Pete Turner, a Vietnam Veteran, discusses the role he played in Vietnam, being proud of his service, and being caught up in what he calls an “unpopular war.”
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Pete, how about, uh, you tell us a little bit about how you grew up, where you grew up at?
PETE TURNER: OK. Well, I’m originally from math– Massachusetts, the Western end of the state, the– it was called the Berkshires, up in the mountains. Uh. I grew up in the late ’50s, um, through the ’60s up there and, um, lived there until after I came back from the service, and finished school.
INTERVIEWER: Had any family there in– brothers, sisters?
PETE TURNER: No one right in that area. My sister and mom still live in, uh, Albany– near Albany, New York.
INTERVIEWER: OK. Um, what kind of jobs did you have while you were there growing up?
PETE TURNER: Oh, I had a lot of jobs. Some– always working, had paper route. Uh, at the time you could collect, uh, bottles and turn them in for deposits. Uh, mowed lawns. I mowed lawns and was kind of a– a little handyman right through high school. In fact, when I went to, uh, boot camp, my dad and my brother had to take over the business, because I still had customers I had to take care of, so. Um, always working. Um, you know, probably more jobs than most people have had. I seem to go from job to job. I get bored with one job, and on to the next.
JARRETT JUSTICE: Understandable, so how did you eventually get into the serving our country?
PETE TURNER: Well, I was a senior in high school, and actually was skipping for the day. And the plumber who had come to make a call at the house saw me walking around. And said, what are you doing?
And I said, well, I didn’t feel like going to school today. He said, what are you going to do after school? I said, I don’t know, get a job, whatever.
And he says, why don’t you come up and join– look into the Seabees– at that time they had a reserve unit– and learn trade. I said, well, maybe that’s not a bad idea. So I went up. And that’s how I got into the Seabees through the reserves.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So where did they send you off first?
PETE TURNER: First we went to Davisville, Rhode Island. At the time, that’s when– that was the summer of ’64. So I don’t think I knew about Vietnam at the time. I don’t think many people did.
And I went to boot camp there. And because I was in the reserves, I came back, and actually went to a community college for a semester or two. And after a semester, the dean of students said, I don’t think your college material.
So I went to work. I actually worked at General Electric driving a fork truck and whatnot, and thought maybe I could keep delaying going in, because by then Vietnam was building up. Not that I didn’t want to go, but I– see a long I can make this last. Finally got called up, and went active in October of ’66.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So can you clarify a little bit of what Seabees are?
PETE TURNER: A lot of people don’t know much about them. They’re the construction battalion of the US Navy. They were formed during World War II. There was a movie, John Wayne, The Fighting Seabees, if anybody’s seen that– probably not.
But the Navy realized that as they were going into the islands in the Pacific, they needed some people with construction ability, but also with military experience to go in and build up the islands, repair airfields, build barracks, roads, whatever needed to be done. And so they start to bring in the Seabees.
We’re, in most cases, experienced construction men. Most of us– and it was true in Vietnam too– were older than the average recruit. I was 20 when I went in. And I had some construction experience.
Others with a lot of construction experience would come in as an E4, an E5, which would be like maybe a corporal or a sergeant. They could skip over a couple grades because they had some experience and were older. So we were basically a large construction company– plumbers, to equipment operators, to electricians, and engineers.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So when did you finally get the go to actually go to Vietnam? When did the orders come in for you shipping out?
PETE TURNER: I went over in January 2, 1968. We flew out of Davisville, Rhode Island to Alaska, and Japan, and then finally into Da Nang. So we got there– I think was the fourth or the fifth of January.
And they trucked us out to a little base outside of Da Nang. And I got there just in time to celebrate Ted’s 68th with a lot of people. It was a pretty exciting time over there then if you know your history.
JARRETT JUSTICE: When you were first going in, were you nervous at all?
PETE TURNER: Oh, sure, yeah, we all were.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So what happened after that? Did you start working on building new facilities there for the army?
PETE TURNER: We built for whoever needed things done. No, the first four months or so I was on security. So we ran patrols, did perimeter, stuff like that– ran the guard house, and stuff like that– so made sure people coming in and out of the camp were who they were supposed to be.
