Peterson completes 150 missions during Vietnam
Despite having served in the United States Air Force for six years and assigned to 12 different air bases, it took a little convincing for Max Peterson of rural Stanton to share his military story.
“I agreed to this conversation not for myself, but for those who didn’t come home,” said Peterson.
A 1960 graduate of Stanton High School, Peterson majored in agriculture at Iowa State University, where he was also a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which was required for the first two years.
“Since guys my age were being drafted, I decided to continue in ROTC and was commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation in the United States Air Force,” Peterson recalled. “I think I was influenced to pick the Air Force by my older brother, Merle, a Navy pilot, and Elman Sundell, my father’s cousin, who made it an Air Force career.”
He began active duty at Laughlin Air Force Base at Del Rio, Texas.
“We started with 50 students, all with their private pilot license, and graduated with 30,” Peterson said. “We started flying the T-37. It was a twin-engine jet aircraft with side-by-side seating. After six months, we moved on to a T-38, a twin-engine supersonic aircraft with the student in the front and the instructor in the rear. We had class instruction for half the day, and then flew for the other half. We covered weather, aircraft systems, Morse code, how altitude affects a person, ejection seat use, visual navigation and instrument flying.”
After learning to fly the T-38, Peterson was transferred to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina where he learned to fly the RF4C, a reconnaissance fighter.
“You had to progress through the programs at a fast pace and if you didn’t, you found another line of work in the Air Force,” said Peterson of training.
The RF4C had a series of cameras on the side and along the bottom center. It contained two 270-gallon wing tanks and a 500-gallon-centerline tank.
In 1966, Peterson was sent to France for roughly five months, where the assignment was to be on alert in case the Russians invaded.
“Our aircraft was kept in a concrete revet and we stayed a few feet away from there. When the bell rang, we had five minutes to get airborne,” Peterson. “When [Charles] de Gaulle decided to get out of NATO, we left and flew back to the U.S. It was an 8 hour and 45 minute flight going back. We landed at Shaw, and the next day flew to Mountain Home in Idaho where we were stationed.”
Towards the end of 1966, Peterson received word he’d be going overseas to Southeast Asia. It was about the same time he found out a good friend of his, Dyke Silman, went missing in action in Vietnam. Spilman’s body or aircraft has yet to be found, Peterson said.
Survival training at Stead Air Force Base in Nevada lasted three weeks, followed by jungle survival training in the Philippines. Once he arrived in Southeast Asia, Peterson was stationed in Udorn, Thailand.
“One hundred combat missions was considered a tour, or a year, but they were running short on pilots, so they changed it to 100 combat missions in North Vietnam. I had 100 combat missions over North Vietnam and 50 over Laos,” Peterson said. “The ones on Laos were no safer than the ones in North Vietnam. If you were shot down over North Vietnam and were captured, you had a chance of surviving the war in captivity. In Laos, if you weren’t picked up by a rescue helicopter, you were never heard from again.”
Peterson said he flew one-third of missions in the daytime and two-thirds at night. There were two squadrons in his wing; one flew the RF101, an older plane, mainly during the daylight, while the RF4C flew both day and night. On a typical day, they’d complete one daytime and one nighttime mission.
“We scouted for bridges, railroads, roads, dams, POLs (petroleum oil lubricants), air fields and power stations. We also had the mission of taking off early in the morning and flying over big areas of North Vietnam and reporting back the weather.”
Wreaking havoc on the missions were North Vietnamese MIGS.
“If you’re a MIG pilot, you’re in it for as long as the war lasts. Would you rather go up against someone who doesn’t have guns or someone that does? They knew it was a reconnaissance flight, so we were easy targets.”
Peterson would fly the RF4 to and from the targets but a second pilot would fly in the target area where photos would be taken of various places in northern Vietnam of Laos.
“We lost 12 aircraft in the five months I was there. When you got to 95 missions, they tried to send you to a less dangerous area, although we did lose one crew on its 98th mission.”
Peterson recalled one mission where their plane was hit several times with anti aircraft artillery; fortunately, none were a fatal hit.
Peterson received the honor of receiving three distinguished flying crosses while in Southeast Asia. Once his missions had been completed, he was given the opportunity to complete a second tour but instead opted to fly a C141 engine cargo plane. Training was held at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Once completed, he was assigned to McCord Air Force Base in Washington State.
“I was stationed there for three years but I wasn’t at McCord very much.”
Instead, Peterson was flying cargo, and sometimes, troops, all over the world. He would be given a three-hour notice before he was to take off. On each plane were two pilots, one navigator, two flight engineers and one road master. He said he wouldn’t know what they were hauling until they got to the plane.
A few of the places he’d deliver supplies to were Australia, Korea, New Zealand, American Samoa, Japan, and Alaska, including the cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Adak.
“Sometimes we’d fly out injured soldiers – out of Vietnam and into Japan or Philippines, where they’d get further treatment. We also carried quite a few caskets back.”
Peterson was honorably discharged from the Air Force and returned to Red Oak, where he farmed for several decades. He is a member of the River Rats, a U.S.A.F fighter pilots association that focuses on generating awareness of POW, MIA and KIA issues, and providing scholarships for the children of those lost in action.
He is the father of two children, Stephen, who works at FMTC in Stanton and Stephanie, who died in a car accident in 2000. Max and his wife, Margaret, have been married since 2003.