BRACEVILLE - As Pete Roberts road a train from a base in South Vietnam in 1967, he watched a Marine about 40 feet away walking in the opposite direction reading a propaganda leaflet that had been dropped on the ground.
"For some reason, I could not take my eyes off of him," Roberts, now 65, said. "A few moments later, I heard an explosion and then saw a large hole where the Marine had been walking."
"The Marine's upper body fell to the ground," Roberts said. "His legs had been blown off."
Tribune Chronicle / Raymond L. Smith
Peter Roberts, of Braceville, disarmed bombs during his two tours of duty in Vietnam in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Within a few moments, Navy corpsmen rushed to him, shot him with morphine to dull the pain and a helicopter came and carried him away.
"I don't know whether he lived or died," Roberts said. "But it was at that moment that I decided I had to be the best explosive specialist I could be. I wanted to prevent others from experiencing what had happened to him."
Roberts, one of five brothers from Warren, served nearly two full tours in Vietnam. Two other brothers also were in the military at the same time, both were in the Army.
"I was the odd man, because I was the only one to join the Marines," he said. "Two of my brothers did not join the military.''
Roberts received his draft notice shortly before Christmas in 1966.
"I joined the Marines because a lot of my Warren G. Harding classmates had joined, and since I knew I likely would be going to Vietnam, I wanted the best combat training."
A Golden Glove boxer in the 118-pound weight class while in high school, Roberts said the discipline and athletic training provided him a slight advantage when he went to boot camp in Parris Island, S.C.
After boot camp, Roberts was sent to engineering school.
"I didn't know whether I would be building bridges or working with explosives," he said. "I was taught how to make mines and to clear mine fields."
Roberts was assigned to First Engineering Battalion, B Company, Second Platoon, and attached to the Fifth Marine Regiment.
"When I arrived in Vietnam I was attached to a small platoon and my primary job was mine sweeping the road near the An Hoa Combat Base, which is about 20 miles south of Da Nang," Roberts said. "The road was the main transportation route, so at night the Viet Cong would mine it and then we would have to clear it of the mines."
It was a seven- to eight-mile stretch of dirt road they were responsible to keep clear.
"After awhile, I became very good at spotting the mines," he said.
Once they spotted the mines, Roberts and others would blow them up and cover the holes created by the explosions with dirt.
"We would used trip C-4 and timing devices to explode the mines," Roberts said. "There were booby traps that had 20-pound mines that covered hand grenades, so if we managed to disarm the mine, the grenade would get us."
The Viet Cong often used for their mines U.S. bombs and rockets that did not explode on impact, so part of Roberts' job was to make sure all of the duds were detonated.
One of his primary tasks was search-and-destroy missions.
"We were like the characters in the movie 'The Hurt Locker,' but we did not have the modern anti-explosive equipment," Roberts said.
In December 1967, Roberts was a part of a combat operation that was called Operation Auburn in which he saw 19 Marines die and some 25 others get wounded. There were intense firefights and mortar fire on the Marine platoons. Some bodies of Marines were left behind because of the intensity of the battles.
It was also during Roberts' first tour in Vietnam that he was exposed to Agent Orange.
"When it was dropped, I could see the dust coming towards us," he said.
When he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2006, Roberts' doctors concluded that the exposure contributed to the cancer development.
''After a year of fighting, the military gave me 10 percent disability due to the exposure.''
Roberts was sent back to the U.S. about 12 months after arriving in Vietnam. Thirty days later, Roberts, then a sergeant, volunteered to be sent back into combat.
"I didn't like U.S. assignments," he said. "It was too much spit and polish. People were constantly cleaning their shoes, ironing their uniforms and doing ceremonial activities."
It was during his second tour that his brother, Richard, a U.S. Army sergeant, arranged to meet him in Vietnam for a day.
"It was a surprise," Roberts said.''I didn't know anything about it until he arrived at my location."
Once he left the military, Roberts worked at ITT Grinnell for 14 years and then at the Kmart Distribution Center for 27 years.
Roberts and his wife, Evelyn, care for rescued horses and abandoned and injured dogs and cats on their four-acre property.