Sgt. Peter Matthews
US Army - Rifleman
1st Battalion 12th Calvary
Company D – Air Mobile
US Army - Rifleman
1st Battalion 12th Calvary
Company D – Air Mobile
Peter Matthews was born in The Hague, Netherlands in 1945. He was born Peter Schwarts and later changed his name when he received his US citizenship in 1969. In 1964 Peter decided he would come to the United States “for no particular reason, just to find a new life.” He left his parents and brother in the Netherlands and boarded a ship to New York City. When the ship docked, he stepped into the United States not knowing a solitary sole. Peter spoke English well enough so he “could get around.” He picked up odd jobs here and there, such as a dishwasher, to make money. He didn’t have enough money for rent, so he lived in a movie theater on 42nd St in Manhattan. In those days the movies ran 24 hours a day and Peter found he wasn’t the only one living in the movie theater. He remembers one week when the movie Zulu played all day, every day.
One of the jobs Peter picked up was house painting. He was in the US illegally and needed to find a sponsor to obtain Green Card. He did some painting for a couple in Glen Rock, New Jersey who took a liking to Peter and agreed to sponsor him. He applied and was granted a Green Card in 1966. Now that Uncle Sam had Peter’s address, they sent him his draft notice six months later. I asked him if he was surprised to get a draft notice and Peter replied, “you could say that. I asked if I had to go, and they said yes or I had to go back.”
Peter was inducted in Hackensack, NJ, was immediately sent to Fort Dix and then on to Fort Carson in Colorado for Basic Training. Peter said Basic Training was not difficult for him. He had been in the Boy Scouts in the Netherlands and was accustomed to the outdoors, camping and “how to rough it.” After Basic Training he received additional training as a rifleman. After close to 11 months, in early 1966, it came time to go to Vietnam.
Peter flew first to Oakland, then on to Guam, finally landing at the Cam Ranh Air Base in Vietnam. I asked him what he thought when he first got off the plane. “It was surreal. I didn’t know what to expect.” There he was assigned to the 12th Cavalry Air Mobile group based out of Camp Radcliff in An Khe, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam between Qui Nhon and Pleiku. This Mobile Division was a relatively new concept for the Army. The Mobile Division would use helicopters to transport infantry troops on short notice to hot spots where US forces needed immediate assistance. Helicopters would drop the men, equipment, ammo and supplies into the hot spot to help fight back the enemy. When the situation had stabilized, they would be picked up by helicopter and flow to the next hot spot or two an area to conduct patrols. “We would stay out for 6 or 7 weeks at a time. We’d come back to base camp for 2 or 3 days to shower and then go back out.” I asked Peter if they were ever able to shower. “They flew in hot meals, soap, clean uniforms.”
Peter was promoted to Sergeant and Squad Leader. A squad had between 7-11 soldiers and there were 4 squads in a platoon. His platoon would go on search and destroy missions. These missions were mostly conducted during the day. “What I hated the most was the night patrols.” Peter said an odd thing about Vietnam was, everyone knew they would be in-country for a year and would then rotate home. “You knew you were going to be there for one year and then go home. As you got closer to going home you tried to avoid things. It’s human nature.” Search and destroy became search and avoid.
I asked Peter if he was scared. “Very!” “There is a lot of instinct. You don’t have time to think. There’s a lot of luck involved.” I asked how close he would be to the enemy. “I could see where the fire came from, but I was never close enough to see the enemy.”
I asked Peter if he ever came to hate the enemy. “You get pissed off. I never hated because I didn’t know who they were. We had guys we had to hold back because they wanted to burn villages for no reason.”
Since Peter could speak two languages, the Army assumed he had an affinity for learning languages, so they sent him to a secure village for 5 weeks to learn Vietnamese. He was supposed to be able to interrogate prisoners, but Peter found his competency with Vietnamese was barely adequate to start a conversation with local women.
One of the engagements enemy stands out in Peter’s mind more than the others. The Battle of Dak To Hill 724 took place in November of ’67, just one month before Peter was scheduled to head for home. The entire engagement lasted for 30 days but Peter’s group was there for a close to a week. His unit was dug in on Hill 724 and successfully repulsed waves of enemy charges up the hill. At the conclusion of the battle Peter and his squad went down the hill to get a count of the enemy dead. At the base of the hill the North Vietnamese had left their backpacks before they began their charge. While Peter was searching through the backpacks, he found a diary of a North Vietnamese colonel. The diary contained 93 pages of meticulously written poems, illustrations, songs, thoughts about never seeing his girlfriend again, thoughts about Ho Chi Minh and thoughts about hating the United States and the South Vietnamese. Each entry is also dated. Peter has had some pages translated and is hoping to get the entire diary translated. Peter is not sure that the colonel died that day. He may have escaped into the jungle without taking his backpack. The colonels name and address are in the diary and Peter is also hoping to find the colonel or any relatives of the colonel to return the diary.
Peter’s tour ended and he departed Vietnam on December 13th, 1967. He recalls sitting down on the plane home and crying. It was a release of all the emotions built up during his time in-country. He left Vietnam having made over 50 hostile air assaults, a Bronze Star and numerous air medals. His plane landed in Seattle and soon after Peter received an early discharge.
He returned to Teaneck, New Jersey and bounced around in different jobs. In 1972 Peter was married but after six years the marriage ended. He is unsure if his drinking, memories of Vietnam or something else caused the breakup.
In 1978 Peter met Christine Guarneri from the Bronx. “She saved my life.” Peter felt he was floundering in life, and she helped him stop drinking and he “made a turn for the better.” They have been married for 45 years. Christine had two boys from her first marriage, they have one boy together and seven grandchildren. Peter started a home improvement company which he still runs with his some and Christine is a Special Education teacher.
I asked Peter if he kept in touch with any of the guys his was with during his deployment. He said in the beginning he did. “When you’re in Vietnam you sleep together, you fight together, you feel like brothers, as close as you can get. When you get back to the States, he has a whole new life, and the bond is no longer there.”
Dak To is something that sticks with Peter to this day. He has a couple of recurring dreams of military service. He has never spoken about Dak To or any of his Vietnam experiences to anyone until recently. He tried to join veterans’ groups when he first returned but didn’t feel comfortable in those settings. He has recently started attending veterans group functions with an organization in Rockland County, NY.
Peter has defied the odds and overcome many obstacles to eventually live the American Dream. He has also served his country, before it was his country. Now he is finally talking about his experiences in Vietnam and while trying to return a diary to his former enemy. Thank you, Peter, for coming to the US and setting an example by persevering and making significant sacrifices as part of becoming a citizen. You have truly lead by example and the country could use more men like you.