48 FW History: Youngest colonel in USAF
By Airman 1st Class Abby Finkel, 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 11, 2016
ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England --
He was a decorated World War II fighter pilot who, at the age of 23, became the youngest Airman in history to be promoted to the rank of colonel.
From the beginnings of WWII until his retirement in 1970, Maj. Gen. Chesley G. Peterson, a former Liberty Wing commander, led a remarkable career in the U.S. Air Force.
“He died in 1990,” said Michael Peterson, son of Chesley Peterson. “At that time, I really didn’t know that much about what he’d done. [His death] prompted a deluge of requests from people I’ve never heard of, who wanted memorabilia, photos or signatures. They were Battle of Britain buffs, fighter plane buffs; these were all people who had heard of him, which astonished me.”
Peterson’s impact began before the U.S. entered WWII. At the time, Americans who wanted to fly against Nazi Germany had to join either the Canadian or British armed forces.
In 1940, at the age of 20, Peterson was one of the many volunteers who took that option in order to serve. In England, he was assigned to the Royal Air Force No. 71 Eagle Squadron. Comprised of American pilots, it was the first of what would become three squadrons.
“By the end of ‘41, the 71 was the highest scoring squadron in the entire RAF,” Michael said. “They were really gung-ho.”
Peterson’s personal success within the 71 Eagle Squadron propelled him through the ranks, and he became the first American to command an RAF squadron.
After the U.S. entered the war, all three Eagle Squadrons, were transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps.
“The three squadrons, the 71, 121 and 133, represented the most experienced American fighter pilots in existence at the time,” Michael said. “And because he was [the 71] commander, he was sucked along the ladder of promotion, because they needed the experienced people to start the buildup, which eventually reached dozens of squadrons and hundreds of aircraft.”
In the U.S. Army Air Corps, Peterson was quickly promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He held that rank for 10 months before his promotion to colonel at the age of 23.
After establishing himself as a leader during WWII, Peterson continued his path of military leadership. In 1953, he assumed command of the newly activated 48th Fighter-Bomber Wing, the predecessor of the current-day 48th Fighter Wing, at Chaumont Air Base, France.
It was while Peterson was base commander that the wing first became known as “The Statue of Liberty Wing.” On July 4, 1954, the name was officially approved, making the wing the first and only in U.S. Air Force history to have two designations.
Today, testaments to Peterson’s importance to the Liberty Wing can be seen all over base, from the replica of his Spitfire in the outdoor air museum, to the case of his memorabilia at the base officer’s club.