John Pierson had a 50-50 chance of going to Vietnam. He went to Korea instead.
“I kind of lucked up on that part,” the retired first sergeant said.
Pierson started as a tube artillery Soldier and ended up in field artillery. He started training with the new Lance missile system in 1972 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and participated in live firings at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
He was with Lance when it deployed to Germany. Pierson remembers when he first met John Williams, a retired sergeant first class, who later started an annual reunion for veterans of the Lance missile and the Multiple Launch Rocket System.
“He came to me in 1978 at Camp Perry (in Germany) as a 17-year-old private. I was his first 1st sergeant,” Pierson said. “I was with Lance from the very start.”
Lance, which deployed to South Korea and Europe, was part of the Army’s inventory until the 1990s.
“It was fun. It was hard,” Pierson, who retired in 1981 at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, said. “But hey it was all part of the job and that’s what we signed up for.”
The Quincy, Massachusetts, native joined the Army in April 1960 as a 17-year-old and served 22 years. “To tell you the truth I didn’t have anything else going. I went in with a friend of mine, a guy named Billy,” he said.
Pierson remembers the widespread antimilitary sentiment during the Vietnam era. People spat at him in airports. They called him a “baby killer.”
“You just kept walking,” he said.
“When they see you now in the airports, it’s ‘Thank you for your service, sir.’ So it’s a lot better than it was.”
Pierson, 76, and his wife, Ingrid, have been married 56 years. Her family was from Nuremberg, Germany. They have two sons – Richard of Mississippi and John Jr. of Fayetteville, Arkansas – and two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
He resides in Venice, Florida, where he works at the Da Vinci German Restaurant in nearby Osprey which is in Sarasota County. Pierson retired in 2008 after 18 years with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.
After 22 years in the Army, he retired with an honorable discharge and a Meritorious Service Medal. “I actually enjoyed it and I missed it when I came out,” he said.
Pierson attended five of the annual Lance reunions but because of health reasons won’t make this year’s event, Oct. 10-12 in San Antonio. Williams and his wife, Petra, held the first reunion in 2006 at Fort Sill. They’re planning the 14th reunion for July 23-25, 2020, at Redstone Arsenal; and they’re calling it the Homecoming.
“I was the A Battery first sergeant (1st Battalion, 333rd Field Artillery),” Pierson said. “That was exciting. It was a great bunch of guys. A lot of them have died, I’ve since found out.”
Williams, who is looking forward to the Redstone reunion, stays in touch with Pierson and the other Lance veterans. “He’s like my second dad in a way,” Williams said.
A member of the American Legion, Pierson contributes on behalf of wounded and disabled Soldiers.
“We need to institute the draft again to get some of these gamers out of these games and get into the real world,” he said. “My opinion.”
Editor’s note: This is the 235th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.