So that’s what I did in the beginning. After that, I was assigned to a work crew. And we went around to various places in I Corps. I Corps was just a– they divided the country up into different Corps. I’m sure it’s not I Corps now. It’s something else.
But at the time, that was considered I Corps around the Da Nang area.
JARRETT JUSTICE: While you’re there how much contact did you have with back home, as, of course, protests and a lot of that was going on in our country?
PETE TURNER: Well, not like it is today, because we didn’t have the access. There was no internet. There was no computers.
Once a week on a Sunday afternoon you could go down to what they called MARS Station. I’m not sure what MARS stands for. But it was a radio communication. And we could call.
Of course, the time frame was quite different. So when it was noontime over there, it was early morning here. I never did that. I went a couple times. But the line was so long that by the time I got close to it, it was– they were over there. They were done for that time.
So I never did that. But we wrote letters. I got letters from my girlfriend, who became my wife, almost every day. And my mother and father, my brothers, so it was the old snail mail– the daily mail call like you could probably see, where they stand up, and call your name, and give you your letters, and stuff like that. So that’s how we maintained contact.
As far as what was going on in terms of protest, we knew there were some stuff going on. They didn’t keep that from us. But, again, communication isn’t like it is today.
If something happened here today, we wouldn’t know about it until maybe a week later. We were not far from a fairly large field hospital. And there was a PX, like a store. And we were also not far from China Beach, which we could go there on Sundays if we had a chance to get a ride up there. China Beach was like a small R&R center– beautiful beach, beautiful surf, places to eat, and places to buy things. So we could get magazines and newspapers there.
JARRETT JUSTICE: How did your relationships with people there– how did they progress? Did you develop very good friends that probably last till today– or?
PETE TURNER: Yeah, to some– well, the neat thing about the way we were trained as opposed to– and I wasn’t in the army. But from what I hear the guys talk about, a lot of times they would be sent over there and serve as a replacement in a company. And they didn’t know anybody.
We, because there was so much increase in military, and the Seabees formed as a battalion, we trained for about eight, nine months before going over. So we all went over together, pretty much. So we had developed pretty good relationships by then.
And some of them continued for a few years afterwards. My best friend over there passed away a couple of years ago. And he’s probably the only one I really had any contact with over there those years. It’s been a long time.
JARRETT JUSTICE: Were there any memorable moments during your service, something that might have been funny, something that might have been tragic?
PETE TURNER: Well, I don’t know about the funny, but probably kind of tragic, to some degree– because I was on security, part of my job was to maintain the front gate. And there was some Vietnamese that came and would sell things at the front gate– jewelry, this woman was an excellent seamstress. And I bought some of the Vietnamese gowns, the long dresses with the slits that you probably see that were fashionable there. You wore a pair of silk pants underneath it.
And got to know them to the degree that they invited us to their house on Sunday. And I had a nice meal with them and everything. And I don’t know after we left, what happened to them. So I always kind of think about them.
Most of the people there just wanted to live their lives. They wanted to be left alone and allowed to live their lives. They were very fearful of what would happen when we left, and when the communists came in, as they all were.
They would go back and forth in terms of– the villagers father out would see us there, the United States. And things were fairly settled. But as soon as we left, back would come the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese and terrorize them in terrible atrocities that these people went through.
So that was kind of the sad thing. There wasn’t anything– well, I’ll give you a funny episode. After the security, I was put on the work crew. And then after a while, I was assigned to the supply depot.
Just like any construction, before you go out in the morning, you went and got your plywood, or you got your rebar, or whatever. And so that was one of my functions. For some reason, I ended up driving a fork truck again loading up trucks and whatnot. But we also did a lot of trading.
There were things that we needed that we couldn’t get through the usual channels. If you ever saw M.A.S.H. and Radar always manipulating, and doing deals, kind of like that. And for some reason, I didn’t do it, but someone made a trade for some kosher Passover food– sea rations, believe it or not, that were kosher.
And nobody really wanted them. I have some very good Jewish friends, so nothing against the Jewish religion. But they just sat there.
