Peter J. Schunk
US Army, 101st Airborne Division,
101st Aviation Unit – Spec Five
Vietnam War (1967 -1969)
As a draftee in the Vietnam War, Peter Schunk and his story represent the determination, valor, and courage millions of young men had to take on rapidly in the span of just a few years during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in the United States of America.
Peter Schunk has always had ties to Marin County. Born in San Rafael on October 30th, 1943, Schunk grew up and went to school all around Marin. Schunk lived for a while in Fairfax where he went to elementary school and moved to San Rafael where he attended San Rafael High. He didn’t travel too far to go to college either; Schunk enrolled in San Jose Staté for college in 1962. Schunk’s father was a World War I veteran who worked as a custodian and provided for his family until his unfortunate death in 1957 when Schunk was in the eighth grade. Schunk’s mother was a homemaker who supported Schunk and his siblings very much and who became the breadwinner of Schunk’s family when his father died. Both of Schunk’s older brothers, like his father, served in the military. His eldest brother went through ROTC training for the Army and later became an officer while his second eldest brother served in the Air Force in France during the early ‘60’s. Although Schunk didn’t know it at the time, he would later become involved in the military as well once the United States decided to support South Vietnam in resisting communism; a political decision that would later entangle the United States in what would become one of the most infamous wars the States has ever been involved in.
When Schunk reached the age of 24, he was working in San Francisco as a board marker at a stock-brokerage business known as the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. He had just finished bumming around the South with two close friends seeing and enjoying the landscapes and culture when he was notified he would have to take a physical to see if he was eligible for the draft. Prior to that notice, Schunk didn’t think he could be drafted due to the fact that he had a deferment because he was enrolled in college. After he graduated however, he lost his deferment and had to make the decision of whether he would “set off for Canada or roll the dice”.
Schunk chose the latter and ended up being drafted by the Army in 1967. When he went to Oakland to be evaluated, as all the draftees in the area were required to do, he noticed that he was significantly older than most of the soon-to-be soldiers there. Being 24 and being surrounded by young men who were 17 and 18 left a lasting impression on Schunk of who actually fought the Vietnam War for the United States. When he was drafted, Schunk was also, as he put in his own words, “luckily overweight”. He described himself this way due to the fact that while at the induction center, a Marine sergeant lined up every draftee and handpicked the men who looked healthy, stocky, and fast to be drafted into the Marine Corps. According to Schunk, because he was in terrible shape, he was spared having to serve with the men he believed were being trained to do most most of the killing in Vietnam. Although he didn’t go into the Marines, unfortunately Schunk was nowhere near out of the woods yet.
Schunk was drafted into the Army and was subsequently sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, in December of 1967 for Basic Training. Schunk remembered that the air always seemed to be dry and frigid while the weather was always snowy. He and the other men in Basic Training lived in barracks which routinely had all of the windows open due to the meningitis scare at the fort during that year. While Schunk was going through Basic Training, in January of 1968 the Tet Offensive, which was a massive attack by the Vietcong on the South Vietnamese city of Saigon, seemed to accelerate and diminish the quality of Schunk’s training. In terms of how fast they were being ran through the program, as Schunk put it, “They almost took us right from Fort Lewis to put helmets on us and ship us over to Vietnam.” The intensifying of the training at Fort Lewis took a large toll on Schunk; he had been losing so much weight at such a fast rate that at the end of his first twelve weeks, he had lost 43 pounds and had ended up in the hospital with what resembled flu-like symptoms. While he was recovering in the military hospital at the fort, because of the heavy casualties inflicted on the American Army during the Tet Offensive, Schunk witnessed an influx of countless wounded soldiers being taken to the hospital straight from Vietnam. As he said himself, “It was a pretty traumatic experience to see those men hurt like they were.” Once Schunk recovered, he proceeded to finish his Basic Training. For his “final exam”, Schunk and his fellow draftees were made to pass different trials such as low-crawling underneath barbed wire, crawling through sand, and sprinting across fields; all while being timed and while they were carrying heavy equipment and weapons. Although these trails were meant to be very difficult and were supposed to serve as a way to distinguish between soldiers fit for war and those who shouldn’t be anywhere near a battlefield, as Schunk remembered, “(the instructors) put down canvas over the sand. And lo and behold, when you start crawling, Your speed would just double…In other words, you couldn’t not pass. They were able to run you through…They had quotas to fulfill.” Schunk passed his final exam, as he was supposed to, and was sent to Fort Eustis, Virginia for additional training. Schunk was selected to be enrolled in what was known as “transportation school”. In Virginia, he would finally learn what his role in Vietnam would be.
