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Soldiers hurt in
ambush meet again after 34 years; they held hands
in a helicopter on way to hospital
VETERANS Larry Peters (left) and Darrell
Dickson are all smiles as they meet for
the first time since the day they
were wounded in an ambush in
Vietnam 34 years ago. (Larry
Guard Associate Editor
This Memorial Day weekend was a special one for
Darrell Dickson of Paragould and Larry Peters of
Overland Park, Kan.
Thirty-four years ago, the two held hands in a
helicopter on the way to a Saigon hospital after
being wounded in an ambush by the Viet Cong on the
Rach Dong Nhien River. That was the last time they saw
each other until Friday afternoon at the McDonald's parking
lot in Batesville.
After embracing and introducing their wives, Mary
Dickson and Norma Peters, all around, the two
veterans spent more than an hour looking through photo
albums of pictures and other memorabilia from their Vietnam
days - before going into the restaurant to reminisce and
do some more catching up.
They made contact with each other just eight days
earlier after Peters, who works for a company that
manufactures scrapbooks, photo frames and similar
items, was looking on a Web site for a combat engineers'
logo to use in connection with his job. He saw a posting
on one site from someone in his old military unit - Company
E, 1st Combat Engineering Battalion, 1968-69- and sent
a reply that was, in turn, posted on the message board.
"I posted a note that said I was there at that time
and was wounded on the river," Peters said.
Dickson took up the story: "We (he and his wife)
just got a new computer. I saw my particular
company (on the Web site) and clicked on it and Larry
Peters had left a message. I couldn't believe it. So I
hit it and his e-mail (address) came up."
Peters said he was more than surprised when
Dickson's e-mail arrived. "I was shocked," he said.
"I called my wife and said, 'You're not going to believe
On Feb. 10, 1969, Dickson and Peters, operating a
boat, were headed back to their night defensive
position after delivering infantrymen upriver. They
were the only occupants in their small boat, which
was the middle boat in a convoy of three.
"Larry was driving," Dickson said. "I looked over
and saw smoke coming out of a bush on the left side
of the river and I knew we were in trouble."
Dickson grabbed the craft's M60 machine gun and
returned heavy fire. Then a bullet hit him in the
left leg and tore through his pelvis. "I started
hearing RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and Claymores,"
he said. "I started passing in and out. I was helpless
after that. I had a lot of thoughts going through my mind."
Although a Claymore is a mine, the Viet Cong packed
them with nails, steel balls, nuts and bolts,
pieces of concrete, "anything they could find," and
placed them on riverbanks where they (the Viet Cong)
could detonate them at will, spraying a deadly hail of
metal and other items over the river, Peters said.
The ambushers were only about 100 feet away,
because the boat had to get close to the bank at
that point because of the river channel.
Peters said he remembers Dickson going down. "Then
I was in the river. The concussion from the RPG
blew me out of the boat. ... I was trying to stay
under water as long as I possibly could."
A Cobra gunship flying in support of the watercraft
came to their aid, spraying bullets at their
attackers. In the meantime, Peters had surfaced and
was trying to swim to the lead boat. Eventually, someone
pulled him into the boat.
"I had pieces of shrapnel in both hands," he said.
Later, he found he also had shrapnel in his
shoulder and neck. "I think that's what scared me the
worst, was finding shrapnel sticking out of my neck."
They were loaded into a helicopter and taken to a
hospital in Saigon. "They put me on the bottom
(berth) and Larry on top in that chopper, and his
hand dropped down," Dickson said. "I grabbed his hand
and we held hands on the way to the hospital."
"Darrell was covered in blood and I was bleeding,"
That was the last time they saw each other until
When they arrived at the hospital, they were hosed
down separately in "kind of like a car wash deal"
and hospitalized. Dickson was taken to Osaka,
Japan, for further treatment, then transferred to Fort
Leonard Wood, Mo., after a few weeks.
Peters said Saigon was "getting hit pretty hard"
just a few days after the ambush. "They evacuated
the hospital and put us (patients) on a C-130 and
got us out of there." He was taken to Cam Rahn Bay on
the east coast of Vietnam, where he remained a month before
being returned to active duty.
A military unit investigating the ambush found the
Viet Cong had dug tunnels into the river bank so
they could get within shooting distance and flee
afterward without being easily seen.
James "David" Plumlee, who was in one of the boats
in the convoy that day, died in a similar ambush
the following year, they said.
Peters and Dickson said the only things that saved
them was "that Cobra gunship" and "some help from
the Lord," not particularly in that order.
Both were 19 at the time. "We were just young
kids," Peters said.
They are 54 now. "We've changed a little," Dickson
joked after they met and embraced.
Dickson and Peters hadn't known each other very
long before being thrown together the day of the
ambush. The day before being wounded, they had spent
the night in a former South Vietnamese ambassador's house
on the river, and Peters gave pictures of that house, along
with several other pictures in a scrapbook, to Dickson
In their e-mails, when Peters mentioned he had a
picture he had taken of Dickson climbing a coconut
tree in Vietnam, "He remembered you taking that,"
Mrs. Dickson told Peters.
"We both got Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars for
what happened that day," Dickson said.
Both also went on to lead productive lives. After
finishing out his tour of duty in Vietnam, which
included another ambush attempt that was thwarted
by Cobra gunships, Peters returned to the Kansas City
area where he was raised, or mostly raised.
"I have relatives in Pleasant Plains," he said.
"And my father lives near Calico Rock. He's Melvin
Peters; he lives at Mount Olive. ... I went to
school one year at Pleasant Plains."
That, he said, was his sophomore year, when he
lived with his grandfather. He said he's kin to
Passmores and Sutters at Pleasant Plains.
The two met in Batesville because both were
visiting relatives in the area over the holiday
weekend. Dickson's wife, the former Mary Fleetwood, graduated
from Cave City High in 1973. Her parents, Ray and Della
Mae Fleetwood, live near Cave City and brothers Danny Fleetwood
and Karrell Fleetwood and sister Cathy Landers also live
in the area.
Peters still carries a physical reminder of the
ambush. An X-ray after a minor accident some years
after he returned to the states showed "one-half of
a hex nut" in his left arm, surprising the emergency
room doctor, he said.
Dickson, after returning to active duty in the
states to finish his time in service, returned to
the Paragould-Jonesboro area and went to work for
the postal department. He's now retired and speaks at
elementary schools each year on Veterans Day.
"The Vietnam veterans haven't been treated too well
by this country," he said. "I've gotten over it ...
(but) our country's going to have to stand behind
whatever we do. I think the veterans need to be
Peters said he feels more was at work than just
coincidence in his and Dickson's finding each
other. "I haven't been able to connect with anyone from
my unit, then to connect with the one who was on that same
boat, it's almost too much for coincidence," he said.
Dickson said he had long wanted to find Peters but
was looking in the wrong place, mistakenly thinking
Peters was from Arizona.
Both are now trying to connect with others from
their unit, and are starting to find some success.
Just four days before meeting with Dickson, Peters
located a former buddy in Iowa who was his best friend
during those days. They hope to meet again this summer.