So somehow we kind of tricked some army guys. And they wanted some of our equipment. And we said, well, we’re throw in all these rations here for you too. So we traded. And they got the sea rations– the kosher sea rations. I don’t know whatever happened to them. But they sat for quite a while before we finally traded them.
JARRETT JUSTICE: OK, so how were your feelings, how was things going over there as the war started to end, things were starting to wind down, and eventually–
PETE TURNER: ’68 was still– we were at the peak of the war. There about 500,000 Americans there. And there was a lot of stuff going on. We were constantly under– especially during the Tet Offensive and for several months after that, we were subject to mortar and rocket attack frequently.
The worst one was we had about 15 wounded. As far as I know, we never lost anybody. We had stuff happen. But we weren’t in the search and destroy.
We weren’t going out on missions. We ran our little patrols around the perimeter. We had some Marines in camp there also maintained some security for us.
We worked with the Marines closely, trained with Marines down in June, so did a lot of work with the Marines. So most of it were mortar and rocket attacks. There was a large Marine Amphibious group across the road from us that they were constantly trying to hit because they had large fuel depots and storages.
And every once in a while, they hit a rocket into one of these huge storage depots, and all the flames, and everything. So there was a lot of activity, a lot of stuff going on. Some of the guys were up at some of the outposts where there was a lot of stuff going on. So Khe Sanh, which was one place that held out for a long, long time– Marines held out a long time there, some of our guys were up there. So it was a pretty active time.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So the end of the war comes about. And how did you feel when you first heard the news that you would be coming back home?
PETE TURNER: Oh, we were glad. You’re going to go into the academy. And you get all these rumors about, well, we’re coming back this date. Or, no, we’re going back that date. No, we’re going to be shipping out earlier, later, whatever.
I thought that because I was the first one over because we were in the security, that we had to go over and secure the area, and take it over from the Seabees that were there before, that I would be one of the first ones to go back. But I actually ended up being one of the last ones to go back.
But anyways, yeah, we were thrilled to go back home. I mean, that’s all we thought about. You had a short-timers calendar where you checked off the days. So we knew the days. We didn’t know exact days. But we knew we were getting close.
We knew our time over there was going to be a certain period of time, certain number of months– we just didn’t know exactly– maybe nine months, maybe 10 months. Maybe we’ll come back in mid-September. Maybe it would be the first of October. But we knew that there was a definite end to it, unlike World War II. My dad joined when he was 17 and didn’t come home till the war was over– so a little different.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So how was it when you first got home, being back in America?
PETE TURNER: It was great. I was glad to be home, and got married shortly after that. There’s a lot of– and if I may, I have a poem that I wrote that maybe I can wrap up with.
But for us, from my experience, it wasn’t a bad experience. I got a call from the city hall– where I’m still living in Pittsfield at the time– Pittsfield, Massachusetts. They invited me to the city hall. And there was a number of other veterans there.
And they gave us a certificate of appreciation, and a check for $250. So I thought that was pretty cool. That was nice. The state of Massachusetts gave free state tuition to any of the state colleges for veterans.
There was only one time– we transferred up to what is now called North Adams Liberal College. I don’t know where the liberal comes from, but anyways– it was at that time, a teacher’s college. And I was going to be a teacher.
So we transferred up there. And the registrar wouldn’t recognize our free tuition. So we staged a very quiet protest in his office, and almost threw him out the window. And the dean of students came, and said, these guys are entitled to the free tuition– because he was forcing guys to take out loans right then and there for their tuition and stuff like that.
So that was the only one kind of– after that, we organized ourselves because we felt we had a need to. And we didn’t have too much trouble at the schools. We were older. And I guess we weren’t going to tolerate too much foolishness from anybody at that point in time.
But there was a lot– a lot of the guys did go through an awful lot of bad stuff when they came back to the States, going through the airports, and stuff like that. There was a lot of animosity. And there still is a stereotype that most of us are drug-crazed, or were on drugs, or did cruel inhumane acts over there, and all that. And an awful lot of talk propaganda from various groups to paint a picture of what they thought we were, which is not the truth.
