Sherwood resident was first pilot to fly into combat on D-Day
More than 80 years after Col. John Pease first trained as a pilot, the 102-year-old Sherwood resident still vividly remembers his time as a fighter pilot — a span of years that included bailing out of a plane during a deadly storm, harrowing missions on D-Day and piloting a plane that broke twice the speed of sound.
Pease, a resident of The Springs at Sherwood, began his flying career in 1937 after attending the civilian flying program at Boise State University.
Not long into his military career, Pease was ferrying military aircraft to Alaska shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in an initial ramp-up to protect the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese. That's when he and other pilots ran into some deadly weather.
"They had a squad of P-40s take off from the Mojave Desert, and they flew right into a major storm. … Seven pilots lost their lives, and his airplane quit," said Pease's son, John Pease Jr. "His airplane got into some weather and it stalled, and he had to bail out."
Pease still has the ripcord from his parachute in his retirement home room.
"That saved my life," John Pease Sr. said during a recent interview.
"So, he bails out, and he comes down and he's in clouds and fog and suddenly trees are going by and he hits the ground and happened to land on a bush and luckily he didn't break any bones and he was able to walk out," said John Pease Jr., who is also a Sherwood resident
"I'm in the Kern River Country (of California), so I don't know where in the hell I am, and I'm going downstream, and there was a walkway there that fishermen had — so I figured if I went far enough I'd find some help," said Pease Sr. "Come dark, I came around the corner and there was a small cabin there, which turned out to be the Forest Service cabin. … Nobody was there at the time, so I got in and slept through the night and got along fine."
The next morning, he found the road and kept walking until he eventually came upon a big cabin, this one spewing out chimney smoke. When the woman living there opened the door, she screamed, not used to visitors, and slammed the door shut, the elder Pease recalled.
Before long, a forest ranger was contacted. The Army Air Corps pilot was driven down the hill and contacted his airbase in Southern California.
"You know what was interesting — the next day, he was flying," said John Pease Jr.
He actually found his father's wrecked airplane in 2019, still embedded in the California soil. Pease Jr. said he hiked up to the plane's final resting place, 14 miles off the trailhead, in what he was a long and arduous journey.
Pease Sr. ended up stationed in Alaska from 1942-43.
"There, he flew 88 missions against the Japanese, which amounted to patrols and bombing each other's air fields, but the weather was so bad they never had a direct encounter," said Pease Jr., who has extensively researched his father's military history.
He added, "Most of the time, they couldn't fly, and then when they finally launched a major attack … on the island of Kiska, where the Japanese were, they had left the week before because of the Battle of Midway and they had pulled their forces back."
In 1943, Pease Sr. was reassigned to a group that flew the much better-armed, higher-powered P-47 Thunderbolts, all in preparation for what would become known as the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. After that, he was shipped off overseas.
Just before D-Day, Pease Sr. said, he was at the RAF Thruxton airbase, a site used by both the Royal Air Force and the United States Army during the war, located near London. That's where certain fighter pilots, including himself, were summoned into a cellar where they met Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. He said he was told he and some of the other fighter pilots couldn't fly for several days because they needed them for D-Day. During D-Day, the weather was so bad that the American fighter squadrons and Germans chased each other but never engaged in a one-on-one battle.
An official news release issued on July 20, 1944, by the Ninth Air Force, explained Pease Sr's. exploits flying on D-Day. He was 25.
"Colonel Pease, wearer of the Air Medal and nine clusters, leads with two firsts in the current French invasion," it reads. "On D-Day, he led his squadron on a special mission before dawn to give close support to paratroopers on the beachhead (which later turned out to be Normandy). In that action, he became the first fighter pilot to fly in combat that day."
The release also mentions that then-Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the First Army and all American ground forces, sent commendations to all those involved.
"Therein he mentioned their action had materially assisted in successful operations at a critical stage of the invasion," the release continued. "Before the day was finished, Colonel Pease flew three missions for a total of more than nine hours against the enemy."
It goes on to say that Pease Sr. led the first D-Day squadron to the first landing field ready for operation in France. (And two days after D-Day, he became a father when his wife, Marie, gave birth to a son.)
Further praising Pease Sr. for his successful missions, the military press release noted: "On one occasion he, together with one other pilot of his former squadron, so accurately bombed a German strongpoint, a lookout tower which had been giving accurate range to Nazi gunners, that the colonel has been recommended for the (Distinguished Flying Cross)."
Pease Sr. has that medal, along with others including the French Croix de Guerre, in a shadow box in his room at The Springs.
All of the colonel's military airplanes during World War II were named The Marie, after his late wife.
His son said details of his father's military exploits were all but unknown to the family until rather recently.
"What was interesting was, until about 10 years ago, we knew nothing … except he had some pictures of World War II, because they never talked about it," said Pease Jr. "He was just silent most of my life until we started asking him some questions."
One time, after returning home after a dustup with German Messerschmitts, Pease Sr.'s mechanic asked him about a hole in the plane.
"I had a hole under my seat from cannon shot, came under my seat, out the other side. I didn't even know until I got home," said Pease Sr.
Another time, his mechanic showed him where a shell from a 30-millimeter German cannon went in one side of the engine compartment and out the other.
P-47s were renowned for their durability. Among the most storied Allied fighter aircraft of World War II, they were affectionately nicknamed "Jugs" by their pilots — whether for their thick fuselage's resemblance to a milk jug or as a shortening of "juggernaut," in reference to their legendary ability to take a beating from enemy fire and still make it back to base.
Eventually graduating to jet aircraft, Pease Sr. continued his military flying career for 30 years, flying everything from F-4 Phantom IIs to F-102 Delta Daggers. On one memorable occasion, he hit Mach 2.2, or about 1,600 mph, in the delta-winged F-102, an interceptor designed to be able to catch and shoot down nuclear-armed Soviet bombers.
His distinguished military career included serving three years in the Pentagon in the air defense section. He also served at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, more commonly referred to as NORAD, a Colorado-based facility in charge of aerospace detection and warning. He retired in 1970 at the rank of colonel.
Pease Sr. credits his longevity in part to his family history, emphasizing he had five aunts who lived to be around 97.
"Of his fighter group, the (366th Fighter Group) he's probably the last surviving member," Pease Jr. noted.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained a historical error when referring to the D-Day landings in Europe. Aerial battles took place between Allied pilots, like John Pease Sr., and the German Luftwaffe. The story has been corrected.
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