At Fort Eustis, Schunk learned a lot of interesting information about the mechanics and schematics involved in many different military vehicles. He learned how to drive trains, he was educated on different types of boats, was taught how to recognize certain tank designs, learned about different helicopter models, and in general, learned about all methods of mechanized transportation.
While he was at Fort Eustis, Schunk was assigned the specialty “Single-rotor turbine utility helicopter repairman and door gunner”. This meant that before he was allowed to leave for Vietnam, he would be expected to know the blueprints of and how to repair Huey, UH-1C, and ID helicopters. He would also be expected to know how to shoot out of each helicopter with good accuracy and precision. When he finished transportation school at Fort Eustis, Schunk was sent to Travis Air Force Base, in his home state of California. He would be sent to Vietnam from there.
Clad in his Class A uniform, the most formal attire the Army supplied its troops with at the time, Schunk and his fellow soldiers were put on a 707 plane headed to Alaska with a connecting flight to Japan. From Japan, the men would eventually depart for Vietnam. Almost immediately after the 707 took off, the plane began to have engine issues and was forced to stay in Anchorage, Alaska for a couple weeks where Schunk and the other military personnel aboard the plane were put up in a motel. Schunk’s flying experiences didn’t improve from there. The flight to Japan was alright, however from Japan to Vietnam was a whole different story. As Schunk recalled regarding the flight, “On the way there was this typhoon, right when we had to land in Vietnam. And I swear the wings on the plane were flapping. I… you’re in there with all these guys, and it’s just packed.” He went on to say, while laughing, “When we landed in Vietnam, it was down in the southern part of Vietnam, and I was never so happy to get on the ground in my life, even though it was Vietnam.”
After he landed in Vietnam, and was given some time to be thankful for the fact that his plane didn’t crash, Schunk received additional in-country training where he learned to fire M16 machine guns and also learned to fire what are known as LAWs, which were commonly used portable rocket launchers during the Vietnam War. After he finished that training, Schunk found out that he would be serving in the 101st Airborne Division. Initially, upon hearing the news that he was assigned to the 101st, Schunk was nervous due to the fact that the 101st had a reputation for being traditionally home to the paratroopers in the Army. Luckily for him, he “never saw a parachute the whole time.” While Schunk was in the 101st, the general mission of the Division was to provide aerial firepower as cover for the Army to retrieve wounded soldiers. The 101st was also responsible for using their powerful Cobra Gunships to supply cover for Medevac helicopters which had to go into LZs to retrieve wounded troops aerially and bring them to the base nearest to their location. Every day while he was there, Schunk was responsible for finding out the status of the different helicopters that were part of the 101st, and repairing them if need be. As he put it, “About every 25 hours, they had to perform maintenance on these things, and, you know, the maintenance was incredible. And so you had to keep the parts flowing. You ordered from the back, the rear units, and parts you could use to fix these things.” Schunk also was responsible for fixing helicopters and manning guns while the helicopter was still in the air. On most of the helicopters Schunk rode in, there was always one pilot and copilot and two door gunners. One door gunner was the crew chief and the other was in charge of the welfare of the ordinances, which was Schunk’s role. Schunk was also responsible for retrieving the water that everyone drank at his base; each day in the early hours of the morning, he filled up jug after jug to supply every member at the base with fresh water. Considering that even on a good day in Vietnam, the average daily temperature can rise over 105°F, Schunk’s daily role in retrieving the base’s water was vital to the welfare of the servicemen at his base. After supplying the base with water each day, and checking each of the Division’s helicopters and filing reports, Schunk often found himself with some free time at the end of each