JARRETT JUSTICE: Did you ever question being over there? Did you ever regret the decision that you made?
PETE TURNER: Well, when I joined, I joined to learn a trade. I didn’t join to go fight a war. But when you sign your name, you give the government a blank check. Whether we should have been there or not, I’ll let someone else decide that.
I think at the time– and what was going on in the world with the Cold War, and China, and everything that was going on, I guess it was inevitable. The problem is that we went over there. And we didn’t go over there to win the war. And I hate to get into this. But you could draw parallels to what’s going on today.
Same thing– if we’re going to go fight a war, Tse-Tung was a Chinese philosopher on the art of war, there are certain ways you fight a war. And you have to fight it to win. Otherwise, don’t bother.
So there wa– that was probably the one thing that I regretted, that we didn’t do what we should have done. And if you look at the after effects of when we left, and thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese who were slaughtered, the thousands upon thousands that tried to escape in boats. Many of them drowned. And then Cambodia, and how many were slaughtered in Cambodia.
Our presence there had an effect in terms of preserving, or trying to preserve some peace, or trying to sort some things out. So, now, if we hadn’t gone in, maybe that wouldn’t have happened at all. I don’t know.
But, no, I don’t regret my service. I’m proud of what I did. I just think that, finally, in the last few years there’s been a little bit of recognition that most of the guys that went over were just guys that went over.
They served their country, thought they were doing the right thing, and got caught up in a war that wasn’t– or became– very unpopular. It wasn’t in the beginning. It really wasn’t in the beginning.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So how did you spend your post-war years? You said you went to college to become a teacher?
PETE TURNER: I actually went back to college. And after a semester of probation– because my marks were so bad before– I actually graduated with very high honors. And I went into teaching. And I taught social studies in high school level.
I did that for a few years. And, like I said, I began looking at where I was in terms of teaching, and the whole scale of teaching, and what they’re paying. And I was teaching up in Vermont, and decided that I had to make more money. So I went into business, and sales, and marketing, and ended up that for the rest of my career, various positions, climbing the ladder of success, whatever.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So how did you end up here in Maryland from all the way up in Massachusetts?
PETE TURNER: Back in the ’80s, I was transferred down here as a regional sales manager for a company. And that’s how I ended up here. So we’ve been here more or less. The kids have grown up here. My children still live here. They’re married and have children. So we see this as home. I did move away in the late ’90s. I had a job offer, and accepted it, then came back a few years later.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So Carroll County something that you call home now?
PETE TURNER: Yeah, Carroll County, sure, absolutely.
JARRETT JUSTICE: Let’s see. So what are you doing now here in Carroll County?
PETE TURNER: I do what I want to do. I’m retired. I do volunteer down at the senior center. I’m a wood carver. And so I teach a wood carving class on Mondays down at the senior center.
And I’m also involved in the Carroll Carvers. We just had our show a couple weeks ago. Maybe you saw it in the paper. We tried to get a lot of PR, press. That’s something I know a little bit about.
So, yeah, I do that, and keep an eye on the grandkids, and fish, and drive my wife around when she wants to go shopping. She drives, just kidding. So I enjoy my time, do a little writing, and do a little history. I’m always interested in history. So I’m tracing my family histories back, and things like that.
JARRETT JUSTICE: Very interesting, I believe you said you also had a poem as well. Would you like to share that?
PETE TURNER: Sure, sure. I wrote this poem last year for the Veteran’s Day celebration at the senior center because I thought it was– well, I’ll give you a little background to set it. My dad and my father-in-law were in the Marines, both on World War II in the Pacific. Dad was wounded on Iwo Jima.
My father-in-law was shot in the right arm. He was a BAR guy– Browning Automatic Weapon was the weapon, the automatics that the marines carried. He was wounded on Guadalcanal. And I always thought when I came back that if those guys could do what they did, and somehow come back, raise families, and prosper, then what I did was a cake walk. So I should be OK.
But last year, I found out– and I’ve had melanoma for a while now. That’s a skin cancer. I’d show you the top of my head. But I’m sure the camera doesn’t want to see it. I got scars where they’ve taken chunks of all of it out.
