Vietnam Vet has travelled the globe

When Pete Cholometes departed the airplane in San Francisco he never felt so discouraged in his entire life.
Cholometes had just returned to the United States aboard a commercial flight in 1968 in full dress uniform from Vietnam. Cholometes remembered he felt proud of his service. Yet the passengers on the plane wouldn’t look at him or talk to him. That event has stuck with him ever since.
“I stepped off the airplane and walked down the steps,” he said. “One civilian spit on me and said, ‘Thanks, [expletive], for fighting the war for me.’”
Pete Cholometes enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in January 1960 in Detroit. Cholometes spent 23 years in the USAF, with duty stations in Morocco, England, Germany and Alaska. He served in Vietnam from March 1967 through March 1968 and was sent to Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. Cholometes, a first generation American, whose family originated in Greece, was in country during the Tet Offensive.
After basic training, Cholometes was sent to Air Intelligence School at Sheppard AFB in Texas. His first tour, from May 1960 to May 1961, was in Morocco and North Africa. There Cholometes briefed the B-47 crews on operational missions against the Soviet Union, “So they wouldn’t attack us,” he said.
These missions were 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Cholometes plotted targets for the combat missions. He briefed pilots on missions prior to takeoff and debriefed the pilots once they landed. These included preplanned targets like missile depots and other components of what he called the “Russian war machine.”
After returning home to Michigan for a brief respite, Cholometes’ next assignment was at Wurtsmith AFB in Michigan in 1962. Using the newest model B52H (the H model is still in the Air Force inventory and is assigned to Air Force Global Strike Command and the Air Force Reserves), Cholometes once again plotted targets as if the U.S. was going to war with Russia.
From Wurtsmith AFB, Cholometes was ordered to Alconbury, England, AFB. Alconbury, a Royal Air Force (RAF) base run by the U.S. Air Force, was his home for the next three years. It was at Alconbury AFB that Cholometes worked intelligence with RB-66 (recognizance bombers) that flew from England to Russia. The RB-66 would come close to Russian air space and then turn, using the SLR (side looking radar) to look deep inside Russian borders.
Cholometes was stationed at Alconbury AFB when he volunteered for Vietnam in 1967. His younger brother was in college and Cholometes chose to go to Vietnam so his brother could finish his degree. When Pete returned from Vietnam his brother was drafted three months later.
“My first impression of Vietnam was when I arrived in Saigon,” Cholometes recalled.
He remembered jungle everywhere and that it was dirty by U.S. standards.
“The rivers flowed with feces and trash,” he said. “It was terrible.”
In his role as Operational Intelligence, Cholometes briefed every aircraft command twice daily (at 5 a.m. and again at 7 a.m.) for flights defoliating areas of Vietnam with Agent Orange.
The dollar stretched far in Vietnam.
“Everything was cheap,” he said. “For one dollar you could get a full meal. Beers were 50 cents. So you could buy a drink for all your buddies.”
The Vietnamese people were desperate to obtain American currency.
“When they saw an American, they saw dollars,” he said. “They would wash, iron and starch 15 shirts for two dollars. Those dollars could easily triple their income.”
One morning Cholometes rolled out of bed and narrowly escaped death.
“A Soviet rocket came through the hooch, went through my pillow and my mattress and landed in my locker,” he said.
He still has a piece of the 122mm rocket with the Russian markings on it.
Cholometes, a Catholic, has fond memories of visiting local children whose parents were off fighting with the Vietcong or those left orphaned.
Throughout his entire tour, four times a month Cholometes would take candy to those kids.
“I liked bringing joy to the kids that had no mom and dad,” he said.
While in Vietnam, Cholometes looked forward to receiving letters from his wife, Marge. They will celebrate their 50th anniversary March 30.
When he returned to the United States he was not the same person he was when he left.
“I was angry at America,” he said. “I was mad at the politicians and actors. Nobody was thankful when I returned.”
He described his Vietnam experience as a part of the bad times in America, when it was more right to do what was politically correct than to win the war.
“We had the power, we had the military, and we had the resolve early on – but then, as a nation, lost the resolve,” he said.
When he was spit on by the civilian in San Francisco, Cholometes took matters into his own hands. His AWOL bag contained a heavy Buddha statue from Vietnam and he dropped the bag on the civilian’s foot. Cholometes then hit the man in the head, which knocked the jeering taunter backward into a cement wall. He recalled with gratitude that the military police (MP) who intervened let him walk away.
Post-Vietnam, Cholometes returned once again to Michigan while on leave. From there it was off to Florida. He was stationed at Eglin AFB and it was there that Cholometes worked with special operations and obtained his jump wings, which was required. He taught pilots and crews in SERE (Survival, Evasion, Escape, Rescue) techniques in the swamps of Florida in preparation for their tours in Vietnam.
Cholometes had an interesting 23 year career with the Air Force. He served at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska, from 1969 to 1974 and then worked for NORAD inside the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. After serving at Stuttgart, Germany, for four years, under General Alexander Hague, Cholometes returned to his favorite duty station, Elmendorf AFB where he served out the remainder of his career. Cholometes retired from the USAF as a Master Sergeant in 1983.
Cholometes stayed in Alaska after retirement. An avid outdoorsman, Cholometes hunted deer and moose and fished for salmon and halibut. Other pursuits included snow machine racing and piloting his own plane, a Cessna 172.
Because of a desire to live closer to their children and grandchildren, Cholometes and his wife moved from Alaska to Bainbridge Island in 2004. Their daughter is a math teacher for the Bainbridge School District. He is a member of the VFW Post 239 in Bremerton, a member of the Bainbridge Island Sportsmen’s Club and active with the Bainbridge Rotary.
In 2006 and 2007 Cholometes participated in a Bainbridge Rotary project that dug wells in Uganda, a place he described as being the closest thing to his Vietnam experience.
Cholometes has advice for future retirees of the US Armed Forces.
“Use your military discipline to your advantage,” he said. “You have the upper leg when it comes to discipline in comparison to most civilians. The fact that you have traveled leaves you with a valuable asset.
“In the service, most (people) are proactive while I feel that most of those outside of the services (tend) to be reactive to situations.”
Building upon the discipline instilled through 23 years in the Air Force, Cholometes encouraged future military retirees to begin actively looking for employment almost a year prior to retirement.
“Do not wait until you’re three weeks from leaving and expect a job waiting for you,” he said. “Chances are, it won’t be there.”