before that to check over the plane to see if was okay to fly back to England. Ray came out and they said yes it was. They proceeded to refuel and took off for home. When they got home they found that the plane was pretty well shot up. You couldn’t see the damage from outside the airplane The next day the crew chief gave Ray “the Dickens” because they had returned the plane to England with the right wing main spar shot in two, which was the main part holding the wing on. Also they had a big piece of flak in the number three fuel tank. The flak was just above the supercharger, so if the flak had dropped out, the gas would have blown them up. They had a lot of holes in the plane. The plane never flew again. They used it for spare parts. The plane’s name was Dear Mom, but it was a very good airplane. That was the crew’s second destroyed plane. The first was the one destroyed in the Gulfport, Mississippi crash.

The most dangerous position

Ray has been told by quite a few pilots that they felt that the flight engineer position was the most dangerous one. One pilot that flew in his 305th Bomb Group had his first flight engineer fly one mission and then refuse to fly any more missions. His second flight engineer was killed. His third flight engineer was killed. Then the pilot told Ray the story of what happened to the fourth flight engineer.

They had gotten hit by flak and the bomb bay doors were open. The fourth flight engineer was quite green, and the pilot told him to check and see if he could do anything about the doors. A little later on the pilot called the radio operator and asked him “How’s he doing out there in the bomb bay?” The radio operator opened the door and he said, “There’s nobody in the bomb bay.” This was the pilot’s twenty-fifth mission and the pilot was finished with his tour, so he went back to the States. Later on, when the war ended, he found out what had happened was that the flight engineer had gotten in the bomb bay with a parachute on, which normally they didn’t put on when they moved around because it was too hard to move through the bomb bay. He did not take any oxygen with him and at 25,000 feet he passed out and dropped out of the bomb bay. When he hit about probaby 10 or 12,000 feet he came to and pulled his rip cord and was a prisoner until the war ended. Then the flight engineer went back to the 305th bomb group and told them what had happened. The pilot felt that the flight engineer was a very dangerous position.

Flak and a positive attitude

When flying the missions the antiaircraft fire was very severe. When Ray was in the turret he could see all of the flak flying around. He was right up there with it and said, it was kind of scary. Most of their missions were at 25,000 feet. They flew a mission at 30,300 feet and the Germans were using 105 mm and those came right up with them. They were a white cloud. At 25,000 feet the 88 mm’s were very accurate.

He never saw any mid-air collisions. They had lots of them at the air base. He did see a lot of planes explode on his seventh mission. Colonel Crannock (sp?) was leading the mission and a direct flak burst blew him up. He saw a lot of planes that were hit go into a spin, wings came off, maybe two to five of the crew would get out, but “once you go into a spin the centrifugal force is so strong you can’t move.”

Ray said he has talked to other fellows that were in combat. They all seemed to have the same attitude. “You see this happen but you always had the positive attitude that its not going to happen to you.” They were scared every time they went on a mission. They knew something could happen to them. He always had that positive attitude and it didn’t occur that he was not going to make it.

German fighters and luck

ME-109s and Focke-Wulf-190s attacked the squadron next to them. They knew that the Germans had a jet fighter. The new jets, the ME-262s, attacked them over Hamburg and over Berlin. When they first saw it they were scared because it was fast. Our P-51 flew 435 mph and that was top speed. These jets would do 550. Over Hamburg one of them came in and down went a B-17 and a P-51 dove on that 262 and shot him down.

They went to the rest home after 25 missions. They came back a week later at 11:00 o’clock in the evening and they were supposed to fly another mission to Dresden that following morning. They would have had to get up at 1 o’clock a.m. to fly the mission, with takeoff at 5:30. So they scratched them and put another plane called The Towering Titan crew in and they flew the mission in their spot. Three 262 jets attacked them and their group shot up the plane pretty good. The German pilot bailed out and they had a habit of heading their airplane towards you and ramming you if they were shot up bad. The 262 hit The Towering Titan and blew it up and killed all ten.

That’s one of the lucky spots. They all had so many different times when it was just plain luck. He was so young that he might be scared with the flak or the fighters in the area, but he always had a positive attitude and was lucky enough to get home every time. A lot of them said they were more afraid of the flak, but for Ray it was more the fighters. “You could see the fighters, so they scared you. You didn’t see the flak until the black smoke.”

In the close box formation, developed by Curtis Lemay, they could have maximum firepower from quite a few airplanes firing at a fighter as he came in. When a fighter got shot down, many times they didn’t know who had hit it, another airplane or you. Ray knew of one mission before he even got over there when they figured they shot down around 245 fighters. When they got through doing all the research on it they found it was quite a few less than that.