And then last year, I was diagnosed with prostrate cancer. Well, in researching that I found out that because you were in Vietnam, it’s assumed you were exposed to Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a defoliant that was used to clear the jungle in areas so that we could find the enemy.
I personally don’t have a problem with that. We were fighting a war. You do what you have to do. The problem I had, it took about 15 years for the government to recognize that Agent Orange was a problem that a lot of veterans suffered a long time before they begin to get remediation or benefits because of the exposure to Agent Orange.
But anyways, to make a long story short, Agent Orange has been shown to cause prostrate cancer. A lot of Vietnam veterans have a higher than normal average of prostate cancer. So with all that going on in my head, and with the Vietnam– I think the anniversaries coming up this year of our– most of us guys who were there don’t call it the end of the war, because it wasn’t. It was our bug out. We decided to leave. We bugged out of there.
I wrote this poem. And you got to remember. The times were pretty tough. 1968, we had the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King. There were riots in the streets. There was civil unrest.
The, quote unquote, peace protests were going on. So there was a lot going on. So I’ll compose myself for a second here.
1968 was a dying time. Young men were fighting in far off Vietnam. They sent us over there, just boys of 18. We came back old men, though still in our teens.
They sent us overseas like our fathers before. But unlike our fathers who fought in– who after the war came home to victory, and dancing in the streets, we came home to protests and riots, not peace.
Because of the lies they heard on TV, lies from reporters, an actress, political wannabes, they cursed us, and spat at us, called us killers of babies when all we were doing was helping people live free. The truth is we served with honor and pride. The truth is we just wanted to come home alive, get married, raise families, live quietly, but that damned award just won’t let us be.
It’s been many years since that terrible time. And yet the war still plays havoc with our lives. We have wounds that just won’t mend. For us, the war will never end.
So welcome home, brothers. We sure have come far. Welcome home, brothers, wherever you are. We hope you found peace through all the years. We hope you found peace to dry up your tears.
So that’s the poem I wrote.
JARRETT JUSTICE: Very good.
PETE TURNER: Thank you.
JARRETT JUSTICE: So is there anything else that you think’s left a profound impact on your life besides, obviously, going to war? Is there anything that–
PETE TURNER: I think, as you look back on your lives– I’ll be 69 in a few months. You begin to look back on it. And, like I said, I was an old history teacher for many years, and still have been interested in history, and have read an awful lot about that time, and other periods in our time.
And it enables you to look at today. And say, OK, things are pretty bad today. And we face a lot of dangers.
Turn on the news. And everything is instant today. Back then, it wasn’t quite that fast.
There are parallels. We learn from history. We don’t learn from history.
And I can see where some of the things that are going on today, similar to what was happening then. We don’t have the protests against the war like we did back then. Most people see the dangers that we face.
But also that we’ve gone through tough times before. I personally think the late ’60s were, in many cases, worse than what we see today. We don’t have the– there’s protests going on. I’m aware of that.
But there’s not the terrible protests we had– Chicago, and the democratic campaign Chicago. One of the reasons I decided not to become a Democrat was because of what they did during the war. So a lot of things have swept through our history. And I do think that this time, probably, I can draw a comparison, I guess.
So that’s what had a major impact on me, to answer your question, was the ’60s– obviously, the war shaped your lives. I came home with a great appreciation for freedom. I wanted to make something of myself, if I could. Where I was successful, I don’t know.
I raised a couple kids. And they’re doing well. So I guess if there’s success in life, that’s a pretty good measurement of success.
And also, part of the reason I wanted to go– it’s been a long time. I haven’t talked to really anyone about the war. You probably know more about my experiences than my kids and my wife do.
And writing the poem was just to set the– what I think– is the facts, the most of us, over 95% I think, got honorable discharges. Many of us went through college. The average Vietnam veteran higher number of college graduates than the average populace in general.
Most of us are earning higher incomes than the average male populace the same age. There’s a lot of statistics about that. But that doesn’t come out.
We still have that stereotype that somehow we’re kind of crazed old hippies walking around. And so I want to– I’d just kind of like to set that record straight by the way I carry myself. And, you know, how I live my life.