Presentation Date: May 22, 2008
Colonel Joe Peterburs USAF
Our postponed Guest Speaker, Me 262 pilot Jorg Cizpionka, is currently rescheduled for our August 28th Dinner Meeting. This month, May 22nd, we'll have P-51 pilot Joe Peterburs who shot down an Me 262!
Joe Peterburs enlisted in the US Army Air Corps on the 30th of November, 1942 and was called to active duty as an Aviation Cadet on 26 January, 1943. On 15 April, 1944 after a rigorous flying training program, he received his pilots' wings and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. After graduation he flew the P-40N and A-24 during combat replacement training. On 6 November, 1944 Lt. Peterburs arrived in England and was assigned to the 55th Fighter Squadron of the 20th Fighter Group. He was 19 years old. The unit was equipped with the P-51 and he quickly checked out in a P-51B and accumulated about 20 hours in the B, C and D models before flying combat. He flew many memorable missions, the 49th and last of which was the most exciting. On this mission, 10 April, 1945, Joe Peterburs shot down an Me 262 turbo jet piloted by the renowned German Ace Walter Schuck. Later that day Joe Peterburs was also shot down by enemy ground fire while strafing an airfield. He was captured, escaped and fought with a Russian tank unit to the battle of Wittenberg on the Elbe.
In December 1951 he was assigned to the 12th Fighter Bomber Squadron of the 18th Fighter Bomber Group flying the P-51D in Korea. He flew 76 missions over North Korea sustaining battle damage on several of those missions including a .50 caliber round through the prop of his P-51. He also sustained small arms fire into the cockpit which directly struck his face. In 1954 he participated in Atomic bomb tests in Nevada sitting in trenches while a 20 kiloton bomb blew. In January 1955, he ejected from a burning T-33. From 1965 until 1967 a tour as an exchange officer with RAF Fighter Command headquarters in England. In the fall of 1967, Lt. Colonel Peterburs was assigned to Vietnam as Staff Operations Officer responsible for Command and Control in the war zone. During the Tet offensive, the Viet-Cong were able to lob a 122mm rocket into his barracks blowing up his room as he slept.
From 1972 until 1978, Colonel Peterburs was assigned to Germany. He first held the position of Air Liaison to the US Army's 7th Corps Commander. He was then called upon to organize, form and command the 601st and 600th Tactical Air Control Groups. He was the principal architect in reorganizing the 601st Tactical Air Control Wing and assumed the position of Wing Deputy Commander for Tactical Control. During this period he was responsible for all direct air support and mobile / fixed radar control facilities providing command and control throughout Central Europe.
In 1979, after over 36 years of active duty, Colonel Peterburs retired. He is a Command Pilot, a Master Air Weapons Controller and an inductee into the USAF Air Weapons Controller Hall of Fame. His military decorations include: The Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross w/ 1 OLC, Bronze Star w/ 1 OLC, Purple Heart w/ 1 OLC, Air Medal w/ 7 OLC, POW Medal and 32 other medals and decorations.
Colonel Joe Peterburs is invited to and attends a handful of air shows / conventions a year. His last appearance was in Columbus Ohio at The Gathering of the Mustangs and Legends in September, 2007. He was invited as one of the 50 Legends in attendance. His next appearance will be at The Show of Shows in Louisville, Kentucky, February, 21-24 - 2008! He sells beautiful prints from WWII and Korea depicting various accounts of his career and missions including his encounter with German Luftwaffe Ace Walter Schuck. Colonel Joe also sells his book entitled "WWII Memories of a Mustang Pilot". Hundreds of copies have been sold throughout the US & Europe.
COL Joe Peterburs, USAF (Ret)
Combat Fighter Pilot in WWII, Korea, Vietnam
Joe Peterburs was born November 25, 1924 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
He originally planned to become a priest, and was studying at the Salvatorian Seminary Saint Nazianz, Wisconsin when he heard of the attack at Pearl Harbor.
