Stories of disillusioned American soldiers are a powerful theme when reflecting on the United States’ war in Vietnam. Movies like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon, show American GI’s committing war crimes, protesting the war, or abusing drugs. Although many of these stories are based in fact, they do not tell the whole tale.
Numerous disenchanted American soldiers joined the counter-culture that swept through the military’s ranks, but never failed to perform when duty called. Thus, on April 1, 1970, when Sgt. Peter Lemon smoked pot with his fellow soldiers, it was not an unusual occurrence. Lemon’s extraordinary heroism in the nightmarish battle that followed, however, was anything but normal, and he earned the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award, for conspicuous gallantry… while high.
Born in Ontario, Canada in 1950, Lemon came from a family with a strong military background. During World War II, Lemon’s father and uncle, Charles and Gordon, enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, fighting in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters, whereas their brother John served in the Canadian Army as a military policeman. Lemon’s mother, Geraldine, a Londoner and native Englishwoman, did not serve in the military, rather she was a college-educated physiotherapist who treated wounded soldiers and civilians throughout Nazi Germany’s air assault on Great Britain.
Lemon’s parents met and married in England as the war drew to close. They moved to Toronto, Canada where Charles earned his degree as a mining engineer, before relocating to a small mining community in Alabaster Township, Michigan, in 1952. Although the town boasted only 86 residents at the time, the Lemon’s decision to move to a small town in Northeast Michigan played a profound role in shaping their two-year-old son’s views of patriotism, honor, and duty, as he grew to adulthood.
Although the town was a small enclave in northeastern Michigan, the residents were intensely patriotic. American flags were commonplace, as was anti-Soviet Union sentiment, and Lemon remembers his parents studying and reciting the history of the United States, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in their living room. They sang the “Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America,” and on many occasions, they discussed what it would be like to be an American. In 1961, the family got their wish, and Lemon recalls that his mother wore her finest dress, his father donned his only suit, and he and his sister wore their ‘Sunday best’ as they headed to the county courthouse. Standing tall and proud before a judge, the family each raised their right hand as they took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.
Peter’s loyalty to his adopted homeland intensified throughout his teenage years. The burgeoning counter culture and Vietnam War protests were alien to the steadfast sense of patriotism that flourished in Peter’s hometown, and in 1969, he enlisted in the United States Army as an infantryman and Ranger. A fervent patriot, and strong supporter of the fight to contain communism, Lemon’s decision surprised no one who knew him. In less than a year, however, Peter’s faith in his country’s war would be profoundly shaken, and sorely tested.