Like many people honored for their bravery, former Coast Guard pilot William Peterson, of Richland, said he was just doing his job when he helped rescue nine colleagues whose plane crashed on a hillside on the western Aleutian island of Attu off Alaska in 1982.
Visibility was only 50 feet because of fog and winds gusting to over 46 miles per hour in the North Pacific as Peterson tried to fly a rescue helicopter to the fiery crash site.
Following an emergency beacon, Peterson and his crew found three survivors who had walked down the hill and flew them to a Coast Guard base on the island.
Peterson returned in the helicopter and inched it up to the crash site. He and the crew found a fourth victim and flew him to safety after a gust of wind nearly blew the aircraft into the hillside as it hovered along the steep terrain.
Knowing it would be too dangerous to try to hover the chopper again, Peterson landed it about a mile or so down the hill. He and the crew trekked up with stretchers, returned to the helicopter with five more injured victims, and then flew them to another base at a nearby island for medical treatment.
For his actions, the 62-year-old retired captain was inducted Thursday into the Wall of Gallantry at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. Three other Coast Guardsmen also were inducted for unrelated heroism.
“It’s a huge honor for anyone to be selected. It’s a humbling occasion,” Peterson said Wednesday. “I just did my job, like anybody else. It was a total team effort. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Peterson served in the Coast Guard from 1972 to 2006, when he finished his career as chief of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.
He worked at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland from 2005 to 2015, retiring as a manager in the lab’s National Security Directorate.
The eight Coast Guardsmen and a defense contractor that he helped rescue all survived. Two other crew members aboard the cargo plane died in the crash.
Peterson had previous experience with mountain rescues in the continental U.S., but this mission was much more difficult.
“We were definitely at our limits,” he said. “It was risky and we were measuring the risk as we went through it. I don’t think we were scared. We were just concerned.”
He previously received the military’s Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement for his actions.
“His is a story of grace under pressure, and commitment to his fellow service members,” said Rear Adm. James Rendon, the Coast Guard Academy superintendent. “He set an example to our cadets of how our personnel have upheld the service’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.”
Peterson shed a few tears talking about the colleagues he rescued. He noted they all went on to successful careers. He wrote a recently released book on the rescue, A Miracle at Attu: The Rescue of CG-1600.
“I’d given them a second chance,” he said. “It was definitely worth the risk.”