"I was coming back from one of the many prayer meetings we had. It was a Sunday morning and I was on the stairs coming at the gym when I heard the radio announce Pearl Harbor was attacked. At that moment I knew I’d be leaving the seminary and joining the service. There was no question."
Joe had two brothers already in the military, and his father had spent many years in the service. On His 18th birthday, 1942 he took the Air Force exam, was soon accepted and became an Aviation Cadet. Peterburs started in the Class 44B, but when one of his brothers was killed, Joe took emergency leave, which pushed him back into Class 44C.
Peterburs earned his wings as an Army Air Forces pilot in April 1944, and was assigned to the 55th Fighter Squadron of the 20th Fighter Group. He arrived in Scotland in November, after an Atlantic passage on the luxury liner Isle de France.
Kings Cliff was his final destination, the base of the 20th FG, which had just completed a conversion from flying P-38s to P-51s.
Even though the war in the European Theater would have but six months before Germany’s surrender, the potential for loss of life, being wounded or captured was high, as Joe and his fellow pilots were to discover.
"There were seven of us in our group who went to the 20th, and we had a 100 percent casualty rate. Four were KIA and three were POWs, including me."
As Peterburs was coming onto the airfield for the first time, the truck idled at the perimeter road at the end of the runway where Mustangs were returning from a mission.
"The number four man did a bad bounce. Now, the seven of us in the truck were all P-40 trained. We knew what torque was all about. The pilot bounced hard, he gave it full throttle, and it spun right over and into the runway, killing him. That was our welcome to the 20th Fighter Group."
After a total of about 15 hours flying –B and –C model P-51s, Joe was sent out to fly combat missions in the bubble-canopied P-51D. His personal markings on a P-51 coded "KI*B’ included the name of his fiancé, Josephine. Peterburs’ first encounter with the enemy came on his 11th mission, January 14th, 1945.
They were escorting about 1400 B-17s to targets in the Berlin area, when the armada was hit by about 150-200 Me-109s and Fw-190s. Peterburs says a common tactic was for the Luftwaffe to send Me-109s flying through the formation, expecting the escort fighters to chase them and leaving the bombers as prey for the Focke Wulfs. On this day, the activity turned into a melee.
"Engines were falling. Parachutes were in the air. Wings were flapping down and it seemed the debris in the air seemed to be more dangerous than the enemy fighters.
"I spotted a 190 coming right at me and I gave him the ‘chicken’ approach. We were head-on, and we both started firing. I could see the guns blinking on his bird and he could see them blinking on mine, I’m sure. I saw some hits and we came within 15-20 feet of each other - - I went underneath and he went over the top.
"Fortunately, my flight leader, Captain Fruechtenicht was in a position… he wasn’t able to fire because I was in the way. He was on the guy’s tail and as soon as I passed under him, he gave a blast and he got him. I got a ‘damaged’ on it and he got the kill.
The exhilarating experience also gave Peterburs’ extreme respect for the bomber pilots who bravely drove their four-engine planes, bombers to their left and right, through the aerial debris and hurtling fighters.
"I just was hoping I could be as brave as they were, because they were the bravest of the brave."
Peterburs says he flew a few other memorable missions, including escorting bombers on the Dresden firebomb raid, on which he lost a friend.
"After the bombers dropped their bombs, we went down for targets of opportunity. We saw a truck. My flight leader was Major Gotterdam. I was in the number three position and Lt. Leon was in the number 2 position. We were at about 10,000 feet and rolled over and Gotterdam started down in a very steep dive.
"Unfortunately Leon got tucked in too close behind him. I just made a wide sweeping turn and I had plenty of room behind. Gotterdam barely made it and Leon went straight in doing 450. They both missed the truck, and on my pass I got the truck.
It was an unfortunate experience and they could have the truck back as far as I was concerned."
The Fateful 49th Mission
On the 10th of April, 1945 the 20th Fighter Group was escorting about 1,300 B-17s and B-24s to targets in the Magdeburg and Berlin/Oranienburg area. The escorts were a mixed group of 800-plus P-51s and P-47s.
