Sailors meet Marines they saved in Vietnam

by Howard Dukes, South Bend Tribune, Ind.
Stripes Korea

SOUTH BEND, Ind.  — For Joe Swift, the words, “Be advised this is fleet fox. We are on the scene,” still ring like music in his ears.

Those words, uttered in the spring of 1972, came from the sailors aboard the Navy destroyer the USS Strauss during the Easter Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese army. Swift was among the Marines acting as advisers to South Vietnamese army units near the Demilitarized Zone when the NVA launched the offensive. The Strauss was one of the destroyers that shelled NVA positions, slowing the advance and giving the Marines time to be extracted. Joel Eisenstein, an officer with the Marine unit said the covering fire provided by the Strauss and another ship, the USS Buchanan, saved the lives of many men. Two Marines were lost that day, with one being killed in action and another missing in action, but it could have been much worse.

“Joe and me might not be here, and I would have lost more people were it not for the fire they provided,” Eisenstein said.

Eisenstein, Swift and Thomas Petri, another retired Marine who wrote a book about the history of the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO), the company rescued by the destroyers, were guests of the 2016 USS Joseph Strauss Reunion held this weekend in South Bend. Petri served with ANGLICO from 1966-68 and again in 1970.

The appearance of Eisenstein, Swift and Petri was a welcome surprise to the estimated 60 USS Strauss crew members attending the reunion. “They don’t know it, but I have thought about that day — those few days of the Easter Offensive — quite often,” said James Hansen, who was a Strauss crew member at the time. “I’m going to say monthly. That’s how much of an impression it made on me and how proud I am to have supported you guys.”

Still, many of the Marines trying to defend a base near the DMZ and the sailors whose shelling slowed the advancing North Vietnamese army tanks and infantry units had never met.

“We would go out to the ships and they would feed us and give us clothing because sometimes it got very cold at night, but I do not have any remembrance of any particular people,” Eisenstein said. The internet made it possible to connect with old military buddies and the men who served on the Strauss, but he had not met them face to face until Friday.

Swift, a Mishawaka native who currently lives in Elkhart and Strauss crew member Charlie McDonald, president of the St. Joseph County Military Honor Park & Museum Board, set up the reunion.

McDonald and Swift are also founding members of the local Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1027. “I gave Charlie a copy of Thomas Petri’s book a few years ago, and when this meeting came around, Charlie asked me if I wanted to come,” Swift said. “Of course, I was honored, and he asked if I could get some other guys to come.”

Swift noted that the ships were the only thing that prevented the NVA from overrunning the Marines and the South Vietnam army troops who they were advising. “The weather was really bad and we couldn’t get anything but naval gunfire,” he recalled. “There was no artillery. There were no airstrikes, and so if it weren’t for the naval guns, we would have had nothing.”

Hansen noted that the Strauss would fire its guns in support of the besieged Marines, leave to have its fuel and weapons replenished and then return to continue shelling the advancing NVA units.

“The North Vietnamese were trying to cross the Dong Ha bridge with tanks and their infantry was on one side and other side shooting back and forth,” Eisenstein recalled. “We were using the Strauss and the Buchanan to pin those people down on the north side of the bridge so we blow up the bridge before the tanks could come across.”

The ships’ bombardment brought valuable time so that Marine Capt. John Ripley, in one of the legendary events in Marine Corps history, could wire the bridge with explosives and detonate it, severely hampering the North Vietnamese army’s advance.

“The USS Buchanan and the USS Strauss were the only things answering incoming NVA artillery,” said Petri. “Those two ships can’t get enough credit for all the things they did.”

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