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NEWS | July 6, 2015

Vietman, A Look Back: Part III

By Michaela Judge Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Editor's Note: Mr. Michael Petersen's story is a four-part series that takes an in-depth look at the hardships, camaraderie and challenges of the Vietnam War and integration back into daily life once returning home. Petersen is a retired Air Force Reserve command chief master sergeant and currently works as a government civilian leading Joint Base Charleston's Equal Opportunity Office.

When we left off two weeks ago, Army Private Michael Petersen talked about the threat of the enemy probing their perimeter wire. 

Tracers Everywhere

One of those instances where Petersen had keen awareness of close enemy presence was during a flight from [then] Saigon, about 100 miles from Can Tho Airfield.

"We were flying kind of low, because the weather was bad.  Our crew consisted of our pilot, co-pilot and me in the back seat.  Suddenly, I saw red streaks go up right next to my door," he recalled.

With tracers commonly attached to enemy fire, it was evident that they were being shot at.

"I saw the tracer come right up beside my door. I remember I grabbed the pilot's shoulder.  I pointed down in front of him. By that time, the whole front of our plane was engulfed in tracers," he said.

The scary thing about tracers, Petersen explained, is that they are only every fifth round, meaning when you see a tracer, five rounds have been expended in between. 

"I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm sitting on 90 gallons of gas.' The pilot then rolled the plane really quickly.  I grabbed onto stuff as he rolled us into this dive to break up the silhouette of the plane," he said.

We were pretty low. We made a run around.  I looked down and I could see the guy on the machine gun firing up at us from weeds in a canal -- the red streaks were just coming up."

Petersen, with the rest of the crew, made the turn and safely departed the area.

Despite being engulfed in tracers, which in many cases could be certain death, Petersen said when they landed and checked the plane; there was not a single hit.

The Damage of War & Losing a Friend

"I had a good friend [Norman Francis Evans]...he's on the Vietnam Wall in DC. I've been there and touched his name; it was a most reverent moment," said Petersen.

The same guard duty that caused sleepless nights and unbearable heat also produced camaraderie among the men.

"My friend and I pulled guard duty a number of times together and we talked a lot. It was his second tour in Vietnam and he already had a brother that had been killed," he said.

One day, Petersen said Evans went up flying to do an in-flight radio check. His job was the aircraft radio operator. 

"We had a small flight line. The pilot, co-pilot and Evans boarded the aircraft  for a quick run around the base to check the radio equipment. While they were up there, a Vietnamese helicopter came up underneath the plane. The rotary blades of the helicopter cut the plane right in half," he said.

The entire crew fell to the ground and was killed.

"Nobody in the unit talked much. These were three of our people. They were good guys. They were still strapped in their seats. They didn't have chance to live, not a chance," said Petersen.