day in which he would read many books. In terms of the relationships Schunk made with his fellow soldiers while in Vietnam, he stated, “You’re only there for one year, and so you really didn’t develop real good relationships… most of them were, you know, there for a year, and then recycling out. And so it was just sort of everyone…looking forward to getting out of there.” Schunk went on to say, after meeting and learning the stories of a large amount of his fellow soldiers, that, “You never had the idea that you had a mission to complete. It was just…always ongoing, and…90 percent of the people were determined to do what they had to do to get out.” Due to the fact that Schunk saw so many crippled and injured young men in the hospital he was in while at Fort Lewis, and because he saw the destructive nature of warfare first hand while in Vietnam, he identified with the men looking to get out of the war as well. Schunk would still go on to respect and complete his objectives with the 101st Airborne, respect his superior officers, and respect and serve his country, but he could not morally respect or support the conflict the United States was involved in while in Vietnam. He had seen too much of the impact that war had on people, both American and Vietnamese alike.
Schunk was released from the United States Army 5 months early in Oakland, California in 1969. Schunk recalled that, upon landing, he immediately “phoned up a couple of my buddies, who came over from San Rafael, picked me up, and brought me back home.” And just like that, Peter Schunk’s service in the Army ended. Fortunately for Schunk, he was a Vietnam veteran coming home to Marin County. He didn’t face any of the abuse returning veterans in other parts of country were subjected to, nor did he have to endure being isolated by his community. As put in his own words, “ I didn’t have anybody spitting on me or anything like that. It was just…You know, here in Marin. And it just sort of just absorbed me.” After taking some time to readjust to civilian life, fish, and reacquaint himself with Marin Country, Schunk decided he would go back to school at the College of Marin to learn more about business and economics. After flunking out and re-enrolling, Schunk remembered that he fell deeply in love with the subjects, and subsequently with the idea of working at a stock-brokerage firm. After his time at College of Marin, he began to make intricate plans to apply to certain businesses and to work in the industry. Unfortunately, the times in which people live in don’t always facilitate the necessary environment for working in the field you want to. In the years following 1969, Schunk just couldn’t seem to get and keep a job in the stock business. Feeling pressured by drawing unemployment insurance and repeatedly receiving letters asking why he wasn’t working, Schunk decided to apply for a job at the local Post Office. He ended up passing the required test and being hired as a letter carrier in San Anselmo. At the time, Schunk recalled thinking to himself, “This is temporary job – I said, “I’ll do this until the stock market turns around, or the brokerage business and can join some day.” Schunk ended up spending nearly 30 years being a prominent letter carrier and supervisor all across Marin County; he worked in San Anselmo, Fairfax, San Rafael, and other small towns and cities in the area helping people get their mail. After he retired from the Post Office, Schunk spent an additional years working as a custodian at a local school in Novato near where he lives. When telling me why he never followed up on his initial infatuation with the stock-brokerage business, Schunk explained how when he ended up getting married and having children, his priorities shifted from wanting to take risks to wanting to keep the steady work he had to provide for his loving family. To this day, Schunk is still very interested in the stock market, and although it’s been more than 40 years since he initially fell in love with it, the stock-brokerage business is just as intriguing to him as it ever was. Schunk currently lives happily in Novato with his wife and is a prominent member of his community. To this day, Schunk is a true patriot at heart, and although he fought in a war he didn’t intend to, he continues to believe in and support the United States, its core values, and its military.
Interview by Joshua Dov Epstein on March 19th, 2016