(TOLEDO, Ohio – April 6, 2015) – He served several tours of duty during the Vietnam War, marched as part of Special Forces in the Kennedy funeral procession, interpreted foreign languages for President Nixon, went to Cuba during the Bay of Pigs, and performed missions in Iran and all over the world. He literally went into the military a mere boy, and came out a man, completely transformed through his life experiences shaped by the ravages of war. Through it all, he maintained his sanity, found success in civilian life, and somehow found time to nurture his passion for auto racing…working with Lee Petty, Junior Johnson, Marty Robbins and more. His story is fascinating all the way through and it begins with a penniless, hungry kid from a broken home in Boaz, Alabama.
“I come from a broken home…real poor. The National Guard came out to school one day, and they didn’t ask me for my age,” Wayne Peterson said. “They were offering clothes and food at the time, and both of those things sounded really good to me, so they signed me up. I was 15 at the time. I went into active duty at 16. They found out I was too young, so I went back to high school and finished…graduated. I still had an obligation to the National Guard, so I went back to active duty in the Army…to Fort Bragg (N.C.). I started out in the 18th Airborne Corps as a paratrooper.”
Back then, serving the U.S. military as a paratrooper meant something quite different than it might today.
“I made over 1,200 jumps. I was a member of a free-fall team called the Golden Knights. Back then, the space program was very active, and at the time, NASA wasn’t quite sure if they wanted to land (their astronauts) on land or water. So we became their test dummies from 44,000 feet. They took us up in B-52 Bombers…they called it ‘Halo’…High Altitude, Low Opening. It was about the time the Russians fired Sputnik up so it was a pretty intense time. We had these special suits that hopefully wouldn’t expose any skin…if it did, any exposed skin would have frozen instantly. It was a 90-second free-fall at 180 mph. It was quite a ride."
If you hadn’t guessed by now, Peterson’s life journey has indeed been ‘quite a ride.’
“Started in the 3rd Army Division. First assignment was a 30-day maneuver from Louisiana to Texas. Because I was new to the outfit, I didn’t have a job yet, so they loaned me out to the 77th Special Forces. After my 30 days, they asked me if I wanted to be a member of the unit…that’s how I came to be in the Army Special Forces.
“They sent me to Ranger school at Fort Benning, Georgia…I had already been to jump school. Went to survival school at Antarctica…then to language school in Coronado (Calif.) to learn to speak French first, then Vietnamese.
“Then I went to Germany with the 10th Special Forces and then to Okinawa with the 1st Special Forces. When Kennedy came down in ’61, ’62…whenever it was…he authorized us to have our Berets. There were more missions with the 5th and 7th Special Forces…went on different missions I can’t really talk about.”
After all the training and maneuvering, Peterson finally shipped out to Vietnam in 1963.
“First time I went to Vietnam, it was as an advisor, not in a combat role. The advisor duty didn’t last long before it turned into combat duty. Went back in ’65. Went back in ’67 for six months…’68 for six months…’69 was 13 months. I was supposed to get relieved then, but the guy that was supposed to relieve me…he was only in the country for three days and got killed, so I just stayed. I was part of a blue and gold team…we’d swap back and forth between the States and Nam. I was in and out of Nam till ’72.
"A Vietnamese man made that photo of me (pictured above)...it was taken right around the Tet Offensive. It's one of the few I kept...and I had to really hunt around to find it."
Part of Peterson’s Special Forces training included various diving schools…one in Indian Head, Maryland where he was taught the art of underwater demolition.
“We did reconnaissance work with a couple Seal teams…trained in beach assault…various things like that that goes with Special Forces. Been out (of the military) for 33 years…tried to forget a lot of things that happened over there.
(Image: Wayne Peterson got the attention of U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant and film actor R. Lee Ermey at Talladega. The two established an immediate bond.)
“After I got out I went to a couple naval bases in ’73 and ’74 in Charleston, South Carolina to help set up their security forces. Went to Mississippi to a National Guard site where we set up escape and invasion schools.”
During Peterson’s military tenure, he served in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, which was a failed military invasion of Cuba. A counter-revolutionary military, trained and funded by the United States government's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), fronted the armed wing of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (DRF) and intended to overthrow the communist government of Fidel Castro. Launched from Guatemala, the invading force was defeated within three days by the Cuban armed forces, under the direct command of Castro.
“It was mess. Went to Bay of Pigs…training Cuban refugees. We were in the jungle training guys…that was miserable. Snakes, alligators, bugs…it was all there. We lost a couple supply planes, damaged another. Couldn't get the provisions to the refugees. With the right plan, the whole thing would of worked, but it was poorly planned.
"Finally got scheduled out (of active service) in 1981, but my service was extended 13 months for a convenience to the government.
“Got orders to go to Germany where we awaited more orders. Sent me to Diego Garcia, a little island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It belongs to the British but we have a 99 year lease on it. It was there that we staged and invasion for Iran…we trained there.
“Got to Iran. It didn’t go well. We were going to swoop down into the embassy…to get ‘em out, but we lost a helicopter…a plane got damaged during a refueling. It just didn’t work. We had to abort…put our tail between our legs…same way we came out of Nam. We just didn’t finish the job. We have to finish what we started. Too many bleeding hearts. We had way too much TV coverage in Nam. The public don’t need to know our missions; it messed with intelligence. Nam was a hard time…soldiers condemned for pulling the trigger. Of course, if you waited one second and thought about it, you were dead. We fought for the country, and our own survival. It wasn’t pretty. You were there to save your people.