Peterburs says he and his flight leader, Captain Dick Tracy, were flying high cover as a pair, the number three and four fighters having aborted the mission. Just after the bombers dropped their payloads, a swarm of Me-262 jets appeared.
Peterburs today tells this story from the unique position of having first-hand information from Luftwaffe pilots who were in that day’s air battle:
"There were about 50 Me-262s that took off to meet us. At Parchem Airfield, four of them were destroyed; two on the ground and two, just after they took off, were shot down. They were from 10/JG 7, and the other group that I am aware of was 3/JG7, led by an Oberleutnant Walter Schuck.
Schuck had spent most the war with JG5 Eismeer, flying Bf 109s from Finland against Russians on the Allied supply route to Murmansk. He had 198 victories in that theater before he was sent to fly the Me-262. Peterburs says Shuck told him his transition to the 262 consisted of being told to watch the jets take-off and land from a vantage point at the end of the runway, followed by a cockpit checkout. Before long, he was commanding 3/JG7.
On April 10th, 1945, the Luftwaffe had known the USAAF was headed over to bomb, and the alert to take off came as no surprise.
"They wove up through the formation and Shuck kept his seven 262s together in close formation until they got through the first group of bombers and he destroyed two B-17s. Then he went sliding over to the second formation, the one that I was escorting."
Peterburs says he was flying about 5,000 feet over the bombers when he saw two Me-262s coming into the formation. He rolled over and started down.
"Shuck is behind one of the B-17s. A little short burst of 30mm and - - bang, the 17 is gone. I’m still not on his tail and he pulls onto the second one…
"His tactic was porpoising through the formation. He tells me that what he would do after hitting a B-17, he’d pull up to lose speed, then he’d come down and go on to the next one.
"By now, he’d blown up his fourth B-17, the second one that I’d seen personally blow up, and just at that time I’m pulling into his six o’clock position and I start firing. I get hits in his left engine and see some smoke and a little flame. Then he immediately goes into a slow right turn, diving down into the Berlin area."
Peterburs says even with the Me 262’s damaged engine he lost his speed advantage from the original dive, and he chased the jet down to about 3,000 feet, where Shuck turned and disappeared into a cloud layer, and then turned sharply to the left. The Luftwaffe ace figured the P-51 chasing him might try to pursue on the far side of the overcast. Shuck says shortly after the turn, the damaged engine began to disintegrate and Shuck was forced to bail out.
Peterburs decided against following the jet into the clouds, and with Capt. Dick Tracy still with him, he headed further down to an airfield near Berlin that he found out later was Finsterwalde.
"It’s just loaded with aircraft, just every type you could think of. Dick takes over the lead and we get down on the deck, throttles wide open and we’re just cutting grass. We come up to the airfield, pop up and strafe. It was really nice. We caught ‘em by surprise. Dick got two on his first pass and I got one.
The two P-51s pulled up and came around for a second pass, when Peterburs saw a flak position he attacked. Capt. Tracy hit two more parked planes and was pulling up when his aircraft was hit, and he had to do a quick bailout at about 300 feet. He landed in a river near the airfield and was later captured.
"I came around again, and I think I’m 20 years old, don’t have anything else to do, and here’s all these aircraft and I’m not going to leave them when I have them all to myself.
"So I crank myself down under the armor plating as far as I can get and continue to make passes. I end up making three more passes and get hit on the last two. The next to the last I got hit on the wing, but it didn’t cause any problems to Josephine. On the last pass I got an Fw-200 Condor. I was told recently that it happened to be one of Hitler’s fleet of Condors. That thing just blew. I got it, raked it right through the whole fuselage and it blew by the time I was pulling off.
"But then I felt a thud. I could see smoke and flame in my engine and I just pulled back as hard as I could to get as much altitude as I could."
