LCDR Richard (“Dick”) Pearson
- Fact: To go here...
- Fact: To go here...
- Fact: To go here...
- Fact: To go here...
Interviewed by Lisa Pasalich on November 15, 2019
Written by Sue Tone
A willingness to work hard took Richard “Dick” Pearson out of a childhood of meager opportunities to the rank of lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. He ran away from abusive alcoholic parents at age 15 and forged the paperwork to join the National Guard in Texas. At age 17, someone told him the Navy would be an “adventure” and take him lots of places, so he enlisted. It was true. It took him to many parts of the world – Japan, Africa, England, Philippines and Vietnam.
The Navy became his parents, home and education for the next 29 years.
“When I went to boot camp, I met my real ‘dad,’ my company commander, an old first-class gunner’s mate, big belly. You had to do what he told you, and when you did, you were rewarded,” Pearson explained. “I didn’t understand that. When I did something wrong, I was reprimanded, I wasn’t beat. I had to stand an extra watch or shine somebody else’s shoes. I didn’t know it at the time, but I learned discipline.”
Pearson didn’t take a direct path to the Navy’s underwater demolition team (UDT), precursor to what is now known as the Navy Seals. First he went to parachute rigger school because he heard enlistees had to pack their own chute and jump out of an airplane to graduate. “That sounded really exciting. My first parachute jump was in 1957.”
Soon he was packing parachutes aboard the USS Lexington for “frogmen,” UDT members.
“In 1962, the Navy was just forming a Seal team. You had to have some time in the UDT before going into the Seals,” Pearson said, adding that over the years, he progressed upward through the ranks.
“Without an education, I got to be a lieutenant commander. I had no education, but I knew how to work. I always took the worst job available, because in my devious criminal mind, I knew there was only one way to go, and that was up. It made me look super better than I was, and that’s the name of the game.”
Training was difficult and Pearson was kicked out a few days before graduation “because I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut and I hit somebody, another teammate.” A year later, while waiting to board a ship, he started reading the files he was carrying. “I got to this page that had ‘Richard A. Pearson, parachute rigger, third class.’ Below it had two boxes: ‘Not recommended for demolition training,’ and the other box said ‘Recommended for demolition training.’ Since they were both empty, I felt I should mark one, so I marked the one that best suited me,” he said, figuring that after a year the instructors would all be new and not recognize him.
Pearson described a week of training known as Hell Week. “You’ve had no sleep, you eat a lot, you’re soaking wet, you’ve got sand in your trousers, you’ve got rashes all over, your feet are sore, you’re hallucinating, and everything else. I wanted to quit the second week. I was seeing choo-choo trains and elephants. I walked up to an instructor. He was my savior and I didn’t know it. His name was Lonny Price. I said, ‘Chief, I can’t handle it anymore, I’m down to a three-man boat crew … and I can’t carry them. I don’t have any enthusiasm anymore.’ He looked at me and he said, ‘Pearson, you don’t want to quit. Get back in ranks.’ I was a dummy. I was totally out of it. I said, ‘Okay,’ and went back in ranks. Otherwise, I never would have got there. I think he saw my value – having gone through it a second time – that I didn’t.”
To build lung capacity and reduce the fear of losing consciousness, he trained to hold his breath underwater for two-and-a half minutes. He was cold and wet, lying with his head in the water “and the surf and sand and everything’s coming all over you, and you’re supposed to be singing songs. You’re all there together and you’re all singing because you don’t want to quit. The guy on my left and right are singing, so why shouldn’t I? So that motivation built team work and you knew you could rely on that guy no matter what happened. And that’s where the mental thing came in. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I feel bad for myself,’ you know. It was, ‘I’m going to do this because I want to kill that instructor. I don’t want him getting any enjoyment kicking me out of here.’”
Pearson was injured while on assignment in Vietnam, and received a Purple Heart medal.
“Everybody gets a Purple Heart for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I got mine on a boat, the Mighty Mo, a landing craft we converted,” he said. As the boat navigated upriver, bullets came flying from everywhere. “I was the mortar man; I had bad legs. If I sat crossed-legged, I couldn’t get up. So Bob Henry changed places in the mortar pit. He took a round and is paralyzed. It should have been me. I apologized to him to the day he died, and every time he’d say, “I don’t want no apologies any more. Forget it. I forgot it, you forget it.” That’s the way the camaraderie was.”
He earned two bronze stars during the 65 missions he participated in in Vietnam. He worked with North and South Vietnamese soldiers. The “choo boys” [Chieu Hoi] were defectors from the north that came south, Pearson said. “Their job was to do to what the Viet Cong [the enemy] was doing to the people here. We went and did it to the people up there. So it’s not pretty.”
One day, a friend of Pearson’s invited him to tag along on a visit to an orphanage where children with physical and mental disabilities lived.
“I saw the children, and it broke my heart. They needed crutches and they needed braces. They needed toys. Toys,” he said. “So what we did was, when we used to go out and hit a camp, we’d burn everything, including the rice. We decided to bring as much rice back as we could. We’d go out, five or eight guys on a mission, and bring rice back and give it to the orphanage.”
Between tours, Pearson coached Pop Warner football, and the team collected items for the orphanage. He returned to Vietnam with toys, clothes, crutches and candy.
“That was the good part that nobody talks about. We went up to that orphanage every time we came into port, and we helped kids walk, or we just play ball, and we laughed with them,” he said. “You don’t realize that children of all nations are good.”
Pearson described a young boy who tripped a booby trap while showing the Navy seaman where the Vietcong had run. The child lost his leg. Pearson spoke with emotion about a photo showing the boy on crutches, smiling into the camera.
When asked about his proudest accomplishment, Pearson at first was at a loss for words.
“Well, I don’t know if there’s anything proud about it. I guess that I came home. Proud is a difficult word for a warrior, I believe, to talk about. Because, as a warrior, it’s your job. You’re doing your job,” he said.
He has no idea what other kind of career he would have chosen if not for the military. “I only wanted to be loved and recognized as a human being, and I got that in the military,” he said.
He related an amusing story about being afraid. “The time I was really scared was when I’d seen the movie ‘Jaws,’ and that night I had to go on a night dive. That’s the truth. You don’t get scared in combat. You don’t have time.”
Years following his service in Vietnam, Pearson found out he had left his secretary pregnant with a daughter. The Amerasian Immigration Act of 1982 and the Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1988 allowed the young girl to live in the United States; she has since become a nurse and business owner.
Pearson said, as far as serving in the Navy goes, the only thing he would do differently would be to take advantage of the educational opportunities the military provides. Otherwise, he is happy with the benefits earned by service men and women, and encourages young people to consider enlistment.
“You can come into any military service when you’re 17 and be retired with a pension at 37. Now you got a chance to go do whatever the heck you want to do. Where else are you going to get that?”