"It's the damndest thing...war is always started by old men, and fought by young men. It's hard for the U.S. soldier...so many were lost. You could make the case that if we don't go into Iran and Iraq, then China and Russia would have gotten all that oil...that's really what that was about. But when you look at Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq...what did we accommplish but get a bunch of good kids killed? It's hard. There is nothing humane about war, nothing."
Peterson was also assigned to the Rotunda inside the U.S. Capitol for the guarding of President Kennedy’s body following Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963.
“I was there…Special Forces…we guarded his body in the Rotunda of the Capitol building, and then marched in the parade from the Rotunda to the service, and from there to Arlington (National Cemetery).”
Peterson also served President Nixon.
“I was an interpreter for President Nixon. Met him at Midway Island with President Tho of Vietnam…bout ’69ish. Interpreted Vietnamese for Nixon. They met at an officer’s club, played nine rounds of golf. Nixon flew out on Air Force One. Tho went out on a chartered Pan Am flight. Did it all in one day.”
In addition to dealing with the horrors of war, Peterson, like all Vietnam solidiers, had to deal with the wrath of the American people during their "coming home parties." Vietnam was the first American war that was broadcast in living color during the evening news hours across the country, which, at that time, led the televsion ratings charts. The more the American people saw, the more they resented the war. Unlike today's soldiers who come home heroes, as they should, during Vietnam, soldiers were advised to take their uniforms off on reentry to the States.
"It would be very uncomfortable coming home. The Vietnam soldier was very unpopular. We were called baby killers and every other thing you can imagine. It's not exactly what we wanted to hear after going through what we went through. I'll tell you a short story. Coming home once...I hopped a military plane out of Alaska into LAX. I was in the bathroom, and some guy with a long pony tail followed me in and called me a baby killer...then spit at me. That didn't go over so well with me. Enough was enough. Didn't say a thing...waited for him to do his business, and I grabbed that ponytail. I'll spare you the details...to make a long story short...after his head came out of the comode for the last time, he was praising the American soldier, apologizing every which way he knew how. He a had a complete change in attitude. I'm not sure what he said or did after he walked out, but I'll bet you that guy never disrespected a U.S. soldier ever again."
At about the time Peterson was being recruited into the military, the sport of auto racing got his attention.
“When I was about 14 or 15, I’d hang around a guy who worked out of his garage. He had a dirt car, and I’d go with him to the track. He’d let me warm it up every now and then. It got to where I was faster than the driver, so that started my driving career.
“When I was stationed at Fort Bragg, I bought an old ’48 Hudson. Made it a dirt car. Ran Rockingham on the dirt with it. Eventually, I met Lee Petty and I gassed a car for Lee. Worked a little for Junior Johnson. Worked for him on the DiGard team. He owed me a little money so he gave me a racecar. Went to Talladega with Lenny Pond driving it. Then I went to Rockingham, Atlanta, Daytona…with me driving. Then I found out I couldn’t afford me, so I started renting it out.
“Then I dropped back to ARCA…had a lot of really good drivers drive the car…Joe Booher, Joe Ruttman, Greg Sacks…Brad Smith, Mike Harmon. There’s been a lot of them over the years.”
Peterson himself made 69 ARCA starts over the years but is most known for his role as car owner/crew chief. His 06 Kan Do Dodge carried James Swanson to a ninth place finish in championship driver standings in 2014. Prior to his ARCA career, he was a crew member for Richard Petty.
“I was good friends with Lee (Petty)…good friends with Maurice, Richard’s brother. Worked in the engine room. Found out you could be friends with Maurice, or you could be friends with Dale Inman (Richard Petty’s crew chief), but not both. Dale and Richard talked on the radio, and I think there was a little jealousy there between Maurice and Dale.
“But Lee was a pretty amazing guy I always thought. Lee was the first guy who started racing NASCAR for a living. Everyone else that raced had jobs they went to, but Lee decided to make a living out of it, and he did. He was, what you’d call, frugal with the dollar…tight with a dollar. He had to be to make it work.”
Peterson also spent a good bit of time racing at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, the next stop on the ARCA tour.
"I kept two cars...worked on them in Preacher Hamilton's shop...that was Bobby Sr.'s grandfather. Called him Preacher Hamilton because he wouldn't race on Sundays. Anyway, I took care of two cars, one for Marty Robbins and one for me. I did the work and Marty paid the bills. We had to work like hell to get the race in...Marty would change clothes in the back of the van and we'd hustle him out so he could go do his gig at the Grand Ole Opry. He was the last act of the night - 11:30 to 12:00."
While racing served as a release for Peterson, he could never quite completely escape his experiences overseas.
“It stays with you. You bring it home. You’d like to leave it there, but you can’t. There were so many instances where it’d raise your hair. I met some great people. I could have stayed home towards the end of Nam. I feel like the reason I went back…there were younger guys I trained, and, knowing what was in store for ‘em, you wanted to know they could be as safe as they could be.
"I'm nervous for the future of our country. We're like a 'paper tiger'...nobody's afraid of us. Look how small North Korea is, yet they're a threat...they're a nuclear power. That should not have been allowed to happen.
"My faith is still in the soldiers. There are so many great qualities to military people. You know…military folks sacrifice themselves so that their brothers in arms may gain. It ain’t always like that in the civilian world where people sacrifice the other guy so that they can personally gain. Who’s got it right?
"Three or four percent of the people really know what war is. I did some things I’m not proud of, but things happen when you’re in the survival mode. You'd have to walk in the same boots to begin to understand it. I did a lot more things that I’m very proud of. Would I do it again? Without question.”
By Don Radebaugh, firstname.lastname@example.org