Joe had destroyed at least 5 aircraft - - an Fw-190, Ju-88, two Me-109's and the Fw-200, damaged several others and exacted heavy damage on several hangars. Now, at about 10,000 feet, he made a decision to turn west. He was about 15 miles from Magdeburg, and losing altitude when he came under attack by an Fw-190.
"By this time I’m down to 1,000 feet. At three o’clock, I see the Fw-190 coming at me. And he’s firing his guns, and he has some rockets and he fires those and they all miss. And I’m cussing like heck.
"I look at my altimeter and I’m at 500 feet, too low to bail out. So I grab the stick and start looking for a place to belly it in. And then it comes to my stupid head that I’m all un-strapped. Because I was going to bail out and if I’d bellied the thing in, I’m just not going to make it."
Peterburs says these thoughts raced through his mind in probably a millisecond. While the altimeter wound down to 350 feet, he climbed out on the left wing of the P-51 (the right side was burning) and let go.
"I hit the tail with my right knee, pulled the ripcord, the chute opened, I swung once and hit the ground. Hard, very hard."
Peterburs found himself in the middle of a field, with a group of 15-20 farmers running toward him. He took his .45 pistol out, removed the clip and threw it one direction, threw the extra clip in another direction, and threw the .45 in a third direction.
He says the farmers were upon him and were ready to do him in when a Luftwaffe sergeant rode up on a motorcycle, fired a couple of warning shots from a Luger and told the farmers to let the downed airman go. Next, another group of citizens came and talked the sergeant into bringing Joe to what he thought was the town hall.
Peterburs says the local police chief, a man with a black leather glove over what had been his left hand, pulled out his Luger, placing the barrel at Joe’s temple and threatening to shoot.
But the Luftwaffe sergeant trained his pistol at the police chief and said he would be leaving with Peterburs. A twenty-minute motorcycle ride later, Joe was at a nearby airfield, where he was placed in solitary confinement and interrogated by the Gestapo for three days. While there, he spent the nights in a bomb shelter with the Germans during nightly bombings by the British.
Peterburs was next moved by rail boxcar to Stalag 11, which became a short stay because the Germans were evacuating the camp before advancing Allied forces. The Germans put him with a group of about 100 British soldiers for a ten-day march towards the east, a march under constant attack by Allied fighter planes.
"We get to Stalag 3 at Luckenwalde which was a Russian and Scandinavian prisoner camp. And guess who I bump into? Capt. Tracy has been sitting there for ten days, along with Sgt. Lewis who was in one of the B-17s shot down, as well as Sgt. Krup, who could speak fluent Russian."
The four men, acting on a plan hatched before Peterburs arrived, took advantage of lax security and went under the fence. About 4-5 miles from the camp, the freed POWs heard the rumble of Soviets tanks, and sent Sgt. Krup (who could speak Russian) to speak with the Russians. Handed weapons, the four airmen were inducted into a Red Army tank corps and fought with them from Juterberg to the Elbe.
"As we were going, German civilians, as soon as they found out Americans were with the Russians, sought us out. They wanted us to sleep with their daughters, sleep in their houses, so they’d be protected from the rape and pillage that was going on with the Russians. I accepted sleeping in their house, but not sleeping with their daughters.
"We eventually got to Wittenberg, preceded by the Stormaviks flying close air support. About that time I noticed they were keeping tighter control of me. I didn’t know why, but this was the time of the Potsdam Conference and tensions were starting to become high between the Allies and the Russians."
When the Soviets reached the Elbe he joined a US Army infantry unit that met with the Russians and did mop up operations around Halle, a major Luftwaffe base.
"I was able to pick up some beautiful souvenirs: flying suits, dress uniforms and the like. I stuffed them in my duffel bag. Then we finally ended up playing poker and the Army guys getting me so drunk I lost all my souvenirs. I got mad and just took off by myself and walked about five miles down the road."
