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NEWS | June 22, 2015

Vietnam, a look back: Part II

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 last week, Army Private Michael Petersen had just arrived in Vietnam.   
First Days in Vietnam & the Mission

"I remember when the door opened the first thing that hit you was the heat and the not so good smells. It was so hot; I just absolutely remember that. It was like a furnace with no relief day or night," Petersen said. 

I quickly learned that a very small and very used electrical fan could cost $30.00, a lot of money in 1969.  These items were passed down from soldier to soldier."

Spending a few nights at Tan Son Nhut Air Base before heading to his main operating base gave the private a brief introduction to the difficulties and challenges of a war zone.

"We were there just for a few nights when I first started to see a lot of tracers, flares and a lot of weapons firing in the area of our compound," said Petersen.

After a few nights in Tan Son Nhut, he rode a C-123, a 2-engine cargo plane, to Can Tho Army Airfield where he was assigned to the 156th Aviation Company.

There his Company oversaw the maintenance of 17 fixed wing radial engine propeller planes called the U-6 Beaver.  It was a very slow flying aircraft, but dependable.

"It was a Canadian made airplane with only one engine. Ours were all configured to carry radio equipment in them. The planes had special devices on the wings to monitor enemy conversation and ground movement. They flew missions every day," he said.

The planes would fly at about 110 knots and were able to pick up any radio transmissions from the ground, either from the North Vietnamese Regular Army or Viet Cong forces.

The impact of keeping these planes in the air was crucial due to the radio capability that they possessed.

"They would go and fly four missions a day in slow circles in various areas and pick up radio chatter. It would then go to the Intel people. That's how they could track some of the movement of the enemy," said Petersen.

Petersen's description of this particular group highlighted the importance of reliable aviation for intelligence gathering. It could quite literally save their lives.

"The Vietcong were known as the black pajama people. They would often be visible working somewhere during the day and, at night, they would try to blow you up," he said.

Though Petersen's time in Vietnam lasted about 11 months, he wasn't sheltered from close encounters with this type of enemy. Mortar attacks, tracers and the loss of friends was a reminder that the threat was very real.

The Threat

"We did lots of guard duty on the perimeter of our all day, form up at 5 in the evening and go and do guard duty all night. That was a full day.  Depending on the work load you might sleep a little the next day or you went back to work," said Petersen.

Petersen's aviation unit had three bunkers that his company maintained at the end of the runway. And during watch, he said they experienced "the normal stuff."

"We had fairly regular mortar attacks at night. It would usually start around 1 in the morning and we would just go to a bunker. Additionally, we always had a threat of the bad guys probing our perimeter wire," he said.

Then there were the real stories - the ugly pieces, as Petersen coined it.

"Excessive drinking was always a problem. A guy near our sleeping area was too drunk to get out of bed one night. He did not go to the bunker when he was supposed to and a mortar came right into his cubicle and killed him. Alcohol just has no benefit anywhere, ever," he said.                                                                                                

Guard-duty was often uneventful. However, there was the rain during the monsoon season. 

"It rained nearly the same time every day. It was often so bad that you could not see more than a few feet in front of you," said Petersen.  

During one of those long and hot shifts on guard duty, Petersen recalls a particular incident that is cemented in his memory.

"[While on duty] we would place claymore mines out beyond our bunker and ahead of the perimeter wire circling the base  The mines are deadly [directional anti-personnel], packed with steel balls - when detonated reach out to about 110 yards. The detonating wire goes back to where you are and connects to a firing device referred to as the "clacker," he said.

"One early morning I went out to go pick up the mine, our guard shift was complete.  It had just finished raining and I found the mine turned toward us. From then, on it was common practice to paint the backside of the mine with something colorful or florescent in color so you could see the glare of it from our guard position."

This was just one instance of close enemy presence, as Petersen said, "We often had the bad guys probing our base perimeter".

"We were very aware that people were there," he said.