Delbert Peterson - Major
- Air Force Cross
- Air Medal with V (for valor) (Somalia)
- Purple Heart
We are grateful to Delbert’s brothers and sisters for sharing their family pictures and their warm memories of their big brother. Here is Del’s story, using many of their words:
Delbert Ray Peterson was born on May 11, 1939, the first of seven children born to Raymond and Bernice Peterson of Manson, Iowa. His six siblings followed in close order - Jolene in 1940, Denny in ‘42, Bob in ‘43, Chuck in ‘45, Judy in ‘46 and Joel in ‘48. The family moved to Swea City and after the first 4 children were born, they moved back to Manson when their father was drafted during WW2. They ended up staying there for good.
Delbert was educated through high school in Manson. Sister Judy re-tells a kindergarten story – on the first day, Delbert was excited to be going to school. When the kids went out for recess, Delbert thought the day was over, so he walked home feeling sad that it had gone so quickly. But, he caught on - he was very bright and a kind person even at an early age. Delbert memorized and gave the Gettysburg Address at the Memorial Day program and did such a good job that he did it for many years, sometimes dressed as Abraham Lincoln. He graduated from 8th grade in May 1953 and was in music and band. As a high school junior, the American Legion sent him to Hawkeye Boys State where he was elected a state senator.
Brother Chuck recalled, “In our old house, all seven of us slept upstairs in three bedrooms: my older and younger sisters in one, my two older brothers in another and Delbert and me and the youngest brother in the third. I felt sorry for Delbert, because he was always having to keep the peace, then get up early to go to work on the week-ends and during the summer.”
Denny, Bob and Chuck recall regular childhood scuffles. Chuck said, “We fought a lot and I mean knock-drown-drag-out fights with fists and legs flailing about. Those punches may not have landed anywhere, but we put our heads down and swung away. We fought between each other - but woe to the outsider that beat up or picked on any of us. That was the beauty about having older brothers. I remember them - including Delbert because he was the biggest and had more authority - coming to my rescue when a neighbor kid took my bike, called me names, or threw a few punches.”
Then Delbert grew up and entered high school and had more important things on his mind. At Manson High, Delbert lettered in football and basketball, playing both all four years. He was also in band, mixed chorus, close harmony boys’ quartet, debate, speech and drama. He was class president two years, and his senior year was student council vice president and on the yearbook staff. While in high school, he worked at his dad’s gas station, Pete's Mobil, on the weekends and after school when not involved in sports or other school activities.
Barbara Johnson went to school in Manson with Delbert. She recalled a tall, handsome boy, always smiling. She said, “I viewed him as good-natured and kind - a well-adjusted kid who participated in sports, but he surprised me by singing quite beautifully in an all-school program. Sister Judy agreed, “I remember him in football but mostly remember his beautiful strong voice. I always stood by him in church just to hear him sing.” Del loved music – especially the Tijuana Brass and Kingston Trio. He was active in Luther League in church and memorized the sermons that he was asked to give for Easter Sunrise services.
Delbert set the pace for the younger kids. Bob said, “The band instructor tried on numerous occasions to get me to play the bass violin, but I refused and continued to play the cornet because that is what Delbert had played.” Chuck agreed, “We looked up to him. Not just figuratively but literally. Delbert was about 6 foot 4. At one time he was a little heavier and had the nickname “Bull”.
Delbert graduated in May 1957. Chuck commented, “I am sure that Delbert knew early on that he wanted to go to college. He knew he had to apply himself to become a mechanical engineer and apply himself he did - he worked hard and was valedictorian of his high school class.
Del entered Iowa State in the fall of 1957. Sister Judy said, “I was 11 when Delbert left for college and was just devastated that he was leaving. He was my hero and always watched out for me.”
Delbert lived in Noble House, Friley Hall, where he became Social Chair. He sang with the Festival Chorus and Men’s Glee Club, was a member of the Lutheran Student Association and appeared in two musicals, Music Man and Kiss me Kate.
