Crime

Memories differ on friendly fire and on the night Michael Peterson's marine unit was attacked in Vietnam

Through a tense and confusing battle in 1969, a young Marine officer and his men fought off an assault by North Vietnamese attackers that lasted all night.

When it was over, Lt. Mike Peterson's unit had defended its tiny outpost even though the men were outnumbered and cut off. It was the toughest test Peterson faced during his tour of duty, and it earned the 25-year-old officer a Silver Star for courage and gallantry.

This week, Peterson, 59, will go on trial on a charge of murdering his wife in 2001, and his behavior in that faraway outpost could emerge as a factor. Without eyewitnesses to the death of Kathleen Peterson or an abundance of physical evidence, much of the case against Peterson will come down to questions about his credibility and his character.

After leaving the Marine Corps, Peterson went on to translate his Vietnam experience into a successful career as a novelist. He parlayed that success into prominence in Durham, first as a newspaper columnist and later as an unsuccessful candidate for mayor and city council.

As his trial opens on Monday, his Vietnam experience could be both a benefit and a liability.

Prosecutors could highlight Peterson's admission in 1999 that he lied when he claimed he was wounded in Vietnam by shrapnel after his radio operator stepped on a land mine and was killed. The defense is prepared to call as witnesses former Marines who would testify that they were proud to serve with such an exceptional leader.

Peterson has never before talked publicly about how his radio operator really died. Some of the memories of that night at Oceanview are not ones he cherishes.

Interviews with Marines, Peterson and others, and a review of military archives -- including Peterson's taped account of the battle soon after it happened -- confirm only that recollections can be difficult to untangle.

Fighting on the edge

It was the intrigue of war that drew the fresh Duke University graduate and aspiring novelist to Vietnam.

"I wanted to see combat," Peterson said in an interview last year. "I wanted to write the great American war novel."

He was commissioned as a lieutenant and arrived in Vietnam cocky and gung-ho, according to Marines who remember him. He was assigned to the 1st Amphibious Tractor battalion, with headquarters at the mouth of the Cua Viet River on the Gulf of Tonkin.

The lumbering "amtracs" traditionally delivered troops from ship to shore, but in Vietnam they became patrol vehicles, and the Marines who rode them called themselves "amgrunts."

North of the Cua Viet was a smaller base, C-4, and north of that an even smaller outpost, called Oceanview, the northernmost military post in South Vietnam.

Oceanview was little more than about 30 men dug into a field of sand dunes surrounded by concertina wire. Along with an amtrac platoon, it had an Army team that operated twin 40 mm machine guns known as "dusters," a mortar crew and Navy spotters who called in missile strikes from a battleship.

By the middle of 1968, the North Vietnamese Army, called the NVA, had shifted much of its attention to wresting control of this region below the Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South Vietnam.

"Oceanview had its own devils for those that were up there," says Richard Lennon of Seattle, a retired Marine captain who was there, though not with Peterson's unit. "You knew you were the closest thing to the DMZ, and if the NVA wanted to pick a serious fight, they could overrun the place in a heartbeat."

Battle at Oceanview

In February 1969, the battalion was having a growing problem with "sappers" -- North Vietnamese soldiers who would slip inside American bases with explosives, according to a monthly report filed at the time.

On Feb. 21, according to the official log of the unit's activities, Marines distributed toys to nearby villagers in celebration of the Tet holiday, the Vietnamese new year. That evening the village was aglow with candlelight and kerosene lamps, and one Marine patrol was greeted warmly with cookies, one amtracker recalls.

On the night of Feb. 22, U.S. positions across South Vietnam were attacked by the North Vietnamese in what became the second Tet Offensive.

At Oceanview, the fighting started about 11 p.m. and ended six hours later.

Before it began, Peterson, the ranking officer at Oceanview, sent a small patrol into the darkness to search for sappers. Among them was Peterson's radio operator, Lance Cpl. Jack Alfred Peterson, a 19-year-old from Wisconsin. The men were not related.

Leo E. Hazelton, a corporal at the time, recalls the Marines suspected the North Vietnamese were gathering for an attack.

"We kind of knew something was happening because in our area you could always smell them burning their weed before they hit us," said Hazelton, 55, a facilities manager in Homer, Wis., referring to the scent of marijuana. "We had inklings."

Sure enough, as the patrol moved into position, the outpost spotted NVA troops through one of the starlight scopes -- night-vision telescopes that were effective if there was enough moonlight or other illumination.

