Two pilots, once enemies, now friends

U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson is greeted and welcomed into the home of Nguyen Danh Sinh, 70, in An Doai village 70 kilometers (44 miles) east of Hanoi on Sept. 10,1997. Sinh was one of two men who captured Peterson when his plane was shot down near Hanoi 31 years ago. Peterson went on to spend six years during the Vietnam war in prison in Hanoi.


By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 12, 2016

HANOI – Tu De, a 16-year-old from Hanoi, spent most of 1966 learning how to fly fighter planes in the Soviet Union.

Capt. Pete Peterson, a 10-year Air Force veteran, passed up a potential deferment that year, kissed his pregnant wife and children goodbye, and headed off to bomb enemy routes in Vietnam

Peterson’s story is well-documented: shot down and captured after 66 missions in 1966; imprisoned until 1973; and the first post-war U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in 1997.

De isn’t well-known, though the teenager tossed into a plane in central Vietnam at the height of the war rose to colonel before retiring.

Years later, after a series of get-togethers in the U.S. and Vietnam, the pilots were able to put their animosities behind them and find common ground.

Peterson, who now consults with businesses about operating in Vietnam, began translating the stories told by De and others for a book, which is about 80 percent complete.

“It’s incredibly forthright, telling details you couldn’t get any other way on how ferocious some of these air battles really were,” said Peterson, who spoke with Stars and Stripes from his home in Melbourne, Australia.

De came back to Vietnam in 1968 and flew anti-helicopter missions in his MiG-17 fighter.

“The Russians only taught us how to fly, not the strategy of fighting – and I had no experience,” De said. “I learned everything by myself.”

At first, De says he felt no fear because, as a young pilot, he didn’t really know who he was fighting. Later, he would learn about the U.S. pilots, who were often several years more experienced than he was. He grew particularly impressed with Marine Corps and Navy pilots, and learned when it was best to evade them.

“I felt very lucky to survive the fighting,” he said.

After the Vietnam War ended, De met with a Czech military attaché, who had good things to say about America, despite the Soviet influence at the time. De was astonished at first, but then considered past wars. Japan was a close ally of the U.S., even after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“I determined a very long time ago that it is better for us to reconcile our differences, rather than harbor spite."

- Pete Peterson, Vietnam veteran

A U.S. relationship must be valuable, if so many countries want to become their friend, he thought.

When Vietnam and the U.S. normalized relations in 1995, De welcomed it.

Five years later, he traveled to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he met with former U.S. pilots and heard new perspectives. For example, some insisted that the U.S. military didn’t lose, it withdrew – an idea he hadn’t heard.

There were lighthearted moments involving drinks, but also somber remembrances.

“I told them we should say thank you to God for returning our lives to us,” De said.

Earlier this year, he met with 12 U.S. pilots in Hanoi. They had hats made to commemorate the event, with a logo containing a “6.” It’s a reference to “Got your 6,” U.S. pilot slang for watching a wingmate’s back.

De met with Peterson and his wife, Vi Le, who once headed Australia’s trade commission to Vietnam, and the two pilots kept in touch.

Peterson has devoted much of his time since leaving public service to improving business and social links in Vietnam. His charity work through SwimSafe taught 500,000 children water survival skills in Vietnam and other parts of southeast Asia, Peterson said.

Peterson acknowledges that some of his former comrades “hated his guts” for coming back to Vietnam and start friendships with their former enemies.

Some veterans aren’t willing to forgive the deaths of their friends, sometimes by brutal means. Others don’t forget the pain, but prefer to look to something new.

“I determined a very long time ago that it is better for us to reconcile our differences, rather than harbor spite,” Peterson said. It doesn’t get you anywhere and you don’t make any progress with that.”

Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

Tu De, a former North Vietnam pilot, wears a hat he received at a meeting of former U.S. and Vietnamese pilots earlier this year.