Town's former DPW director put engineering skills to good use in Vietnam

Former Plymouth DPW Director Lee Peck served with the U.S. Navy's Fighting Seabees in Vietnam from April 1968 to April 1969.

PLYMOUTH – Leighton “Lee” Peck ran Plymouth’s public works department for nearly two decades, but most people probably never knew he got his nickname in Vietnam.

Many probably never even knew he served in the war. It’s a memory Peck rarely allows himself to visit.

Named Leighton for his father, a former Falmouth fire chief, Peck was known as “Junior” or “Chief” growing up on the Cape. His nickname changed forever to Lee while Peck served with the Navy in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.

A heavy equipment operator for the Fighting Seabees, Peck would spend Sundays volunteering, using his civil engineering skills to help villagers with public works projects.

“It seemed like every kid over there was named Ly, so that’s what they called me. They couldn’t pronounce my name. The name ‘Lee’ came from Nam,” Peck said.

A 1964 graduate of Lawrence High School in Falmouth, Peck earned an associate’s degree in civil engineering at Wentworth Institute in 1966. He enlisted in the Navy later that same year, with the understanding that he would be able to put his skills to good use in the Seabees.

Peck spent his first year building a golf course on Midway Island. Work took a more serious turn when he landed in Da Nang in April 1968.

Assigned to the maintenance unit of a construction battalion, Peck found himself in demand because of his ability to operate heavy equipment.

Licensed run cranes, bulldozers and earth movers, Peck spent months working on public works projects that years later, in peacetime, would become his life’s work.

“It was kind of a natural with my engineering degree. We did drainage and road projects. Not everyone understood about grades,” Peck said.

Based out of Dong Ha, about eight miles south of the demilitarized zone, Peck spent four or five months alone assigned to a giant crane.

“Once you’re assigned to something like that, you are the only one who runs it," he said. "So if they need to go 24 hours a day, you do that. If the machine was needed somewhere, you go with it.”

Peck primarily used the machine to offload supplies for the troops, but as the enemy shelling of Dong Ha intensified, commanders decided to move operations farther from the border and used Peck’s crane to lift huts onto trucks for the move south.

Peck’s ability to operate heavy equipment landed him in Khe Sanh after the 11-week siege of the outpost ended in March 1968.

Peck’s outfit was called in to help clean up the mess and dismantle the base.

The Seabees pulled up the aluminum airstrip and bulldozed bunkers in advance of the evacuation, all under harassing fire. “I buried a C-130 (airplane) there so the enemy couldn’t get it, because we couldn’t get it out of there. They blew the wings off it and we buried it. We did take a couple of engines but the idea was to destroy everything. All the bunkers, everything was blown up and filled in before we left,” Peck said. “It was heart breaking to think we were there defending the place and then we blow it up.”

By day, most Marines at the garrison stayed underground in bunkers while the Seabees did their work. At night, the Seabees would join Marines in protecting the base from attack.

“Up at Khe Sanh, every night we were on red alert, everyone was in the trenches,” Peck said. “Outside the wire you could see where the enemy was digging trenches to try to get to you. There were rats out there as big as cats, supposedly because they were eating the dead NVA.”

Thinking about it nearly 50 years later stills takes a toll on a man who went into the service with a goal of being constructive.

“Taking someone’s life is not normal. I’m a kind soul. I like people. It’s not me,” Peck said. “But sometimes you’re in a situation where you don’t have much choice. It’s either you or him.

Peck returned home in April 1969 and built on his public works experience. He earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering on the G.I. Bill, started a family and went to work.

He served as superintendent of public works in Carver and Middleborough before taking over as director in Plymouth in 1986. He retired in 2003, but continues to work as a consultant.

Peck said he hasn’t talked about the war, even to his children, since his return from Vietnam. He kept his dog tags and the attached P-38 can opener, but threw away most of his gear and photos.

A publication chronicling his Seabee unit’s work in Vietnam offers the only glimpse of his service. Photos show Peck at the controls of his crane, not on guard in a trench.

“I went over there to do a job and did it the best I could,” Peck said. “It makes you think about life and how precious it is. I always think how fortunate I was to come back physically and mentally undamaged.

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