The last mission of the war to Pilsen

Ray came out of it without a scratch, which he attributes to luck. His last mission was Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, the last mission of the war. The Germans knew they were coming. The Air Force notified them that they were coming because there were 40,000 prisoners working in the factories. We did that to get them out of there. It was the last mission of the war and six planes were shot down and a lot of planes bellied in. They had a lot of trouble landing. Most people don’t know that there were 26,000 airmen killed in World War II, just in the Eighth Air Force, and that’s a lot of people.

Ray hoped the 26th mission was the last mission because they knew the war was winding down. General Patton was moving in there fast and with everything else they figured they were getting pretty close. After the last mission on the 7th of May is when Germany gave up. They removed their guns and put benches in. The next day on the 8th of May his crew went over to Germany to a P-38 base to haul some of the ground crews back to London for a week pass.


Two days later, on the 10th of May, they were asked if they would like to go through Buchenwald. So they went through the prison camp right after it was liberated. There were vats full of bones, dead bodies, frozen bodies. They went through the crematories and saw everything. It’s just as bad as they talk about. He felt disbelief the more he heard about what they went through. The prisoners would throw themselves on the electric fences and kill themselves. There were 300,000 killed in that prison camp. The Kommandant’s wife would pick out a prisoner with special skin. She had over 200 lampshades made out of human skin. She was tried in the Nuremburg trials. To anyone today who would deny the Holocaust, such as the President of Iran, Ray would tell them, it’s all true.

V-E Day celebration

At the war’s end, their party at the airbase was unbelievable. The English don’t have much land. They didn’t waste anything. Everything was cut off at the air base. So there were all of these haystacks that they got off the air base. Some of our boys went with flare guns and fired up every haystack. They were wild, and, of course, the American Air force had to pay for those haystacks. The farmers were very upset.

Home on the Queen Mary

In late May they headed them towards the Queen Mary, but they had to wait quite awhile before they came home. It was 4½ days on the Queen Mary. It was a fun trip home. They had 8500 men on board, 500 Air Force and 8000 Army, and the Army had to take turns with 4000 sleeping on deck and 4000 down below. The Air Force men were spoiled. They got bunk beds every night.


They gave Ray a recuperation furlough, which was 45 days. There weren’t too many men around, so he had quite a few dates. Then three of them drove to Santa Anna, California and they were discharged.

The G.I. Bill

Ray started at the University of Minnesota January 6th of 1946. It was great but school was a mess because they didn’t expect so many people coming back to school. The greatest thing that the United States did was to give all these people who wanted it, men and women, a free education. It was the greatest, smartest thing they ever did. He didn’t have any difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

Looking back on it, he said it made a man out of you real fast, and at the same time, they would never have seen the country like they did.

Quick Summary (from Ray via Carl Moser)

Member of first CAP cadet Squadron 711-4 in United States September 1941
Army Air Corps basic training Jefferson Barracks St Louis,Missouri
Attended Air Force Aircraft Mechanics school Amarrilo,Texas
Member of 8th Air Force 305th Bomb group 366 th Squadron London,England
Flew 27 missions over 

Dresden-36 planes-two crashed on take off
Bohlan-heavy flack-squadron commander Col.Krank lost plane blew up
Ruhland-lost 3 planes heavy Flack-navigator wounded and never flew again
Kassel-intensive flack-parts of plane shot off
Berlin-three of our P51 fighter escort shot down and lost
Planan-10 1/2 hour mission I was 20 years old on that mission
Hamburg-heavy flak-huge number german fighter aircraft attacked formation
Kedklinghaussen-lost one of our engines made it home
Berlin-heavy flak
Hamberg-one plane blew up after take off-crew all bailed out
Falkenburg-lost two engines but made it to target and dropped our bombs
Pilsen-lost five planes in our squadron-heavy fighter attacks-had three fires inside of plane that were extinguished and made it home.

You Tube video of Ray Peterson receiving the Congressional Gold Medal on January 24, 2015.

Photos of Ray H. Peterson receiving the CAP Congressional Gold Medal on January 24, 2015 at Fleming Field, South St. Paul, MN

93rd Birthday Cake

Re: the final mission to the Skoda Ammunition Plant in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia (Read the 303rd BG's Mission Report.--Note: Ray, of course, was in the 305th.)
A Description of the Flight Engineer's duties on a B-17.
 (Above) Documentary footage of the Disney Bomb.
 (Above) This Disney Cartoon, Victory through Air Power (1943) was the
inspiration for the design and the eventual name for the Disney Bomb.
 (Above) Compare the Disney Bomb to today's USAF bombs and rockets.
(Above) Air Combat footage including the Me-262
 (Above) ME-262 combat footage

K Callahan,
Jun 19, 2011, 12:05 PM