Originally Published: November 10, 2015 8:01 p.m.
Peter Van Haren
City of Residence: Prescott
Branch of Service: U.S. Army
Dates of Service: July 1967-July 1969
Decorations: three Bronze Stars, two with V for valor in ground combat; Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star; Vietnam Combat Medal w/60 Device; Vietnam Service Medal; and Army Commendation Medal
I enrolled in the University of Arizona in 1963, where one of the required classes for the first two years was Army ROTC. I continued with ROTC as an upperclassman because they paid you 40 bucks a month. I graduated with a BA in English in 1967 and was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Army and assigned to the Armor branch. I spent a few months at Ft. Knox in Officer's Basic and advanced training and then was posted to a line tank battalion in Ft. Carson, Colorado.
In July 1967 my entire brigade was sent to South Vietnam as a part of the American buildup of ground forces. We were assigned an area of operations in northern I Corps, just below the DMZ. Opposing us were regular elements of the North Vietnamese Army - NVA. There were a few villages in the area but most of them had been deserted or just had a few civilians left due to the continuous heavy fighting. There were no significant elements of the Viet Cong insurgents in the area.
I was a platoon leader of a tank platoon. B Co. 1/77 Armor, 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Infantry Div. I had command of five tanks crewed by 20 men. My men were mostly young, 18-22, high school graduates. Half or more of them had been drafted but there were a good number of volunteers. A quarter of them were black, a quarter Hispanic and the rest Caucasians from all over the country. They were generally smart, brave and loyal men who could fight our tanks for days on end in sometimes intense combat without sleep or shelter or much food. It was an honor to lead them.
Our duties consisted of convoy protection along the major roads including Rt. 1 along the coast and Rt. 9 along the DMZ. We spent most nights guarding various fire bases in the area including Con Thien, Vandergrift, The Rockpile and Khe Sanh. We also served as a ready react force from those fire bases. When one of the infantry units patrolling the countryside would make contact with the NVA, we would respond and join the fight.
Major battles we were in include an action on Sept 2, 1968, when we intercepted an NVA regiment moving through the area west of Quang Tri. Also in Oct of '68 was the battle of Kin Mon where the 1/61 mech infantry battalion was jumped by a large NVA force north of Con Thien. I lead the reaction force and we were guided by an Army FAC pilot flying a small plane. The weather was bad so no jets could support us and the infantry unit was in great danger of being wiped out. We lost two tanks to mines and came under heavy enemy fire but succeeded in reaching our troops and destroying the NVA units. The battle is documented in the book "100 Feet Over Hell" by Jim Hooper.
About halfway through my tour I was transferred to the Brigade Headquarters as a staff officer. I detested that duty and asked to be sent back to the line units in the field. I was eventually given command of my old company and finished out my tour as a tank company commander in charge of 17 tanks and 120 men.
The worst experience I had was when we were overrun one night on a fire base south of Khe Sanh. Enemy sappers made it through the wire and began blowing up our tanks and bunkers. We had to call in air strikes and artillery almost directly on our position to regain control of the hill. Dozens of my fellow soldiers were hurt or killed in that fight, which went on until daybreak. It was, quite simply, the longest night of my life.
In July of '69 my tour was up, as was my two-year enlistment in the Army. I was asked to stay in the Regular Army but I declined as I had had enough of the military life. My replacement got there a week early so, before I knew it or had time to prepare, I was put on a jet and flown back to the U.S. We landed at 3 a.m. at McChord AFB in Seattle. They sneaked us back into the country like thieves in the night. My dad, a WWII Navy fighter pilot, had somehow gotten wind of our arrival and flew up from Phoenix to meet me. He and my mom were the only people standing there as we got off the plane. My dad shook the hand of every one of the 250 men and welcomed them home. I have never been prouder of him or my family. We flew to San Francisco and the next day watched a man land on the moon. It was July 20, 1969, and that was the end of my service.
In conclusion, I would like to add that, despite the current historical conception of an ungrateful nation, there were many folks who did welcome me home and thanked me for my service. Some were WWII vets like my dad and others were members of the "great silent majority" whose support of our troops in the war was largely ignored by the media and drowned out by the noise of the protesters.
I was and am proud of my service in that unfortunate war and only regret losing the friends I left behind there.