Mike Peterson, from his command bunker in a big sand dune known as "the hill," got on the radio and told the patrol to sit tight. Then ground radar began picking up enemy movement in increasingly large groups.

He told the patrol to begin moving back toward the outpost, then ordered them to stop about 100 meters from the wire, according to the taped interview with Lt. Peterson recorded by the Marines four days later.

"I told them at this time to sit down because I was not absolutely convinced there were that many people out there," Peterson said on the tape. "I felt as long as the patrol was this close, I would be able to move them in without any problem."

Suddenly, a Marine on the starlight scope yelled out, "Lieutenant, they are moving towards us!"

Peterson ran to the starlight scope, and through the green-tinted lens saw about 25 enemy soldiers descending on Oceanview. He ran back to his bunker and radioed the patrol to return immediately, he said on the tape.

"I said, literally, 'Run, now, as fast as you can! Run back to the wire!' " Peterson wrote in a recent e-mail message, which he used to answer recent N&O questions. "They jumped up and ran. As soon as they did, a huge enemy force started to chase after them."

Sgt. Billy Hendley was also on a starlight scope and began yelling at Peterson that the enemy was practically at the edge of the wire perimeter.

Hazelton recalls it vividly: "That patrol came running back in and they [the NVA] were right on their heels," he said. "That's when it all blew up and went goofy -- and it went 'til daylight."

Differing stories

That's also the point at which recollections begin to diverge.

"I told everybody on the line to hold their fire," Peterson said in the e-mail last month. "I said we had a patrol coming in and not to fire until I gave the order. This was acknowledged by every post, the tank and deuce [duster] crew."

Peterson said that the duster crew, manning a tank with twin machine guns, panicked and opened fire as the patrol reached the wire perimeter. But in the interview taped right after the battle, Peterson said the duster crew opened fire on his order -- after he had been told the patrol had radioed that it was safely inside the wire, and after someone on the starlight scope confirmed it.

The duster fire hit the patrol, killing two and wounding two. Peterson stopped all the firing long enough to have the wounded Marines pulled back to the command post, even as the North Vietnamese drew closer. Peterson has told The N&O that Cpl. Peterson, his radio operator, died in his arms saying, "I hurt, lieutenant, I hurt."

For years after the battle, Peterson told people that he was badly injured in Vietnam when his radio operator stepped on a land mine and was killed, sending shrapnel into Peterson's leg and earning him a Purple Heart.

In 1999, while Peterson was a candidate for mayor of Durham, The N&O reported that there was no documentation of any Purple Hearts in his military record. He admitted that he had actually been injured in a traffic accident in Japan after he left Vietnam and spent months recuperating in a hospital ward with dismembered and dying soldiers.

He said he lied because the memory of what really happened was too painful.

Hazelton, the corporal, recalls that the Army dusters did what the lieutenant told them to do. "He gave the order to open fire," Hazelton said. "He didn't know it was our own people. But they were the only ones we lost that night."

Quickly, there were more problems to worry about as the assault escalated with waves of enemy troops.

The NVA peppered the outpost with rifle fire and about a dozen mortar shells. One sapper crawled into the outpost but set off a trip flare, which drew a shower of gunfire that killed him. At the last moment, he apparently tossed a grenade into Peterson's command bunker, Peterson says, but he had failed to pull the pin and it didn't explode.

Between 100 and 300 North Vietnamese joined the attack on Oceanview, periodically regrouping and striking in smaller groups throughout the night. At one point Peterson screamed into the radio for reinforcements. He was told none would be sent unless the outpost was about to be overrun. At that moment, he thought that was a terrible mistake.

Maj. Ron Smaldone had assembled reinforcements at the nearby C-4 base but couldn't find a safe way in without ordering a stop to protective artillery fire. From about a mile away, he listened helplessly on the radio as the Oceanview platoon fought all night.

The North Vietnamese withdrew before dawn, and in the daylight hours the Marines discovered that the enemy had built bunkers and dug 20 one-man "fighting holes" to the south -- evidence that they had hoped to lure reinforcements into an ambush.

Valiant or panicked?

Smaldone, now 67 and retired in Naples, Fla., says Peterson saved many lives that night. That's why he recommended him for the Silver Star.

"That evening he demonstrated he had what it takes when he's under heat," Smaldone said. "It's as close as you can come to circumstances of life and death right before your eyes. You have to stay in control. That's what Michael did."

