Peter A. Bunting dreamed of becoming a marine biologist and enrolled at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., but his grades in algebra “killed him,” and he flunked out.
With the Vietnam War in full swing in the late 1960s, it was not a good time to lose his student deferment for the draft. He applied for readmission after the mandatory wait of a year and was reaccepted by the university in early December 1968 for the semester starting in January.
But the same day he received that letter, a draft notice also appeared “in the same mailbox” addressed to him.
Thinking he had the upper hand in postponing the draft, he arrived at the draft board in Virginia Beach and presented his college reinstatement letter.
“The woman there said to me, ‘That’s fine. You don’t have to show up.’ The draft notice had said I had to show up in the early part of March. But she also said to me that at the end of the current semester, they would take a look at my grades and see if I was still a student.
“I explained to her that I was reaccepted for the next semester in January, and I wouldn’t have any grades because I wasn’t in school at the time. She said, ‘Then you have to show up.’
“I said, ‘What happens if I don’t?’
“She said, ‘You either show up or spend two years in jail.’ ”
So much for his student deferment.
Bunting decided to make best of the situation.
“I said, ‘I want to become a helicopter pilot.’ ”
He aced a flight test and interview.
“They accepted me and sent me for a flight physical. I was told that I passed but that there was just one problem – I was colorblind,” he says. “They explained to me that the wires inside a helicopter are pastel colors, and if I ever had to put down the helicopter after it took a round, I wouldn’t be able to repair the wires.”
So much for becoming a pilot. He was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training, followed by infantry training at Fort Polk, La. Thirty days later, he was on his way to Vietnam, a member of the 25th Infantry Division, Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment.
“I was basically a straight leg, a ground pounder, and that’s when I learned about actually flying on helicopters. We would pull eagle flights. We’d set down in landing zones – LZs – for search-and-destroy operations. We’d look around, and if there was nothing there, we’d be picked up again and taken to another LZ and do the same thing over again.”
He has never forgotten his first eagle mission into an LZ. “We were accompanied by Cobra gunship helicopters, and they started firing rockets and their miniguns as we’re landing. We are on a ‘slick,’ a Huey transport helicopter, and the gunners on the two doors are also shooting. I’m thinking to myself, ‘We’re going into some pretty serious stuff.’ Nobody had told me that this was standard to prepare the LZ for us to land.”
The second time he landed, the same thing happened, and he realized that a “hot LZ” was routine.
“Nobody tells the brand-new guy anything,” he says, chuckling in recalling the experience, although at the time, it was anything but amusing.
He recalled flying more than 25 missions, earning an Air Medal, and remembers one of those missions in particular. His unit was ordered to fight a large contingent of North Vietnamese soldiers who had shot down a light observation helicopter, or LOH, that had been on a reconnaissance mission trying to locate the enemy’s whereabouts.
“The LOH had been hit with a .51-caliber machine gun, and when that happened, we knew that there was a large enemy battalion. Only battalion size units had the .51 caliber.”
Enemy fire prevented the helicopters transporting Bunting’s company from landing.
“We had to jump out real quick, and elephant grass below was at least 6 feet high,” he says. “You don’t realize that. You expect maybe it to be 3 feet high. So we hit the ground and we split platoons. One platoon secured the LZ; one went to the left and the other to the right. The platoon that went to the right, the 2nd Platoon, ended up in contact, and in the initial contact, the platoon leader, the lieutenant, was killed, and so was his radio operator.
“We settled down because we had to figure out what we were going to do. I was on point that day with the 3rd Platoon. So when these two guys were killed, we had to go up and pull them out. Me being the first guy, I’m going up this trail and I look up, lucky for me, because there is an F-100 jet making a strafing run. The jet had 20-millimeter explosive rounds, and I jumped behind this huge tree.
“The rounds blew up all around us. Basically, I was right in front of this strafing run, and when it stopped, I was able to get up to the lieutenant, and we put him on a poncho and we had to carry him back down the trail. I guess the worst thing about it was the guy had been shot in the chest and as you picked him up, there was a gush of blood blowing all over my boots and pants. That haunts me. He had a wedding ring on. I’m thinking about his family. He’s just dead, and they don’t know.”
Shortly after returning the lieutenant to the LZ, Bunting says, the radio operator’s body arrived.
“This guy was a handsome man. He had blond hair and blue eyes. Since he was killed instantly, his eyes didn’t even shut. His eyes were wide-open,” Bunting recalls. “I have nightmares about staring blue eyes. We called in helicopters to remove the two guys. Then we called in the South Vietnamese army to let them do the fighting, but they didn’t arrive until the next day. We had to dig in and spend the night.”
And it was a long night.
“We could hear the North Vietnamese chopping wood to reinforce bunkers,” Bunting says. “They were there to stay. They were busy all night. The next morning, we moved out to try and flank them, and as we move up to a little stream, there’s this NVA there filling up canteens to take care of his buddies. The point men started opening up on this guy. The guy left the canteens and ran off. He got away.”
Shortly after that, reinforcements from the South Vietnamese army and took over the fight. Bunting’s unit returned to the LZ and was flown safely back to their fire support base.
As for what became of the crew on the downed observation chopper, he never knew. “They never told us things like that,” he says.
After completing his service, he returned to Old Dominion, took business studies and graduated on the dean’s list. His careers included banking, advertising, employment recruitment and finally sales of factory equipment that took him around the world.
The war, though, remains an ugly memory.
“I have post-traumatic stress, and I have heart disease from Agent Orange,” he says. “I have dreams, and they keep getting worse. I’m always defending myself in my sleep.”
Bunting, the father of three grown children proudly points out that his father, Davis Bunting, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served in World War II aboard a submarine in the Pacific. He adds that his son Peter Jr. served in the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan, adding, “I’m a big supporter of this country.”
Peter A. Bunting Sr.,66
Hometown: New London, Conn.
Residence: Lake View
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: 1969-71
Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge