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Bob Lind, Published January 26 2013

Lind: North Dakota grad escaped enemy territory safely in Vietnam

Richard Pieterick was on the Wolford (N.D.) High School basketball team that lost the 1968 North Dakota state Class B championship game to Casselton.

Sure, it was tough to lose the big game. But that was nothing compared to the experience he’d have later, in a place called Vietnam.

Going down

Richard, the youngest of nine kids, graduated from high school, attended the Bottineau (N.D.) School of Forestry, went back to the farm and then was drafted for two years. But he signed on for an additional year so he could get into aviation, something that had always interested him.

In 1971, he was sent to Vietnam and became crew chief on a helicopter that primarily flew high-ranking officers, including generals, on scouting missions.

On Aug. 12, 1972, Spec. 4 Pieterick and the pilot, Warrant Officer David Sheppard, took off, this time carrying a civilian contractor and his German shepherd dog.

But the chopper’s governor failed, and the craft began losing altitude.

David had no choice but to land the helicopter, which he did, safely, and with no damage to the vehicle.

But there was a major problem: They were in enemy territory.

Incoming shells

“We tried Mayday calls, but got no answer,” Richard says. “So we gathered up things and started walking east, knowing friendly forces were that way.

“Our weapons were a rifle and a pistol; nothing else.

“It was 7 at night, but it was still light, in a valley area, not really forested, so we could see quite a ways.

“We found trails, and eventually, in tall grass, we settled down for the night.”

It was freezing cold, and black ants, mosquitoes and spiders were crawling all over them and biting.

They managed to remain still and quiet, however, and other than the distress from the cold and bugs, the night was “pretty uneventful,” Richard says. But that was about to change.

“One of us always stayed awake to keep watch,” he says. “But the others didn’t really sleep, not after the artillery shells started coming in.

“We could hear the shells, and shrapnel was cutting through the trees above our heads,” he says.

They thought it was from the enemy. Later they found it was fire from friendly forces, which had spotted them and began firing.

They also saw a light moving around in the distance. They couldn’t tell for sure, but it could have been the enemy looking for them.

The men hunkered down for the night, with the civilian holding the dog’s mouth shut so he wouldn’t bark.

Happily, they escaped injury. When the sun came up, they continued walking east until they came to a South Vietnamese firebase and an American adviser station, where they learned they’d been listed as missing an action.

But now they were safe – hungry, because they’d had no food for a long time, but safe.

Reunion in Fargo

Richard eventually came home “just in time to go goose hunting,” he says. He farmed with his brothers at Wolford, then became a rural mail carrier at Wolford and then at Rugby, N.D.

Between the Army and the Postal Service, he’s given 34 years of service to the U.S.

Richard now lives in West Fargo, where he is custodian for Weisgram Metal Fab. He and his wife, Denise, have two daughters, Channa, Phoenix, and Kellie, Grand Forks.

A while ago, Richard tracked David down. He retired from the service as a brigadier general and lives in Niskayuna, N.Y.

Richard invited him to Fargo, where he showed him the sights, including the air museum (“He was highly impressed,” Richard says), Bonanzaville and West Acres, including the Roger Maris Museum, which also impressed him, since he’s a New York Yankees fan but didn’t know Roger was from Fargo.

Looking back on the Vietnam incident, Richard says the three men “got along well, working as a team.”

Above all, he salutes David, saying: “He kept his cool, he didn’t panic, he showed leadership.”

He also notes that though David had 7,000 hours of flying time, this was the only time he was forced to go down.

David, on the other hand, writes Neighbors that Richard was “the real hero during those two days and one night in the jungle.” He was “a very brave soldier as witnessed by me,” David says, “and he was instrumental in getting all of us to safety.”

So, last year, the two had their reunion, and at a meaningful time. It was on Aug. 12, exactly 40 years to the day since they’d gone down in enemy country in Vietnam.


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