While in college, he worked many jobs and earned 80 percent of the money for his education. During college he worked in the dorm cafeteria and taught ballroom dancing. Summers he drove trucks, worked construction, and was an engineering aid for the Forest Service in Washington state. He was a publication technician at Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois one summer and also worked there during a semester off to earn money. While in Peoria he took part in community things and was in the play, Oklahoma.
The summer before he graduated he took Air Force ROTC training at Fairfield Air Force Base, Washington, and in October 1961 was initiated into the O'Neil Squadron of Iowa State’s Arnold Air Society.
Del continued influencing his siblings. Bob says, “I had planned to study accounting when I went to college but changed to engineering. I had planned to enter the Navy to become a pilot but changed to the Air Force. Both changes were to "follow" Delbert. He was ALWAYS my idol!”
On July 12, 1962, Delbert graduated from ISU with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Air Force Reserve. Bob is sure there were loves in Del’s life but his dedication at that time was to the Air Force. Del probably knew he’d be going to Vietnam and would not commit to anything until "that" was completed.
From August 1962 to January 1963 Delbert worked for Caterpillar in Peoria. He went on active duty in January 1963, training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma before going on to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey until August 1965.
Delbert had many goals and dreams – and three especially stood out. He wanted a college degree, he wanted to fly and he wanted to own a sports car. In order to do the flying he enrolled in ROTC at Iowa State. Shortly after he went on active duty, he purchased a Ford Mustang.
In August 1965 Delbert was assigned to the 1st Air Commando Wing at Forbes Air Force Base in Kansas for special training flying the AC-47, a Douglas DC-3 commercial airliner converted for military use. In November 1965 Delbert was assigned to the 4th Air Commando Squadron (Fire Support), 14th Air Commando Wing, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, Seventh Air Force. He was co-pilot on an AC-47.
The AC-47 introduced a new principle to air attack in Vietnam – this plane could fly in tight circles, focusing gunfire in a specific spot. It had a row of 7.62 millimeter mini-guns mounted along the left side of its fuselage and could fly overhead in a tight pylon turn shooting torrents of extremely precise gunfire.
The craft was dubbed "Puff the Magic Dragon," after a popular song, because it resembled a dragon overhead with flames billowing from its guns. Ground troops welcomed the sight of Puff because of its ability to put a heavy dose of defensive fire in a surgically determined area. The AC-47 flew at night and was a savior to American, South Vietnamese and Royal Lao troops at besieged outposts.
One of the strategic focal points of the war in Vietnam was the A Shau Valley. The narrow 25-mile long valley was an arm of the Ho Chi Minh Trail funneling troops and supplies toward Hué and Danang. A major North Vietnamese Army staging area was at the north end, making it important to the North Vietnamese plan for victory.
On March 9, 1966 the Special Forces camp in A Shau Valley came under attack by some 2,000 N. Vietnamese regulars. It was about 50 miles NW of DaNang near the Laotian border in a mile-wide valley surrounded by mountains. The defenders, twenty US Special Forces troops and 375 S. Vietnamese soldiers, were surrounded and retreated to a bunker. Air support and air evacuation were needed desperately – a difficult operation under ideal conditions but conditions were not ideal. There was a 400-foot ceiling and a steady rain of enemy fire that tore up the landing strip and pinned down the defenders. They were in danger of being overrun.
At 11:20am on March 9, Captain Willard Collins and his AC-47 crew, just in from a night mission, were rousted from their beds and dispatched to support the A Shau garrison. First Lieutenant Delbert Peterson was co-pilot. Other crew members were navigator First Lieutenant Jerry Meek, flight engineer Staff SGT J. G. Brown, and gunners Staff SGTs J. Turner and R.E. Foster.
Two unsuccessful attempts were made to get under the clouds. Finally, flying at treetop height, they flew into the valley, located the outpost and made a firing pass at the besiegers. The AC-47 took hits as it flew low rather than at the usual altitude of 3,000 feet. The second pass was through a gauntlet of fire. As they approached the bunker, the right engine was hit and then the left engine was knocked out.
