Every Marine was trained for combat, even if they weren’t necessarily intended to handle it in Vietnam.
Chuck Swisher spent his time during the Vietnam War doing administrative duties, but remembers a time shortly after he arrived for his first tour a moment where it was all hands on deck as the airfield was bombed by the Viet Cong.
Every Marine was being equipped with artillery—even the musicians who were placed on perimeter guard when not playing music.
“It just goes to show—every Marine is basically a rifleman,” he said.
Though the colonel at the air field would eventually stop the musicians from getting the ammunition before each Marine was armed at Da Nang in that moment in May 1965, it was an example of how even non-combat positions were at risk during the war.
“I was doing the same thing in two tours of Vietnam that I was doing for 30 years, just in a very uncomfortable way where hot showers were not only a luxury but unheard of,” the Carlisle resident said. “I was praising the Lord everyday.”
Both non-combat and combat Marines would face dangers even outside of a firefight.
During the first part of Swisher’s second tour in Vietnam in 1968-69, he was with the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion in the northern-most part of South Vietnam where American forces fought. The battalion did not see much combat because there were not a lot of landing battles, Swisher explained, and the battalion was relegated to transportation.
Traveling from headquarters farther south an hour up to where the battalion was stationed off the river near Dong Ha, however, proved harrowing for the Marines.
“We lost more men in the water than in actual combat,” Swisher said.
Swisher explained that they would sweep for mines, but after the boat passed, the Viet Cong would re-mine the river, causing explosions to river boats. He said his unit would have people missing that they didn’t even know about because of the lack of paper trail between the headquarters and transportation up the river. Some of the replacement Marines would be killed before the unit knew they were sent to them.
Even taking a break was dangerous. Swisher said he never opted to go on any of the trips that were offered for R&R, whether that be Australia, Hawaii, or the popular destination—Hong Kong. Swisher said Hong Kong was a difficult city to navigate for a landing plane, and the KC-130 aircrafts that refueled other planes, were large and carried cargo and men. One such aircraft crashed in Hong Kong and killed almost everyone on board.
But he knew he had it better than many of the men during that war. “As I reflect back on it, I don’t think there was ever a time where I worried about what was going to happen to me.”
Joining the Marines
Swisher’s placement in administration is something he credits with what appeared to be at the time as a series of inconsequential events.
Education had not been a priority—or pushed as hard back then—though he did end up being the first man in his family to graduate high school from his hometown in Lewistown. He joked it was the idea of being surrounded by women that led him to typing and stenography, and there he gained the skills that would be attractive to administration in the military.
He re-enlisted in the Marines with his new skill and was prepared to head to La Roda, Spain, but his orders were changed without his consent to send him to Washington D.C. to work.
“I thought at the time it was unfair. When you look back ... you don’t see it as a blessing.”
But Swisher in Washington D.C. wound up in the Marine commandant’s office as a young corporal—a position he would return to later in his career as the direct assistant to the commandant. He would serve in that final position until he retired as a lieutenant colonel in June 1987.
But before that would happen, the position would take him across the country and to Iwakuni, Japan. It was there that he and his unit got the news that they were going to Vietnam, and he would spend the rest of his five-month tour that year in Vietnam.
Unlike others, however, Swisher’s next tour in Vietnam didn’t come up until much later, mostly because of what he opted for while back in the states. Along with a few other members of the armed forces, Swisher decided to attend a language school in Monterey, California, to learn Vietnamese. It ended up extending his time stateside before he would return to Vietnam for his second and last tour in December 1968.
“I never used it professionally,” Swisher said of his study of Vietnamese. “In ‘69 when I was back in country, I did use it to help our commanding officer. He was one of the men intolerant of anything Vietnamese. I would be the interpreter, tell him we’ve been invited by the chiefs and we have to go.”
Though the amphibian unit would be sent to Okinawa in the last part of the war while Swisher was stationed “in country” closer to headquarters, he continued with the hardest part of his job—writing the casualty reports.
“It’s mostly fill-in-the-blank, but they were all different,” he said. “You have to keep in mind you are writing this to the guy’s wife or parents.”
That duty was offset, however, by telling families what bravery some of the men performed in battle through the award notices. “The bright side was writing how someone displayed extraordinary heroism. I had the pleasure of writing those awards, too.”