Salute to Veterans: Being in the presence of an Austin hero

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Former Austin resident Butch Todd was only 12 when an individual inflatable raft was opened up in the living room of his family’s home during the Christmas holiday of 1944.

Admittedly, Todd, who is now 90, said he doesn’t remember much about the day as a whole, only that he was standing before Lt. Earl (Pete) D. Peterson, Jr. and Peterson had inflated the raft.

Story in the Austin Daily Herald documenting Lt. Earl Peterson, Jr., being awarded for his efforts during World War II. Photo provided

But more personal than that, Peterson gave Todd a picture of a Navy torpedo plane in January of 1945, a plane Peterson piloted during World War II and going one step further, Peterson was proclaiming something good on the horizon. Signed on the photo were the words “To ‘Butch.’ We’ll win this year — Pete.”

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It would be a few more months, but ultimately the allies did just that, with Germany surrendering on May 8, 1945m followed by Japan on Sept. 2, 1945.

“He was the kind of guy you looked up to,” Todd remembered. “He was like a big teddy bear, but when he spoke you looked up and thought, ‘whoa.’”

During his time serving, Peterson would garner a number of awards including the Congressional Medal of Honor, which came during action against the Japanese fleet at the battle for Leyte Gulf, as well being decorated with the navy cross, an award ranking only second to the congressional medal of honor.

He was also awarded the Purple Heart due to shrapnel wounds he suffered during an attack on a Japanese warship.

“He told me at the time, when he was wounded, that 50 rounds in his wing gun blew up in the plane,” Todd said. “You can imagine a 12-year-old young man. He’s telling you all these stories about the war and of course we grew up thinking about the war.”

Photo given to Butch Todd by Lt. Earl Peterson, Jr., who flew Navy aircraft during World War II and promising the end was in site. Photos provided

According to a story in the Austin Daily Herald, documenting the award ceremony, Peterson, piloting a severely damaged plane and being wounded, escorted other Navy aircraft which were low on fuel, back to the carrier.

Peterson also circled over pilots who were forced to make water landings because fuel had been consumed. Peterson, too, would need to be rescued from the water.

Peterson would also see action at Palau, Hollandia and Motorai.

Though Todd said he admired Peterson, he had no idea at the time that he had been honored.

“I had no idea he was so famous, gotten all of those medals,” Todd said. “He was not the kind to stand out and say ‘look at me.’”

Todd himself is no stranger to military service, having followed his dad, Bill Todd, into the Coast Guard and serving from 1952-1956.

“My father was in the Coast Guard Auxiliary,” Todd said. “He had a boat on the Mississippi. That’s how I knew.”