The Men of Class 5-67: Part One
Jeffrey Peterson, of Concordia, is a survivor – and part of a unique company of men.
Peterson was one of 516 men who attended the United States Marines Basic School for Officers training, from March to August 1967, to become infantry platoon leaders. All of them were 20-somethings, and most were college graduates. Most were single, but some were married and a few had children. Upon completion of their training, they were sent directly to join in the fight that we now call the Vietnam War, where dozens of Americans were being killed every day.
Some lost their lives within days, others lasted longer, months even, before they were killed or wounded. In all, 39 from Class 5-67 were lost to the war. One member of the class was among the missing for 36 years. His body was located in 2004. Two others remain to be found. But they are not forgotten.
The years 2016 and 2017 mark the 50th anniversaries of some of the bloodiest months of the Vietnam War. The year 1967 saw the deaths of 11,400 Americans, and 1968 claimed 16,900, the worst yearly toll of the war, according to the National Archives. The two years account for almost half the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which honors those killed by the war.
Since the war, the men of class 5-67 haven’t met often. This is only their fifth get-together. They went separate ways after the conflict and reunited for the first time in 2008.
Early in May, those who still remain from the Class 5-67 met outside of Washington, D.C., for a reunion. They are in their 70s now, with white hair and grandchildren. Most have moved beyond the lifelong physical scars left over from the war to enjoy successful and productive lives. They will tell stories, no doubt, but that’s not the real reason they choose to reunited. They gather because they share a unique experience. They gather because they are the “lucky ones” - the survivors.
Peterson said he was raised in a community where young people thought about serving their country.
“It was a time and place where we knew that at some point we would put our lives, lives that were focused on ourselves, on pause and focus instead on others and on our duty to our country,” he said. “I remember uncles of friends, school principals, scout leaders – all people I respected – had been in the armed services. I made the decision at a young age that when I grew up I would become a Marine.”
Enlisting in the United States Marine Corps in 1965, Peterson started active duty in March of 1967. He attended a basic officer training course from March to August 1967 and ended up going on to 12 weeks of artillery school. After training, and a move to the west coast, Peterson was sent to Okinawa, Japan, for orientation and training with the then new M-16 rifles. And on December 18, 1967, he was sent into Vietnam.
When he arrived at his specified post, Peterson was assigned to an artillery battery supporting the 12th Marine Regiment. He then moved on to become a forward observer with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.
“What that means is that I called in artillery fire,” he said. “We were close to the ocean, so we called in a lot of fire from ships.”
He arrived at his post on Dec. 24, and reported to the company commander. From the installation he could see North Vietnam across an area that had been completely defoliated. Peterson said from his position he could see the river below separating North Vietnam from South Vietnam, and across the river some 15 miles to the north.
“On Dec. 24 and 25 we were in a kind of no-fire truce situation,” he said. “The only ones who seemed to know or understand that were the Americans. I asked for a recon group to go out and explore the area around us, and we made our way into North Vietnam. At one point I looked up and saw a North Vietnamese mortar platoon coming toward us.”
Peterson called in artillery fire, but was denied by the lieutenant in charge. Then a captain came on the radio, realized the situation, and fired the artillery Peterson had called for. Then it was time to return to camp.
At another time, when he was assigned to a fort that was the farthest north in South Vietnam, he was placed in a 90 foot tall tower to look for enemy targets. He tells the story about how the north Vietnamese army had a communist flag set up right at the border, and how every day his company used tanks to shoot down the flag pole.
“We weren’t going to sit there and look at that flag all the time,” he said.
Peterson tells of another battle. On this day his platoon was on patrol when they were attacked a group of north Vietnamese soldiers. Another company of U.S. soldiers was surrounded by the enemy, so he called in artillery on top of the enemy location.
“The order came to continue shelling the area until the first Marine was wounded by our own shrapnel,” he said. “Then we sent a tank platoon straight up the hill. We ended up with just a few of our own wounded. We took the hill and saved the other company.”
NOTE: Look for more about the Men of 5-67 in next week’s edition of The Concordian.