By Elisabeth Monaghan
Any time a community loses one of its older servicemen or women without ever hearing their personal stories is a tragedy. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs statistics, fewer than 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive today. With about 370 World War II veterans dying daily, we are rapidly losing those who belong to what television journalist and author Tom Brokaw referred to as “the Greatest Generation.” With each life lost also go the tales of those who grew up during the Great Depression and then served in the military or contributed to the war effort in some other way.
Fortunately, for Wheat Ridge, there is at least one community member who represents the Greatest Generation. William Peterson, who will turn 93 in February, has lived with his wife, Ardath, in Wheat Ridge since 1961. Many of the faculty for and parents of students attending Jefferson County high schools may be familiar with Peterson because he coached Little League. Perhaps people know Peterson through one of his five children, who attended school in the area. (His son Chris was a star basketball player and earned a spot in the Jefferson County Athletics Hall of Fame.) Many know Peterson from hearing him speak at area high schools about his experiences during World War II.
Peterson can talk enthusiastically for hours about his secrets to longevity and happiness, the successful insurance business he created (and where he still works full-time), or the family he and Ardath raised in Wheat Ridge. These are popular subjects with Peterson, but it his time serving as a tail gunner with the Flying Tigers during the China War that he especially loves to talk about because so few actually know the story.
“I talk to these students who are 15, 16 years old,” explains Peterson. “Some don’t even know where China is, but there was a war in China. Many people died there,” adds Peterson. For those who may not be familiar with it, the second Sino-Japanese War was a military conflict between China and Japan that took place in 1937, near the Marco Polo Bridge, outside of what is now Beijing. This dispute between China and Japan eventually merged with the rest of the battles taking place during World War II.
One of the reasons Peterson emphasizes the significance of the United States working alongside the Chinese to battle the Japanese is because he believes it is a testament of goodwill between China and the United States.
“When we went over to China, we helped the Chinese fight and push the Japanese out of Burma and out of China, and we taught them how to fly …. We helped them. We fought right next to them. Now we’re fighting with China. We have all this news about the tariffs, and I never see it come up when someone reminds the Chinese, ‘Hey, Guys, remember, we did help you out once. We’re not so bad…’”
Peterson says that had it not been for the help from the allies, there may not be a China today. Perhaps, if the Chinese and Americans could recall the successful alliance we formed those many years ago, it might help us restore our relationship.
After holding a few different jobs and living in different locations, Peterson and his wife eventually settled in Colorado, where Peterson launched the insurance agency he runs out of his home. Because he dropped out of high school at age 17 to enlist in the military, Peterson spent much of his adult life without a high school diploma. This was something that nagged at him. It was also something he was able to remedy years later, when in 2003, with the help of Operation Recognition, Peterson was awarded his diploma. Operation Recognition is a program for veterans, who left high school to join the military during World War II as well as the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Proudly showing off the class ring he regularly wears, Peterson says he well may have been the oldest student in Jefferson County ever to be awarded a high school diploma. He was 77 at the time.
About 18 years ago, Peterson received the Bronze Star for his military service. This past September, he was the recipient of the China War Memorial Medal for his heroic service in 1945 as a Flying Tiger with the 375th Heavy Bombardment Squadron. The ceremony took place at the Wheat Ridge All Veterans’ Memorial in Hayward Park. Retired Maj. Gen. Mason C. Whitney presented Peterson with his medal.
Given his service during World War II, it would be understandable if Peterson were to retire from community participation, but he has not finished serving. In addition to speaking at high schools throughout Jefferson County and to different veterans’ organizations around metro Denver, Peterson also is considering writing a book on how senior citizens can navigate some of the greatest challenges they may encounter in their old age. For example, Peterson offers the simple tip for seniors to double-tie their shoes to avoid tripping and falling. Also, if an older person walks with a portable oxygen tank, Peterson reminds them to be sure the tube and any other hanging parts are behind them where they won’t get in the way.
When it comes to why Peterson has lived a long and healthy life, he says it may be attributed to eating raw onions almost daily, which he has done for decades. (He is especially fond of peanut butter and sliced onion sandwiches.) While many may find the thought of mixing raw onions and peanut butter unappetizing, all they have to do is spend time with Peterson to think he may be onto something with his penchant for onions. Another likely reason for Peterson’s good health and longevity could be his marriage. While he quips about fending off “flirty guys” for many of the nearly 70 years they’ve been together, Peterson clearly adores his wife and says at 90, she is still beautiful.
For Peterson, it is an honor to share his experiences and educate younger and older citizens about the history he has witnessed. When anyone shakes his hand and thanks him for his service, Peterson beams with pride, but he also makes it a point to acknowledge those who loaded the guns, folded parachutes, cooked meals or served as mechanics.
“They did so much for the rest of us with their support. None of us would be heroes if it weren’t for them.”