With superb airmanship, CPT Collins and LT Peterson made a crash landing on the mountain slope. All members of the crew survived with minor injuries except SGT Foster whose legs were broken by the impact. LT Peterson began first aid. CPT Collins worked the survival radio. Collins and Peterson knew an enemy attack was inevitable. Since Foster could not be moved, they set up defense at the site, rather than leaving the injured gunner and moving to favorable terrain. CPT Meek loaded all the M16s and set up a perimeter defense outside the aircraft. About 10 minutes later, CPT Meek was wounded.
The crew, confident that a rescue helicopter would answer their call, repulsed the first attack, which came 15 minutes after they hit the ground. Minutes later, a second attack was turned back, but Collins and Foster were killed in the firefight. With only four men left to defend the perimeter, the chance of holding out until a chopper came in looked pretty bleak.
A third attack began as the distinctive sound of an HH-43 helicopter was heard. LT Peterson was now in command of the crew and saw muzzle flashes from an enemy machine gun just yards from the torn up gunship. If the gun was not silenced, the chopper would likely be shot down before it could rescue the four airmen.
Peterson knew it was up to him. He charged the gun, spraying fire from his M-16 rifle. The hostile fire immediately diminished as the helicopter dropped down to pick up Meek, Brown and Turner, leaving Peterson and the two dead men behind.
When last seen, LT Peterson was alive and crawling behind the crashed AC-47 to take up a position to secure the aircraft. About 20 minutes after the three crewmen were rescued a Special Forces ground team arrived at the site. They found the bodies of Collins and Foster. In their search of the area where the co-pilot was last seen, they could find no sign of LT Peterson but found blood spots leading away from the crash site.
Because of heavy enemy presence, the Special Forces team was unable to bring the bodies of Collins and Foster out. Since it was probable that Delbert Peterson was captured, he was listed as Missing in Action. He was listed as MIA until February 1978, when his status was changed to killed in action. During that period, he was promoted to Major.
Both he and CPT Collins were awarded the Air Force Cross posthumously. That mission was one of the few instances in the Vietnam War when both pilots of an aircraft were awarded the nation’s second-highest decoration for valor and was the only one in which the awards were made for extraordinary heroism in both air and ground combat.
Chuck remembers, “I was attending Fort Dodge Junior College in 1966. There was a great deal of news on television and the radio about Vietnam and once in a while about battles. I remember while driving to Fort Dodge that morning that part of a radio newscast was about the A Shau Valley battle that mentioned that a plane had been shot down. That radio news gave me a strange feeling at that moment.
I worked part time in a Fort Dodge grocery store and was there when I received the call from an Air Force Chaplain that was at my parent’s home in Manson. The Chaplain informed me that my brother Delbert was missing-in-action. My mother asked that I get my sister in Fort Dodge and come home to Manson. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face. My dad handled things a little better. He had seen war and was himself missing-in-action for a short period in World War II so he knew how things could change for the better. That evening, I remembered that part of the news I had heard earlier that morning. It was an eerie remembrance.”
From 1969 to 1972, Chuck met several times with a group called Iowans Care, an organization working to maintain awareness of the need for a full accounting of those missing-in-action in Vietnam. Family members were asked to view pictures obtained from propaganda films or smuggled out of North Vietnam but Delbert was not identified. In the mid-1990s, villagers near the crash site found Delbert’s ID tag, a chain and key and later excavations found a military ID and a religious medal, but no remains.
Chuck said, “While in Washington D.C. a few years ago I placed my hand on Delbert’s name on the Vietnam War Memorial. Although the “Wall” seems cold since it is black and made of granite it is nevertheless very impressive. I had the feeling that only a family member can feel. I wondered about Delbert’s last moments and what he really felt because he knew he was in a war and was in a bad place with unfriendly people trying to do him harm. But I am confident, that since he became the senior officer in charge when the pilot died, his training took over and he focused on the survival of his crew. He gave the ultimate sacrifice in doing so. There are others alive because he is not. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. I am proud of my brother. He was a gentle, caring and patient man, and a loving son and brother."
Bob says, “If God asked me for the formula for making a "big brother" I would simply reply, "Delbert"!
In addition to the Air Force Cross, Delbert received the Air Medal, Purple Heart and Certificate of Honorable Service.