Former foe now a friend

By: Lauren Weber, The Press-Tribune
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World War II veteran Joe Peterburs' life story is one of which movies are made. At the age of 19, the Roseville resident entered the war as a fighter pilot, and never expected, more than 60 years later, to build a friendship with someone who was once the enemy. Peterburs was in the 55th flight quadrant of the 20th fighter group stationed in King's Cliff, England. His 49th mission turned out to be his first confirmed aerial victory and last. Moments after he shot down German Ace Walter Schuck over Germany, Peterburs was also shot down. I was at 300 feet when I bailed out, he said and described the landing as quick and hard. At the time, Schuck had more than 200 aerial victories until he encountered Peterburs in the sky. Through intense research and a 13-year-old German boy who witnessed Peterburs' capture, the story of these two war heroes unraveled more than half a century later. Werner Dietrich, hiding in the ditches at the time, witnessed Peterburs' P51 Mustang plummeting to the ground and his capture in Burg, Germany. After Peterburs was shot down he was met with farmers who wanted to hang him and a Luftwaffe sergeant who took him in for questioning. He moved from one prison camp to another while in Germany. He met a couple other POWs who were planning to escape under the fence and Peterburs joined in. They first encountered a group of Russian fighters and eventually made it to back to England and home to Wisconson in June 1945. As soon as reunification took place, the local television station started doing specials on recovered aircrafts, Peterburs said. Dietrich proposed to excavate the site for remains of Petersburs' plane, with no knowledge of who the pilot was. The plane's serial number was found and Dietrich was able to eventually connect it to Peters-burs. Dietrich and a television crew flew to Colorado Springs where Peterburs was living at the time, to hear his story. Dietrich became infatuated with figuring out the puzzle of who flew the Me-262 that Peterburs shot down. After much investigation, Schuck's identity was revealed. Walter was my first and only confirmed (victory) in the air, Peterburs said. Years later, Peterburs was contacted by a Swedish author Christer Bergstrom, who was writing Schuck's biography and wanted to confirm his account of the battle in 1945. Hearing Peterburs' story, Bergstrom and Schuck were confident about the findings. In 2005, Peterburs and Schuck met in person “ the first time since they were rivals in the air. Peterburs said he instantly felt attached to Schuck and remembers his sensitivity even during battle. He was a perfect gentleman, he was when he was in combat too, Peterburs said. He felt for the people he shot down. Now, at age 83, Peterburs and Schuck attend veterans events together and share their story with others. It's a love story. It's for her (his wife, Josephine) and the love of his country and his family, Peterbur's granddaughter Sabrina Peterburs said. But before entering the war in 1944, Joe had other plans for his life. I was studying to be a priest, he said. During that time, he worked for St. Joseph's Hospital in Milwaukee, where he met Josephine and it was love at first sight. The seminary encouraged female companionship, Joe said, and he finally got up the nerve to ask Josephine on a date. When the war broke out, he joined the Army Air Corps, entered training and broke it off with Josephine. She was really mad at me, Joe said, remembering Josephine's reaction. While on leave from training, Joe spotted Josephine from across the cafeteria at St. Joseph's Hospital, like something out of a movie, he said. Days before Joe left for combat, he proposed to Josephine and days after returning from war, they were married. They were together for 60 years until Josephine's death in 2005. It's apparent his love for his wife is still strong; calling her my Josephine, Joe still gets teary-eyed talking about her. That same year, Joe moved to Roseville to be closer to family. Besides his adventure in World War II, Joe continued as a pilot and also fought in the Vietnam and Korean wars. In 2007, Joe was among those honored at a gathering of almost 50 aces and Mustang legends for their accomplishments in World War II. He's also involved in other veterans organizations. Joe has four sons, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and Sabrina sees his life story as an incredible one. I think he's a hero, she said.