There, Joe saw a C-47 parked in a field, with some political prisoners being loaded onboard for a flight to Paris. Peterburs asked for a ride and soon found himself in the French capital, stamped, deloused and sent to a POW collection point called "Camp Lucky Strike" to soon be returned to the United States. The war was over for him, he was anxious to be married and settle into a ‘regular’ life.
To War, Again
When the Korean War started, Peterburs flew 76 more combat missions, mostly close air support in the P-51.
On one mission, his P-51 had dropped napalm and made three rocket runs. Starting his fourth pass with rockets, Joe’s fighter was hit.
"I get small arms fire up through the wing root. It smashes the canopy, comes in through my helmet and into my head, then bouncing off the armor plate in the back.
"My wingman had lost his radio, so I waggled my wings and told him to come along side. At the base, he breaks first and goes in and lands. Of course, I’m telling base ops what’s happened - - I’m bleeding and I don’t know how badly I’m injured. The meat wagons are all out there waiting for me to land and when my wingman lands, they’re all following him.
"So I pull in, land and taxi to my parking place. I cut the engine and I’m down picking up all my maps and stuff, and my crew chief jumps up on the wing. I get up and… he keels over and slips off the wing, he was so shocked (over the sight of blood on Joe’s face). He almost broke his leg.
"All I really had was a little burr on the side of my head. Most of it was Plexiglas and the flight surgeon was picking out Plexiglas for a couple of hours and I was flying the next day."
Peterburs took part in the nuclear bomb tests in Nevada in 1957, was an exchange officer with RAF Fighter Command in 1965-1967. Assigned to Vietnam in 1967, he was responsible for Command & Control in the war zone. He held a number of key assignments in the USA and Europe before retiring from the USAF after 36 years of serving his country.
Fifty-four years later (1998), Peterburs was contacted by Werner Dietrich, an amateur historian in from Burg, Germany. In a letter, Dietrich stated that on April 10, 1945 he was a 13-year old boy hiding in a ditch watching an air battle above him. He saw a Fw-190 fire rockets at a P-51 and miss, and saw Peterburs bail out.
Dietrich also said he knew where the Mustang crashed. In 1996, after East and West Germany were reunified, Dietrich used the serial number from aircraft parts he found to begin an exhaustive 19-month search for the pilot.
In May of 1998, when a documentary producer invited Peterburs to Germany for a reunion with Dietrich, Joe had to refuse. He was caring for his wife after her stroke and was unwilling to leave her. The producer made arrangements for Dietrich and a video crew to visit him in Colorado Springs for a follow-up documentary.
Meanwhile, Dietrich kept working on the story, talking to people from Finsterwalde and finding the pilot of the Me-262 that Peterburs had hit. About three months later, Dietrich announced by letter he’d found the jet pilot, 206 aerial victory Luftwaffe ace Walter Schuck.
Peterburs says he gave it about a 50% chance of being the true story.
"That was the way I left it until about 2003. I get an email from a Christer Bergstrom, a prolific writer on German air operations in World War Two. He’s writing Walter’s biography. And I’d been in contact with Mario Schultz from Oranianberg, who had also been researching that particular mission."
Schultz requested Peterburs’ account of that April 10, 1945 mission. In less than a week he told Joe that it must be conclusive that Joe had shot down Walter Schuck. Shultz’s conclusion was based on confirmation that Shuck was the only Me-262 pilot who shot down two B-17s on that day, and that Peterburs’ description of Shuck’s last two B-17 shootdowns that day was, detail-by-detail, virtually identical.
May 18, 2005 Joe Peterburs met Walter Shuck in person.
"It was a tremendous experience, and we took to each other immediately. We are the best of friends."
Since then, the two men have received an invitation from a Russian production team for another documentary about the two pilots who met in the skies over Germany in 1945, in a war now so long ago.
Joe Peterburs, one of 51 "Legends" –-pilots who flew the P-51— at the Gathering of Mustangs & Legends in September 2007, is author of the book "WWII Memories of a Mustang Pilot".