William E. Peterson enlisted in the Army at eighteen, signed up to be a Huey helicopter crew chief, and volunteered to go to Vietnam. College bored him, and left-wing professors irritated him. He wanted to leave behind Carney, Michigan, apple orchard country. He wanted to fly at breakneck speed at treetop level above the jungles. He wanted adventure. Peterson’s served in Vietnam with the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Air Cav, AKA The Ghost Riders.
Peterson did everything in his tour that involved the Huey, and it is all in his memoir, Missions of Fire and Mercy: Until Death Do Us Part (CreateSpace, 302 pp., $21.99, paper) in exciting and exacting technological detail. If you hunger to read accounts of choppers in action in Vietnam, these books are for you.
The main body of Missions of Fire and Mercy consists of letters Peterson wrote home to his parents, friends, and his girlfriend Cindi. I give them credit for saving these great letters and for thereby helping Bill Peterson write graphic descriptions of the horror he dealt with in Vietnam on a daily basis.
When Peterson, a Swedish-American boy, arrives in country, he gets more than he bargained for. He even drinks some coffee, which he had never liked. He does not yearn for the lutefisk, but he states that his “faith in God has never been stronger. Even while stitching the area with machine gun fire, I find myself praying silently or maybe even audibly to Him for His protection. I firmly believe God has a timetable for all of us.”
As many Vietnam veterans have before him, Peterson notes how beautiful the country was, then says: “It’s a shame we are ruining it with bomb craters, Agent Orange, and burned out villages.”
Peterson expresses often how he feels about the fighting, calling it an “ugly, nonsensical war.”
“When I volunteered for this duty, I truly believed in this war—thought it was necessary to help stamp out communism, protect our freedoms—all that stuff,” he says. “Anymore, I think America has made a big mistake by coming here in the first place.”
But he then goes on to say: “We have the firepower available to put an end to this war in short order. If the politics could be put aside, we could win this war…” That is a big if. Plus, when has politics ever been put aside?
Peterson comments that he had the utmost respect for his enemy, that “they were fantastic and determined warriors.” He goes on to say that the guerrilla war they engaged in was a hard one for Americans to fight. “Sure, we killed a lot of them with massive firepower,” he says, “but the next day those who had not been killed were back at it again.”
The 1968 Tet Offensive is at the center of Missions of Fire. We encounter Clint Eastwood in his movie, Hang ‘em High, Raquel Welch in Bob Hope’s Christmas Show, and John Wayne westerns. Peterson also tells us the “guys in the rear really have it made.”
We once again hear that the AK-47 is much more reliable than the M-16, which jams when it gets sandy, and that Agent Orange was used without any thought that it might have harmful effects on humans. We meet Chris Noel in a mini-skirt and she is just as sweaty as the “rest of us.” We also encounter shit-burning, and are told that Peterson is in a “God-forsaken war,” even though he has total faith that God is watching out for him.
Peterson’s Chopper Warriors: Kicking the Hornet’s Nest (CreateSpace, 154 pp., $17.95, paper) is mostly more of the same, although it also includes the work of other writers. All of them are pretty good, although Peterson is the best of the lot, and he is excellent. He is a gifted storyteller who mostly avoids the usual clichés of recent Vietnam War memoirs.
We find one in this book, however, in Larry Troxel’s “Double Security.” After a big firefight, one of the VC bodies is “that of the barber who has been working on base and cutting our hair.” I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one.
I enjoyed James De Bose’s “Four Killer Agents.” It is an excellent entry on spraying defoliants from C-130s in Operation Ranch Hand. His recollections of the nasty, oily stuff blowing back into the airplane and saturating his clothes, hair, and skin is chilling.
The author in Vietnam
Those who want more chopper adventures should read both of these books and spend an afternoon living the life of a Huey crew chief, but without the life-long nightmares and PTSD that are the likely benefits of the actual experience.
I’m going to order the books by Stephen Menendez, who has a fine piece in the Chopper Warrior book. I’m eager to read of the exploits of a man who was under five feet tall and who weighed less than 100 pounds and spent his tour as a tunnel rat. I hope to have reviews of his books—Into the Darkness and Battle at Straight Edge Woods—in this space one of these days.
Peterson’s website is http://missionsoffireandmercy.com