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Warrior at Peace

Vietnam: U.S. envoy returns in friendship to the village where he was captured 31 years ago.

September 11, 1997|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AN DOAI, Vietnam — The last time Douglas Peterson saw this village was in 1966 when, as a 31-year-old Air Force pilot, he arrived by parachute, his leg and arm fractured, his plane in flames. He heard the voices of angry villagers approaching through the rice paddies and was sure he was about to die.

On Wednesday, 31 years to the day from that fateful encounter, Peterson returned to An Doai, gray-haired and wearing a blue blazer. He alighted from a Toyota Land Cruiser that was flying an American flag. The new U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, "Pete" Peterson greeted his former enemies in Vietnamese.

If this wasn't exactly a homecoming, it was at least another symbol of reconciliation between the former warring nations offered by Peterson, who in his four months here has become a walking billboard for Vietnamese-American friendship and is so popular that ordinary Vietnamese often stop him in Hanoi to shake his hand or pose with him for photographs.

The day before his visit to An Doai, the former Democratic congressman from Florida admitted to some apprehension. "It's like walking back in time, and I don't do that well," Peterson said. But the warm welcome he received in the village, a 90-minute drive east of Hanoi, soothed any anxiety. Peterson soon shed his blazer, rolled up his sleeves and headed off through the village and into the rice paddies, holding the hand of the grandson of one of the militiamen who had captured him.

He stood by the mango tree where he and his co-pilot, Bernard Talley--who now flies DC-10s for American Airlines--had landed after their plane was brought down by antiaircraft fire during a bombing run on the Hanoi-Haiphong rail line. It was Peterson's 67th mission, and that night would begin what the ambassador called the "most terrible, disgusting, sad event of my life"--more than six years as a prisoner of war.

Peterson asked if anyone had found the .38-caliber revolver he had ditched in the paddies as the searchers approached. Yes, Nguyen Danh Xinh, 70, one of the former militiamen, said, "I found it and turned it over to the people's committee. It had all six bullets in it."

"And what about a necklace? Did you find the necklace I wore?" Peterson asked, referring to the medallion with a bust of Christ that he had worn as long as he could remember. That too had been found, Xinh said, but no one knew where it was anymore. Peterson, clearly disappointed, let the matter drop.

"It's not painful being here, but it brings a little freshness back to what happened that night," Peterson told journalists. "It's emotional. It's moving. I have butterflies, like you do in high school when you stand up to give your first speech. I can't describe my feelings any better than that."

Before visiting the crash site, Peterson walked down the narrow, dusty roads of An Doai to visit the one-room homes of the two militiamen who had been the first to seize him. (Talley, uninjured, had hidden in the rice paddies and was not captured until the next day.)

One of them, Nguyen Viet Chop ("chop" is Vietnamese for "seize"), had assembled his three daughters and his grandchildren for the occasion. Now 70, Chop wrapped both his hands around the ambassador's right hand and, smiling ear to ear, led him past the courtyard, where a water buffalo was tethered, and into his one-room home. He had set out grapes and tea and lighted incense. An overhead fan groaned through the heat.

As he does everywhere in Vietnam, Peterson said his presence indicated that Vietnam and the United States had put the war in the past. It was a pleasure, he said, to return to An Doai with the hope of being constructive rather than destructive. Chop nodded and said the ambassador would always be welcome in his home.

"I was running the village loudspeaker the night the American was shot down," recalled Do The Dong, 60, a shopkeeper down the road from Chop's home. "We mobilized everyone to look for him. Everyone ran for the fields with rifles and knives and sticks.

"Some people were very angry and wanted to beat him or kill him. But it was our government's policy to turn over anyone we captured to the authorities, so I explained this to the people over the loudspeaker. The authorities came the next morning and took him away in a motorcycle sidecar."

He was paraded through villages and pelted with rocks en route to the first of several prisons where he would stay until 1973. But Peterson is adamant that he holds no bitterness and has moved beyond being haunted by those years and the brutal treatment to which he and others were subjected.

"I don't want to be a career POW," he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: Douglas "Pete" Peterson

The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam on Wednesday toured the site where he was shot down and captured in 1966 while flying a combat mission.

* Born: June 26, 1935, in Omaha

* Residence: Hanoi

* Education: National War College; bachelor's, University of Tampa, Fla.; postgraduate, University of Central Michigan

* Career highlights: Air Force, 1954-80, retiring as colonel; prisoner of war, 1966-73; headed construction and computer companies and taught at Florida State University, 1980s; Democratic congressman from Florida, 1991-96; U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, May 1997 to present

* Family: widower; two of three children still living

* Quote: "I don't want to be a career POW."

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