Peterson recalls life and death in Vietnam
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
In the fall of 1965, 17-year-old Bruce Peterson was not thinking of another year of high school, chasing girls or buying a new car. He was on patrol in the jungles of Vietnam.
“I turned 17 on Dec. 2 and on Feb. 28 I was in the Marine Corps,” he said. “In September, I was in Vietnam. They just needed bodies and they sent as many people over there as possible.”
Looking for a way to get away from home, Peterson quit school in Victoria and enlisted, and while he expected – and even wanted – to go to Vietnam, it was still a bit of a shock at the end of boot camp to learn he was on his way.
“At graduation we were all in formation, and they called out six names and said they were going to special schools,” Peterson said. “Then they said all the rest of us were going to Vietnam.”
Once in country, the young man who had never been anywhere, was handed a rifle, a cartridge belt, four magazines, one magazine pouch, one canteen and two canteen covers, and set about learning how to survive in a combat zone.
As Peterson recounted the variety of jumbled memories, they became one episode of survival after another, often due to some kind of strange luck.
One day in a forward post, Peterson was in a foxhole with someone fresh off R&R in Thailand as they watched a farmer working in a field in the distance. He remembered how hot it was – how hot it always seemed to be – and that it was a good haul to get more water. One of the two would have to make the trek, so the task hinged on a friendly bet.
“We played scissor, rock, paper to see who was going to go get the water because the water was about 150 yards away,” he said. “I lost, so I started out and while I was gone that farmer threw a satchel charge in our hole and blew that guy up. I literally lost a bet, but I won the battle. It was just one of those things.”
The hardships weren’t all about the combat itself as sometimes just the elements – the heat and rain specifically – took their toll.
“I was out there two weeks during monsoon season, and I never saw my feet,” Peterson said. “I stayed wet for two weeks and I was literally terrified when I got back to the (command post) to take my boots off because I was scared my feet would stay in them.”
Never counting exactly how many times he cheated death, Peterson said because he was so young, he never really thought much about living or dying during his 13-month tour.
“It depends on your maturity level and outlook on life,” he said. “I actually went to Vietnam to die. I didn’t expect to come back. After three months, you were just numb to people going on patrol and coming back without somebody, or seeing people shot up or blown up. You just got numb and you didn’t care.”
There were only two reprieves during his tour, the first coming when he was ironically sent out of country days before his 18th birthday – after he’d already been there three months – because the politics of having 17-year olds in Vietnam had become a hot topic back home. He returned with a new unit two weeks later and two weeks older, but now 18.
“I didn’t want to leave the first time, I was there,” Peterson said. “I was comfortable and I knew what was going on. This was God doing everything.”
He went to Okinawa and joined a new unit and returned.
Looking back on it, Peterson says God played a big role in his life during that time, even if he didn’t realize it, recounting when he landed a more relaxing job, guarding locations in Da Nang, where he had a chance to clean up and sleep through the night. While it only lasted two weeks, he again felt like he dodged a bullet.
“When I left and went to Da Nang for that two weeks, (my unit) got hit and they lost a lot of people, so I could have been killed there,” he said. “I look at different things like that and realize God had a plan for me.”
The new life didn’t last long before he was sent back to more familiar surroundings.
“I was there two stinkin’ weeks, just getting to where I could find the PX and start getting comfortable, and they came and said they needed me back in the field,” Peterson said. “I’d already had someone spit-shining my boots, starching my clothes, and I went back and they thought I was new, just coming over.”
They might become numb to the death and suffering around them every day, but it was not something they forgot easily, as Peterson can recall much of the loss vividly even today.
One Marine Peterson was with seemed to escape death on two different occasions, the first, coming face to face with an enemy soldier when both were startled and ran, then days later being grazed by gunfire on his helmet, but sometimes the good luck just seemed to run out.
“The company commander was going to box the helmet up and send it home as a souvenir, and three or four days later we were on patrol and we got hit hard, and he got hit,” Peterson recalled. “We were carrying him in a pancho and the pancho was just full of blood. He died right there. That was the thing that really made it difficult, because of all the crap you go through, like he did, but less than a week later he’s dead.”
Another Marine had only six days left on his tour, when Peterson remembers working to try and keep him alive after he stepped on a mine.
“Me and a corpsman worked on him almost an hour before the chopper got there to evacuate him, and when the chopper took off, we just went back on patrol, we didn’t do anything else,” he said. “In less than a week he’d have been home. He spent 13 months there, and for what?
“What was sad, was that with all that crap going on, and people dying, it just shuts off. They bring choppers in, you have another firefight when the choppers come in to take everybody out, then you go about your business. That was the saddest part, when you lose people, and then go about your business like nothing happened.”
At times, the whole purpose of the war in Vietnam confounded Peterson, and while he never hesitated to do his job and stay dedicated to the fight alongside his fellow Marines, he would still wonder.
“What was the reason for the war?” he said. “I questioned some of the things and how we did it, especially when you go out on a patrol and you lose territory, or you get people killed, and for what? Why are we out here? What is there here that we’re trying to do? We lost 58,000 military people over there. For what reason?”
It was best to be on patrol or working, as it limited time to think and contemplate life, death and the war itself.
“The downtime was the time you could think,” Peterson said. “You could think about what happened on a patrol. The whole time you were there, though, you never got a whole night’s sleep. When you are out in the field you were two hours on two hours off every night. During the day you’d clean your rifle, make sure everything was working right, but if you settled down too much then you start thinking about the guys who didn’t come back off patrol.”
After 13 months, Peterson boarded a ship for home, saying the first blessing of coming back to the states was the chance to sleep eight hours in a bed. But the relaxation didn’t last long when he felt the tension at home about the war firsthand.
“They told us, ‘Do not go into the airport bathrooms by yourself, because they’re hanging Marines.’” he said shaking his head. “Because we were baby killers, we killed women and children. That was our homecoming. Everybody hated us and it wasn’t a good homecoming. I still have problems with that.”
He was angry and frustrated, and it is something he admitted he struggles with even today at times, but seeing the reception troops get today makes it a little easier.
“I am so proud of the people today for appreciating the soldiers for what they are doing when they come home,” he said.
He met and married his wife, Jan, in 1968, shortly before leaving the service. They will be married 50 years in June, and he credits her with keeping him out of trouble since. For all the stress and strain and difficult memories of his time in Vietnam, Peterson also draws strength every day from the experience.
“I remember one day being so exhausted,” he said. “I had just turned 18, and I literally had to have someone pull me up this ledge. I was so exhausted, and I will never forget it. I fall back on that memory a lot. Things will get tough, and if I’m out working, getting tired, whatever goes on that is really, really tough, I think about that. I’ve been in a lot worse places, I’ve been a lot more exhausted.
“I grew up in the military. It seemed like my whole life was there. Four years is not a very long time, but for a young kid it is.”