Thirty-eight years after Gordon Peterson returned from his combat tour in Vietnam, he read a newspaper article that called that conflict “a war without heroes.”
“It stuck in my craw,” said the retired Navy captain, who flew helicopters in the Mekong Delta with the heralded Navy Seawolves of Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 3 (HAL-3). Flying close cover for SEALS, U.S. and South Vietnamese ground units and Navy river patrol boats, the Seawolves lost 44 pilots and door gunners in five years. More than 200 were wounded.
“To anyone who fought there, who was in a combat unit, we knew who the heroes were,” said Peterson, “and most of them didn’t come home.”
America is now officially commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, which claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans. Now aging Baby Boomers, many Vietnam veterans were drafted. Most volunteered. For many, it has been a long road from the 1970s protests of the unpopular war to public recognition of Vietnam veterans for their service.
Peterson, who lives in Springfield, Va., was one of those who wanted to serve in Vietnam. The son of a career Navy man, Peterson was a member of the U.S. Naval Academy class of 1968. “We were very mindful of what was happening,” he said. “In the rotunda of Bancroft Hall, there were poster boards with the names and photos of all the alumni who had been killed in Vietnam. It was not uncommon to see someone you knew.”
He thought about the Marine Corps, but in his senior year decided that, like a lot of his classmates, he wanted to go Navy air. “When I told my parents, my mom teared up,” Peterson remembered. “She asked me to fly low and slow. Little did I realize that I would one day do just that, although it certainly wasn’t a less dangerous flying environment.”
Low and slow
For Peterson, low and slow would come to mean helicopters and flying with the Seawolves, a light attack squadron that had established a reputation for daring and success in combat. “I believed in the mission and the cause,” Peterson said. “It’s what I was getting paid to do, and that’s where the action was.”
In January 1970, three months after earning his Navy wings and a week after his final aerial gunnery training with combat-tested Army pilots on UH-1B “Huey” helicopter gunships, LTJG Peterson arrived in Vietnam. A month later, he was flying with the Seawolves in the Mekong River Delta, about 10 miles south of Saigon.
“The area was strategically important, politically and economically for shipping and supply routes,” Peterson said. The Seawolves’ mission was to give air cover to U.S. and Vietnamese forces operating along rivers and canals. That meant flying low — 1,000 feet or less — and slow, taking enemy fire and giving it back.
“The Huey was the ‘jeep’ of Vietnam,” Peterson said. Manned by two pilots and two door gunners, the Huey was often under-powered under the weight of crew, ammunition and weapons. “We flew with the doors removed,” Peterson said. “They offered no protection from enemy rounds, and it was one less thing to worry about if we ditched in a river or canal.”
Peterson says his training prepared him well, but actually flying in combat was a different beast from the training field. “It’s not that it was terrifying,” he said, “but when you’re in combat, you’re totally engaged, physically and mentally. There’s no time for fretting.”
Peterson described many of his daily missions as “routine,” but there were the hair-raising moments, such as barely getting airborne when the aircraft was struggling with too much weight.
And there were some intense encounters. “We supported Vietnamese Provincial Reconnaissance Units that were employed flushing out senior Viet Cong cadre,” said Peterson. “We would fly at a very low level to serve as a blocking force. We put down door gun fire to bar any route of escape, with hope they would be captured. Those missions were unfolding before my eyes, at treetop level.”
In Peterson’s last two months in Vietnam, because he was also a fire team leader and one of the most combat-experienced pilots in his four-helicopter detachment, he said, “I was flying 100 hours a month, multiple missions every day and at night, because they hadn’t trained up some additional fire team leaders. For a young LTJG, that was a significant responsibility.”
On some of those nights, there was little time for sleeping. When they were on call for 24-hour periods, the crews would sleep in their flight suits and boots in the ready room. “When we were getting scrambled from a sound sleep at two in the morning, we didn’t wait to get a briefing,” Peterson said. “If someone is calling you in the middle of the night, they need someone in a hurry. We immediately grabbed our helmets, raced out and put on our survival vests. By then, the enlisted men had taken the rotor tie-downs off, and we cranked and tried to be airborne in three minutes.”
Peterson credits those enlisted crew for much of the Seawolves’ success. “Our door gunners were enlisted, they were volunteers. I believe they were the most potent weapon system we had. The rockets we were using had been developed decades earlier and were intended to be launched from an aircraft flying two to three times as fast we were flying. We didn’t exceed 90 knots during our rocket runs. The door gunners were putting down covering fire the whole time.”
One of Peterson’s door gunners, Petty Officer Third Class James A. “Jim” Wall, would come to symbolize heroism for Peterson and many other Seawolves. Shortly before the end of Peterson’s tour, Wall was severely wounded when he was flying as door gunner on a different aircraft.
While Wall was rushed to the infirmary, Peterson took it on himself to clean up Wall’s blood that covered the helo’s cabin floor. “A crowd gathered along the runway,” Peterson recalled. “I yelled at them to get the hell away. I wanted to be left alone. I didn’t know what fate awaited Jim, a door gunner I had flown with many time since his first days in-country — one whom I felt especially close to after months of flying together.”
In February 1971, after 515 missions, Peterson left Vietnam. Still wearing his jungle fatigues because there hadn’t been time to change before he boarded the military charter at Saigon’s Ton San Nhut air base, he landed at JFK airport on a cold winter morning. “One day I was in [another] country, the next day I was home,” Peterson said. “It felt somewhat surreal to be back at my home, see my parents, my dog, my friends.”
Peterson said he was treated well. “The cab driver who took me from JFK to my home in Wantagh, New York, said ‘Welcome home,’ and only charged me half fare. When we drove up to my house, there was a ’Welcome Home Seawolf‘ sign in the front window.
“I felt very fortunate, but my experience wasn’t shared by everyone who came back,” Peterson said. “One gunner who had been wounded went through convalescence, therapy, recovery, then went to college and was subjected to anti-war sentiment and behavior. Here was someone who very nearly gave his life.”
Peterson soon reported to his next assignment, a helicopter squadron based in New Jersey. “I had a home. I was in the Navy. I was coming back to a squadron.”
He married Diana, the young woman he had fallen in love with when he was a midshipman, and went on to a successful Navy career, retiring in 1998. He remains active with the Seawolf Association (www.seawolf.org).
In addition to several civilian jobs, including senior editor of Sea Power Magazine, Peterson served as military legislative assistant for his Naval Academy classmate, Virginia U.S. Senator Jim Webb.
Shortly after Peterson returned from Vietnam, there would be hard news from the Seawolves. Gunner Jim Wall had recovered from his wounds, but when he returned to flight duty, he was killed on his first mission. “He hadn’t even had time to unpack his seabag,” Peterson said. In 2000, Peterson helped lead the effort that named an enlisted barracks after Wall at the Norfolk Naval Station.
Peterson said, “Vietnam shaped me. The men I led and the admiration and affection I had for them stuck with me, made me a more confident officer. The devotion to a common cause, the intensity, trusting your life to your fellow pilots and gunners — you never forget those experiences.”
Peterson was awarded three medals for heroism in Vietnam, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, but, he said, “Those of us who served and who came home, we don’t like to be saddled with the notion of being a hero. We did our jobs, we did our mission. It’s those who did not come home with us who gave the last measure of devotion who are the heroes in our minds. Jim Wall was a hero.”