Smaldone has been interviewed by Peterson's defense team and says he is willing to testify. He described his young lieutenant as tough and intelligent. "I would say of the young officers I had, he was probably the best of the bunch," Smaldone said.

Others recall it differently. Hazelton says as the North Vietnamese descended on them, he and another Marine had to restrain Peterson because he panicked.

"We couldn't have people do that; we would have lost lives," Hazelton said. "We all got scared; some people just react differently."

In his account of the battle, Hazleton said he could not remember the name of the lieutenant who had to be restrained. But he later identified a photograph of Peterson, and Peterson was the only lieutenant at Oceanview that night.

"All I know, the lieutenant who was there that night got a little squirrely," Hazelton said. "The world was coming to an end, according to him. Maybe it was, but you don't run around in circles."

Military records show Hazelton was in Peterson's company at the time it was at Oceanview and that he was promoted to sergeant less than two months later. He received a good-conduct medal and other awards during his seven years as a Marine.

Peterson disputes Hazleton's version of events. He says he doubts that Hazleton was at Oceanview that night. If Hazleton were there, Peterson says, he could not have been close enough to Peterson's command post to have witnessed Peterson's actions.

Smaldone, the retired major, said he never heard anything, either on the radio that night or afterward, about Peterson being restrained.

Hendley, the sergeant who spent eight months with Peterson in Vietnam, has only praise for his former lieutenant. Now 66 and living in Swainsboro, Ga., he has told an investigator for Peterson's attorney that Peterson deserved the Silver Star.

"You don't shake Mike; he don't shake," Hendley said. "I know because I saw the way he acted on Feb. 22, 1969. There is not more pressure than that."

Hendley says he left Peterson's side twice that night, for a total of about 30 minutes, and doesn't remember Hazelton.

Both Hendley and Smaldone say they don't remember the friendly fire incident and insist it didn't happen.

Dennis Coney of Three Rivers, Mich., another Marine who was at Oceanview that night, did not see any encounter between Peterson and Hazelton but says it was something that most everyone in the platoon heard about later.

"My recollection of that story," Coney said, "at first when things really got hot and heavy, somebody grabbed [Peterson] and slapped him and brought him back to reality. He took over and ran things then."

Coney, Hazelton and others say some of the enlisted men blamed Peterson for the friendly fire deaths, while others thought it was the fault of the sergeant who was in the patrol. Coney doesn't think it was Peterson's fault and said the lieutenant was a brave leader who deserved the Silver Star.

"He got us through it, and I think he deserved it," said Coney, who is one of the characters in "A Time of War," Peterson's most successful novel.

A book, and a grenade

Peterson incorporated variations of the Oceanview battle into "A Time of War," including a battle-savvy sergeant at odds with a lieutenant who sends two men to their certain deaths on patrol. One of them dies in his arms, saying, "I hurt, lieutenant. I hurt."

The same chapter describes a Marine who has to be restrained after angrily lunging at the lieutenant for getting the men killed. Yet Peterson says he has no recollection of anyone having to be restrained that night, least of all himself.

"I have never talked about what happened there," Peterson said in last month's e-mail exchange. "I have not bragged about it, not glorified any of it, but deep down I always felt I did a good job and maybe saved a few guys' lives."

Neither Peterson nor Hendley, who was also interviewed on tape by the Marines after the battle, mentioned anything about anyone panicking. In fact, at the end of his 20-minute description of the fighting, Peterson added a final point.

"The behavior of everybody on the hill was outstanding," Peterson says on the tape. "It couldn't possibly have been any better. Everything that went on up there, I think, went just according to the books as far as behavior and performance and duty. Everybody performed just outstandingly."

Peterson's attorney, David Rudolf, said Friday that even if something had happened between Peterson and Hazelton, it wasn't fair to bring it up now.

"What if something happened in the first 10 minutes of battle, while they were being overrun by North Vietnamese, and he lost it? So what? He pulled it back together and won a Silver Star," Rudolf said. "What does that prove about him?"

Before he left Vietnam, Peterson was also awarded a Bronze Star for leadership in combat, a common reward for officers at the end of their tour of duty.

After that, the war began to wind down and the 1st Amphibious Tractor battalion was pulled out of the country. Peterson wrote novels, had children, divorced and remarried. As a memento of his lucky night, he kept the grenade that had rolled harmlessly into his command bunker in Oceanview.

It stayed on his desk as a paperweight until December 2001, when Durham police seized it during a search of his house to see whether it had been used as a weapon to bludgeon Kathleen Peterson to death. The results of that test are not known.

(News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.)

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