Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Peterson's family military history predates nation.
The Purple Heart marks a major decoration for the line of Petersons. Mike Peterson’s father, Don Peterson, served in the Third Army Air Corps during the Second World War. His father’s father, Elmer Peterson, was awarded a Croix d’Guerre for his actions at the battle of Belleau Wood in France.
Through his mom’s side of the family, Peterson’s bloodline touches almost every major conflict in American history. Peterson’s uncle, Franklin T. Pettibone, was a bombardier with the 20th Army Air Corps during World War II who published memoirs of the incendiary bombing of Tokyo. The Pettibone line includes veterans of the Mexican War, War of 1812, Revolutionary War, King Phillip’s War and the French and Indian War.
Peterson’s great-great grandfather (on his grandmom’s side) fought for the Union during the Civil War, notably in events that would likely be described as a special forces mission had they occurred in modern times. William H.H. Reddick became one of the most famous soldiers in American history when he received the Medal of Honor after volunteering for a covert raid that became known as “The Great Locomotive Chase.”
His third-great uncle, George M.E. Shearer, was a Confederate major, part of the militia that took down John Brown at Harpers Ferry, who came to Idaho in 1867 and led the White Bird Volunteers at the White Bird canyon battle during the 1877 Nez Perce War.
Peterson enlisted in 1975 on a delayed entry while he was still in high school. He entered basic training as an E-2 in 1976 and joined the second Ranger battalion that year. In 1979 he moved to Alaska, where he rapidly climbed the ranks. He became platoon sergeant in 1983.
Thirty years ago last Thursday, having descended onto the Caribbean island of Grenada
five days prior, Michael Peterson of Grangeville and his company of elite U.S. Army Rangers returned to the homeland, having completed a lightning-quick campaign in what became informally known as the Sunday to Sunday War.
Grenada’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1974 was followed by a
Marxist-Leninist coup in 1979 and, during the early 1980s and with Cuban assistance, the development of an armed force and the construction of an international airport. In 1983, an outbreak of political violence prompted Operation Urgent Fury, for which 600 Rangers and various special forces were mobilized to spearhead an invasion that deployed 2,000 Marines and 25 Navy ships (some of which were bound for Beirut, where deadly bombings had hit a Marine barracks on Oct. 21), as well as 6,100 soldiers of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and myriad Air Force elements.
On the 25th of October, 1983, Peterson was the last man to parachute from one of the lead planes, a C130 cargo plane whose floor was covered with the former contents of the unit’s 30 rucksacks, which Peterson’s unit had repacked during the flight.
Having departed the U.S. mainland at dusk intending to land with a load of jeeps on the newly constructed international airstrip at Point Salinas, the southeast edge of the island, the Rangers re-rigged for a daylight drop into a combat zone when they learned defensive obstacles would prevent initial landings.
Sergeant First Class Peterson, who was then, he said, the youngest E-7 in the Army, shed everything but his weapons (a 23-pound M60 machine gun and a nine-pound MP5SD submachine gun), water (four quarts) and spare socks (one pair) and stuffed his rucksack with ammunition.
As the men lined up to jump, the planes arrived over the drop zone at about 6:30 a.m. local time. The earlier planes of the First Battalion Rangers were met with anti-aircraft fire at 800 feet, so the Second Battalion flew in below 500 feet – lower than the AA guns could aim.
“The medic pointed to a pouch on his chest and said ‘If anything happens to me, the morphine is right here,” Peterson recalled. “Then the commander (Lt. Col. Ralph Hagler) said ‘Let’s do it, boys.”
Because the low altitude would allow no time to deploy reserve parachutes, they piled out of the planes without backups. Peterson landed in the grass beside the middle of the runway, near the first batallion’s drop zone, where he linked up with Master Sergeant George Conrad. They immediately engaged in a firefight with a hostile position defending the airport.
“I put down suppressive fire, and about 30 seconds later, the hands came up,” Peterson said. “We captured eight men, the two of us. I covered Conrad and he went up. We set ‘em down in a ditch. He searched them and took all their weapons.”
As work to clear the airfield began in earnest, Peterson moved to a flanking position on the next objective – clearing nearby buildings.
“The sun was beating down on our backs by then,” Peterson said. “The four quarts of water didn’t last half the day.”
At about 1 p.m., the high ground was secured and the Rangers reconsolidated and moved on to their next objective: securing the True Blue campus, where a number of students of St. George’s School of Medicine were housed.
Shortly after the first aircraft successfully landed at Point Salinas, three Grenadian armored vehicles moved down a road toward Peterson’s platoon, where two of the three were immediately knocked out.
“One of my soldiers, Sgt. Pickering, used a 90mm recoilless rifle,” Peterson said. “His first shot went right over the top of the lead vehicle and hit the second one. He lowered his sight and knocked out the first, and the third fled.”
The Rangers slept on their parachutes that night, and evacuated Grand Anse – another St. George’s campus – the next day. They deployed to and from the campus in aircraft carrier-based CH-56 helicopters.
“Our job was to provide security while another unit went into the buildings,” Peterson said. “As we were loading up to leave, there were less and less people firing from our side, so the helicopters were moving farther and farther out to avoid incoming fire. I wasn’t one of the last guys out, but the last ones were boarding the helicopters 50 yards into the ocean, as far out as they could load up the ramps.”
The next day, the Rangers attacked the Calvigny Barracks in the last major action of the invasion. Four Black Hawk helicopters flew in to the site northeast of the Point Salinas, where two collided and fell into a group of Rangers already on the ground. Three were killed and several others were severely wounded.
Peterson was caught up in the accident, and after the fighting, was awarded the Purple Heart.
After three days on the island, the Rangers’ work in Grenada was done. Peterson went on to duties as a Ranger instructor in 1984, and in 1991 returned to Alaska, where he had received much of his early training. He went to the 101st Airborne Division, based in Kentucky, until his retirement in 1996. In total, he made 362 parachute jumps during his 20-year career.
“The first jump in jump school is automatic or instinctive,” he said. “It’s the second one you really remember.”
And of course, in Grangeville, his service in Grenada will never be forgotten.