Photos from the Vault

Arroyo Grande veteran survived three plane crashes in World War II

Peder Heller as a young man in the 1940s, top left, with his crewmates on the “Teggie Ann,” part of the 409th squadron of the 93rd Bomb Group.
Peder Heller as a young man in the 1940s, top left, with his crewmates on the “Teggie Ann,” part of the 409th squadron of the 93rd Bomb Group. Courtesy photo

A three-day weekend on the beach, an automobile race in Indianapolis, sales to shop.

Memorial Day is all those things and more.

We thank veterans for their service and award medals, but perhaps the most meaningful offering is keeping their narrative alive.

The subject of this story died March 20, 1996, and is buried in Williston, N.D.

Carol Roberts wrote this Telegram-Tribune story May 26, 1990:

WW II flier’s brushes with death

They called him “Lucky.”

And it’s no wonder.

Peder Heller flew 86 World War II missions and survived three plane crashes that killed everyone else on board.

On this weekend honoring America’s war dead, Heller counts his blessings.

“I was proud to be an American then, and I’m just as proud now,” said 74-year-old Heller, who has lived in Arroyo Grande since 1962. “But I lost a lot of friends in the war. I can’t even remember the names of most of them anymore.”

He prefers instead to focus on the upbeat side of life.

His philosophy: “Whatever will be will be. You never know when the end is coming, so quit worrying about it.”

It has served him well.

Since the war years, the father of nine has been a teacher, inventor, aircraft and aerospace worker, and boat store owner.

He has kept in touch with a few of his war buddies around the country. He also proved a small-world theory not long ago, when he ran into a man at the Nipomo Swap Meet.

“This guy told me he’d watched me play poker in Fez (India) more than 40 years ago.”

Heller smiled at the memory. He won two diamond rings in that game. They’re still in his safety deposit box at the bank.

But he’ll never forget the thrills and sorrows of World War II.

It was late in 1944, and Heller had passed his quota of 25 missions. That normally would have sent him home for 30 days and then on to the Pacific Theater.

He didn’t want to go to the Pacific, where they “treated us like just another greenhorn.” He opted to stay on in Europe as an “extra.”

One morning he filled in for a sick tail gunner on a new crew from the states. The crew’s mission was to bomb an aircraft assembly plant in Germany. “We bombed the plant but the plane took so much flack, we barely made it back to the base.”

Heller had fallen asleep, his head resting on the flight cradle. No one woke him to move to the fuselage, his normal spot when landing.

“The right gear collapsed as the plane touched down, snapping off the tail turret with me in it.”

While he was rolling down the runway, the plane exploded, killing the rest of the crew.

Heller flew with the 409th Squadron of the Army Air Force’s 93rd Bomb Group between May 1942 and September 1945. Most of his missions were flown in the “Teggie Ann,” named for his commanding officer Ted Timberlake’s daughter.

Heller has received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, a Presidential Citation, numerous other medals plus battle stars and oak clusters for his action in Tunisia, Sicily, Naples, Normandy and the air offensive over Europe.

He was credited with shooting down five enemy fighter planes. Two confirmed kills were Focke Wulf 190s. Three “probables” included a Messerschmitt 109 and two Junker 88s.

Most of his medals are hidden away. Heller doesn’t talk much about them. But some of his war memories are so fresh, they could have happened yesterday.

About three weeks after the first crash, Heller was part of a bombing raid on some Nazi railroad yards about 60 miles south of Paris.

His B-24 had been shot up. Two of its engines were out completely and the other two were running poorly. It was flying “on the deck” skimming over the English Channel when all the engines quit.

“As the plane came down, I climbed up into the waist window, which wasn’t standard ditching procedure. I had an arm and both feet out the window when we hit the water. I went flying.”

Heller sank beneath the sea, then released his “Mae West” life jacket on the way back up.

When he surfaced, he saw the plane hit some rocks and explode. Everyone aboard was killed.

“I started to swim then realized the water was only waist-deep and walked to shore.”

His third close call occurred several months later.

His plane, heavily loaded with bombs and extra fuel, blew a tire as it headed down an English runway bound for German submarine pens in the Baltic Sea.The additional gasoline was to let the crew reach its target 750 miles away and then fly another 150 miles to an airport in Russia.

When the tire blew, a wing caught on the ground and the nose dipped down, Heller said.

Then the wing tank ruptured, dousing everything with fuel.

“I was in the fuselage with another guy who got a bad bump on the head. I helped him to the waist window, just barely aware that others were trying to get out too. He and I jumped. I remember yelling : ‘Run!’”

Dazed, Heller said, he ran past the man he’d helped who stood with some other crew members watching the burning plane from about 50 feet away. He kept running.

“Then I heard the bombs blow. I dove for the ground.”

The explosion killed all the men he’d passed plus others still in the plane. Again he was the lone survivor.

His exploits and luck impressed the folks in his hometown — Williston, N.D. Heller’s war experiences are featured in the “Lost Tales of Old Williston,” written by his friend Bill Shemorry.

Out of his war experiences grew a friendship with Donald Douglas Sr. that led to aircraft and aerospace jobs in Santa Monica, Henderson, Nev., and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

While working for Douglas’ aircraft company, he came up with a new way to heat and melt titanium, used “on all the missiles,” Heller said.

“Its stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum.”

When he retired from Douglas in 1958, he and his wife, Betty opened Heller’s Boat Shop in Arroyo Grande. They sold it in 1979.

The couple’s life is quieter now. Betty has suffered two strokes and Heller does most of the chores.

But there’s still time to talk about the war.

“I was in one of the planes that bombed the Romanian refineries at Ploeisti,” he said. “We caught fire on the way home and had to bail out over Yugoslavia. …”