Though he was not born in Colorado, “Pete” Peterson was a Coloradan through and through. He grew up there. He died there. His mortal remains are there. His memory definitely lives on there.
The big USAF facility in Colorado Springs—Peterson Space Force Base—bears his name, memorializing his tragic death at age 24.
Edward Joseph Peterson Jr., born in 1917 into an emigrant Swedish farming community in rural Harlan County, Neb., didn’t seem destined for fame. His father was an itinerant farmer who moved the family around, eventually landing in small towns in Colorado.
In 1931, the family settled in Englewood, a Denver suburb, where Pete began to stand out. He had a superb high school athletic career and ranked No. 5 academically in the Class of 1935.
Unlike most Depression-era graduates, Pete went on to college, graduating from the University of Denver in 1939 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1940 with a master’s degree.
It was in college that he was drawn to aviation, a pursuit that became all-consuming. He enrolled in the federal government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program—a kind of farm team for future U.S. military pilots—and received his civilian pilot’s license.
Peterson never looked back. In March 1941, he enlisted in the Army’s Aviation Cadet Program and entered pilot training. He was awarded wings and a commission in the Army Air Forces in October 1941—just two months shy of Pearl Harbor.
Peterson was considered an outstanding pilot. In Spokane, he trained on P-38 Lightnings and was promoted to first lieutenant, after which he reported to duty at Colorado Springs Army Air Base.
He began work as operations officer for 14th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, a unit composed of F-4 “Photo Lightning” aircraft—the recce version of the P-38 “Lightning” fighter.
Peterson had more flight hours in the P-38/F-4 than anyone else in the squadron, and by default, became its test pilot. That is how on Aug. 8, 1942, he wound up in the cockpit of an F-4, preparing for a test flight of the fighter after an engine change.
The aircraft lifted off the runway. Just as the landing gear retracted, smoke billowed from the new engine, which shut down. The F-4’s left wingtip dipped, struck the runway, and threw off sparks that ignited a fuel tank. The F-4 crashed in flames.
Three enlisted men—Tech. Sgt. Albertis Hilbert, Sgt. Walter Boulier, Sgt. Thomas Deutsch—risked death to pull Peterson from the fire. They succeeded, but Lieutenant Peterson was too badly burned to survive. He succumbed to his injuries that afternoon.
Lieutenant Peterson was cremated, and his ashes were scattered over Pikes Peak from a P-38. Four months later, the Army Air Forces renamed the base Peterson Field in his honor.
Today, the base is a major nerve center of the new U.S. Space Force. It is also the headquarters of North American Aerospace Defense Command and the joint force U.S. Northern Command. The new Peterson-Schriever Garrison (combining the former 21st Space Wing and 50th Space Wing) is headquartered at Peterson.
Edward Joseph Peterson Jr.
- Born: Nov. 16, 1917, Harlan County, Neb.
- Died: Aug. 8, 1942, Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Education: University of Denver
- Occupation: U.S. military officer
- Services: US Army—Air Corps, Air Forces
- Main Era: World War II
- Years Active: 1941-42
- Final Grade: First Lieutenant
- Resting Place: Pikes Peak, Colo.
Peterson Space Force Base
- State: Colorado
- Nearest City: Colorado Springs
- Area: 2.3 sq mi / 1,442 acres
- Status: Open, operational
- Opened as Colorado Springs AAB: April 28, 1942
- Renamed Peterson Field: Dec. 13, 1942
- Inactivated: Dec. 31, 1945
- Reactivated: Sept. 29, 1947
- Inactivated: Jan. 15, 1948
- Reactivated: Sept. 22, 1948
- Inactivated: Nov. 7, 1949
- Reactivated: January 1951
- Renamed Peterson Air Force Base: March 1, 1976
- Renamed Peterson Space Force Base: July 26, 2021
- Current owner: USSF Space Operations Command
- Former owners: Photo Reconnaissance Operational Training Unit; 383rd Bomb Group; 214th AAF Base Unit (Combat Crew Training); 268th AAF Base Unit (Fighter Training Station); Strategic Air Command; Air Defense Command; Air Force Space Command
- Home of: Peterson-Schriever Garrison; U.S. Space Command; North American Aerospace Defense Command; U.S. Northern Command
This article was originally published when Peterson Space Force Base was still an Air Force facility, but has been updated to reflect its name and ownership change in July 2021.