In years of combat, Peters earned four bronze stars, 4 purple hearts
It's only fitting that George Peters gave the keynote address Friday at the ceremony inaugurating the veterans memorial park downtown.
He joined the Army when he was just a skinny 16-year-old off the farm in Cape Cod, Mass., and spent a long, honorable career in the military. He was usually in the thick of the fighting, starting in Korea in 1951 and going on to serve three tours of duty in Vietnam.
He was with the U.S. contingent that guarded former Nazi deputy fuehrer Rudolf Hess in Spandau Prison in West Berlin the early 1970s.
Along the way, Peters earned four bronze stars and four purple hearts, along with other medals and honors -- including a battlefield commission to captain in Vietnam.
After three months, he resigned that commission, because it involved too much mess hall duty and other non-combat responsibilities that Peters calls "poopy caca" work.
He took a lot of heat for that, but as an enlisted man, he was a soldier's soldier: joining the special forces, the Army Rangers and later the Green Berets. He rose to become a commander sergeant major. At one time there were only 300 such position in the entire Army.
A young rebel
Peters, 77, lives in Detroit Lakes, with his wife, Jan. He is among a handful of veterans who were instrumental in making the downtown veterans park a reality.
Peters said that as a kid, he was a rebel, partly out of frustration and misunderstandings with a paraplegic father.
He and a friend both tried to join the Navy when they were 16 -- his friend was accepted and Peters was turned away because he was undersized.
He joined the Army instead, in June of 1951 -- during the Korean War.
An older brother who was also serving warned him to stay away from the mess in Korea, and eventually talked him into telling a military chaplain that he had lied about his age and was only 16 -- too young to be in the Army, when the minimum age to join was 17.
To his surprise, the chaplain didn't care. He told Peters "do you know how much money we have invested in your training? You're going."
And off he went.
He fought on the front lines. It was an entirely different kind of war than Vietnam, with conventional forces and weapons on both sides, and Peters was wounded before his one-year tour of duty was up -- earning him his first purple heart medal.
That ended his time in Korea and after he healed and was released from the service, he went into business with his father for a year, doing work with statues and paint. But there was no future in it. He rejoined the Army in 1955 and didn't leave again until retirement in 1976.
Fighting in Vietnam
As a career soldier, Peters experienced the Vietnam War from its early stages in 1963, "when most people didn't even know there was a Vietnam," he says, through the huge troop build-up in the mid-1960s and into the later part of the long war.
In the early 1960s, Peters was with a unit that put a radio relay station on the top of Nhu ba Dien mountain. The enemy was very close, but the Americans found a way to protect their relay station and still get up and down the mountain.
"We owned the top of the mountain, Charlie (Viet Cong guerrillas) owned the bottom of the mountain," Peters said. "We kind of had an agreement -- you leave us alone, we'll leave you alone. It was still a guerrilla war at that time, North Vietnam hadn't really gotten into it yet."
It was a different story in March of 1966, when Peters was fighting with the 25th Division in the Central Highlands region, working a lot with Montagnard tribesmen, who fought with the Americans.
Peters was a squad leader then, leading his men at night through a Viet Cong infested area near the city of Chu Amung.
"We were moving a whole company," he said. "It was the first night movement in Vietnam in hopes of meeting the enemy."
He recognized the sound of a grenade fuse igniting to his flank, took immediate action, and was awarded the bronze star medal with "V" device for heroism as a result. The officer who put him up for the medal wrote this:
"With complete disregard for his safety, Staff Sgt. Peters ran towards his men who were nearest the sound and threw them to the ground as the hostile grenade burst. Through his heroic efforts, Staff Sgt. Peters prevented his men from being wounded or killed. Although he was wounded by the explosion, he maintained command of his men and organized them for a possible attack..."
Booby traps, punji sticks
The Viet Cong were diabolically resourceful in using materials at hand to set up booby traps. They used a sort of giant slingshot to launch a boulder that brought down a helicopter. Peters has several photos of the aftermath among his extensive photo collection.
They used dud mortars fired by Americans to make lethal explosive booby traps. Peters particularly remembers one young soldier who lost both legs. Peters carried him, his leg stumps wrapped in clothing, for about five miles on his back for medical evacuation.
"I don't know if he made it or not," Peters said of the man.
But the worst were the hidden punji sticks, sharpened sticks made out of wood or bamboo that the Viet Cong used to booby trap potential helicopter landing sites, or areas where soldiers might be expected to take cover.
"They were very dangerous," Peters said. "They were like roadside bombs in Iraq."
As solders came off a helicopter, a single Viet Cong would fire a shot, sometimes just into the air, and the soldiers would dive to the ground to take cover, as they had been trained to do. That's where they'd hit the hidden punji sticks.
Those sticks were often dipped in human waste so that their victims developed severe blood infections later, Peters said.
Saving an entire squad
He earned another bronze star for heroism in a more conventional fight, in June of 1969, during a cordon-and-search operation near the city of Phan Thiet in southeastern Vietnam.
A patrolling squad was ambushed by a platoon of Viet Cong.
Peters realized the squad was cut off without a radio and couldn't call for help. He grabbed a radio and ran to their aid. According to the officer who recommended the medal:
"Encountering intense enemy fire, he courageously fought his way to the front of the element, where he learned that six men had been wounded. Calling for artillery to cover his withdrawal, he directed some of his men to lay down covering fire while he worked to aid the wounded men. He then reorganized his men and led them from the battlefield." Peters' action "prevented the entire squad from being overrun by the numerically superior enemy force."
Guarding a top Nazi
In the early 1970s, Peters was detached to the unit in West Berlin that took its turn guarding former Nazi deputy fuehrer Rudolf Hess in Spandau Prison.
Hess was captured in England in 1941 after a solo flight there in a bid to convince the allies to unite with Germany against the communist Soviet Union, which he saw as the real threat.
The Americans, Russians, French and English shared revolving guard duty on a monthly basis at Spandau Prison. For the last 20 years, Hess was the sole prisoner in the facility built to hold hundreds, until he killed himself in 1987.
Peters said he often saw Hess out on the prison grounds, where he collected rocks and made them into chess pieces. In fact, Peters had one such piece that he gave to a relative that collects rocks.
Respect for recent vets
Peters has a lot of respect for the more recent veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and would like to see the community continue to support them in any way possible.
Vietnam veterans weren't treated very well upon their arrival home. They were often blamed for an unpopular war.
"Vietnam-era veterans kind of made a silent pledge that that would never happen with other veterans," Peters said. "That's why we've been so involved in the (downtown Detroit Lakes) veterans memorial."