As he was released after 6 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Douglas "Pete" Peterson settled one issue for himself:
"I decided when I came out of there I was not going to be a lifetime POW," he says. "I didn't want to go through a remorseful process my whole life. I just wanted to go on."
And so he did. He raised a family, succeeded in business and is ending his third term as a Democratic member of Congress from the Florida Panhandle.
But now, 23 years after his release, Peterson hopes to be going back -- as the first American ambassador to Hanoi.
He visited the country twice as a congressman and "went through the cathartic process." But Vietnam remains with him, "just riveted to my life. Every time I turn around, it's there. I've realized it's part of me."
It remains part of America. The war in Southeast Asia killed 58,000 American soldiers and scarred the nation with anger and bitterness, scars still felt today, more than 20 years after the last U.S. troops left Hanoi.
There are those Americans, including some in Congress, who do not believe it is time to send an official envoy to a nation that so recently was an enemy. There are those who believe that Hanoi is still holding back information on men who are listed still as missing in action.
Peterson's confirmation may be delayed by those disagreements.
But the ambassador-designate, 60, is looking to the future. He's even got a starting day in mind, according to Bernard L. Talley, the former Baltimorean who was Peterson's co-pilot on their last mission over Vietnam and who shares a grim anniversary with him: "He said, 'What would you think about me taking the job on our shoot-down date?' " Talley, an American Airlines pilot, said from his Dallas home. "That would be the 10th of September."
Both bailed out
On Sept. 10, 1966, Peterson, an Omaha-born Air Force captain, was on his 67th mission over Vietnam, headed to bomb a railroad line. Surface-to-air missiles brought down their plane near a village about 60 miles from Hanoi.
Both men bailed out. Talley, who wasn't even bruised, tried to carry Peterson, immobilized by a broken knee, shoulder and ribs. But Peterson ordered Talley to leave.
"The Vietnamese were already looking for us with flashlights and everything," Talley remembers. "I figure it was about 40 minutes or so and I heard all this gunfire. And I remember my heart dropping to the bottom of my body."
Captured the next day, Talley says, he and Peterson communicated on and off over the next several years by talking through prison walls or tapping out messages cell to cell.
For the first three years after Peterson was shot down, his wife, Carlotta, and his children did not know if he was alive. Carlotta Peterson, who died a year ago, became active in the campaign to win the POWs' release. "His wife kept up almost weekly correspondence with my mother almost the whole seven years we were away," Talley says.
In March 1973, Peterson was one of nearly 600 POWs who returned to the United States, amid jubilation as part of "Operation Homecoming."
Whatever dark emotions haunted Peterson during his captivity, he says he left them in his Vietnamese prison cells. "I really don't have any bitterness or anger," he says. "I discarded that. I used it all up. I used every bit of it up when I was in prison. I realized if I didn't get off that, it would eat up my life."
Dr. Wallace Kennedy, a Florida State University psychology professor, believes Peterson had dropped his POW identity even before the plane carrying him home had landed. A photograph in Peterson's office shows him exchanging salutes with the president, Kennedy says, and nothing in Peterson's bearing betrays anything of the victim or martyr.
"You could see he was over it," Kennedy says. "He was just done with that."
Peterson retired as a colonel after 26 years in the military and lived in Tampa, where he ran a construction business. But after his teen-age son Douglas died in a car wreck in 1983, the Peterson family moved to Marianna, Mrs. Peterson's hometown, with their surviving son and daughter.
In the Panhandle town, Peterson started a small computer business and called Kennedy, at Florida State, about a job counseling hard-core juvenile offenders serving terms at the Dozier School.
"We just absolutely lucked out," Kennedy says. "He had just had his beloved son killed in a car wreck. He and his wife were pulling themselves back together. We had an opening, and here was this wonderful, wonderful man.
"He was able to establish a rapport with these boys. He had an open door. He was available. They were feeling sorry for themselves because they were behind 10-foot fences, and he had been in a bamboo cage."
He didn't tell war stories, Kennedy says. He just didn't accept excuses. "He thought they should get on with their lives."
In 1990, with no political experience, Peterson decided to run for Congress. "You can't beat an incumbent unless you walk on water," Kennedy says. "And he just happens to walk on water. He didn't have any money. He didn't have any PACs. He just had Pete."
The worst thing Kennedy could find to say about Peterson is that "he has a bad habit of telling people the truth. He sees life is short. I guess when you've been in a prison, you decide not to waste time."
Jay Hakes, who advised Peterson in his first campaign, says the candidate was so low-key, so nonpolitical, that he didn't want to mention he'd been a POW. "I had to argue with him that this was part of his life," Hakes says.
James L. Bacchus, a Florida Democrat elected the same year, shared an apartment with Peterson for four years. He didn't discuss Vietnam, says Bacchus, now a World Trade Organization judge. It was three years before Bacchus realized Peterson had been so abused in captivity that he couldn't walk into a store and buy ordinary shoes. Injuries to his feet required special footware.
In Congress, Peterson lived sparely. A Roman Catholic who attends Mass regularly, he made his bed every day, "ate chicken-noodle soup far too often," Bacchus says, "and never even used a lot of hot water."
Quitting after 3 terms
Elected with surprising ease, Peterson established a record in Congress as a moderate Democrat -- which led to frustration in an increasingly partisan body. Largely because of that frustration, Peterson says, he shocked his party last year by announcing he would not run for a fourth term.
Moderation, Bacchus says, makes Peterson the perfect candidate for the ambassadorship to Vietnam.
"He can do a lot to reconcile America and Vietnam. He believes in reason rather than emotion. He believes in trying to find practical solutions, honorable compromises.
"I had a hard time coming to terms with the need for diplomatic recognition for Vietnam," Bacchus says. "Ultimately, I did because Pete did. He has somehow found it in his heart to forgive them for what they did to him. I figured if Pete could forgive them, I could as well."
"He is a Midwestern farm boy who wanted to fly," Bacchus says. "He served his country well. His greatest service may be about to begin."
Pub Date: 6/04/96