Forward

Steven Paul Swatek  was someone I was named after but knew absolutely nothing about.  The only thing I had heard about him from my childhood was that he stepped on a landmine while carrying a stretcher and died in Vietnam.  Memorial Day (2000) piqued my interest so I located the Vietnam Memorial Wall web site and searched for his name.  I noticed that there was a page to submit pictures and leave comments.  Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed to find the page completely blank.   It took just over a year to find out who Steve Swatek was and what happened to him.  I leave this story as an open document and welcome any corrections or additions.  

Steven Paul Van Hefty

steve.vanhefty@gmail.com 

Edited: 5/27/2017

The First Days  1947-1961

Steve Swatek was born in Port Washington, Wisconsin on a Tuesday, October 7, 1947.  Unfortunately, our social climate at the time gave his single mother no choice but to give him up for adoption.  His mother eventually did marry someone later on and had other children.  Steve was always troubled by that fact.  

Steve's adopted parents were Theodore "Tod" and Mary Swatek. His father worked as an estimator for the Wisconsin Chair Company in Port Washington. Tod eventually moved the family to Milwaukee and opened a Ben Franklin variety store on Downer Avenue near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They lived in an apartment building on the same block. Steve attended Nicolet High School in Milwaukee.   Some years later, they moved to Bayside. 

Alan Swatek was Steve's first cousin.  He grew up in Port Washington, Wisconsin and spent a lot of time with "Stevie" when they were little boys. He was only one year older than Steve. Both families did some things together.  The main outings, however, were with their Uncle George, a single man who took them hunting and fishing which Steve grew to love doing.

Peshtigo    1961

Around the 8th to 9th grade timeframe, Steve moved to Peshtigo, Wisconsin.  A small town settled in the Northeast corner of the state, Peshtigo had a population of maybe 2,000 at the time. Tod opened another Ben Franklin store. He later opened a second store in the nearby town of Coleman.

Steve graduated from Peshtigo High School.  He was a member of the high school's first wrestling team.  In addition, he was a member of the letter club and was a hall monitor.  Occasionally, he would help his friend working around the farm.  Steve is described as a very likeable person and had a number of friends as the years went by.  Somehow he earned the nickname "Squish" while growing up in Peshtigo.  At age 15, Steve had a “hot” car;  a ’56 Chevy.  One of his best friends did have a driver’s license who would do the driving in town.  But when they got out of town, Steve was the highway driver…until they got to another town. 

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Steve's junior picture (click on image to enlarge)

The Introduction  

My dad, who also was a Peshtigo native, became good friends with Steve in high school.  He eventually became my dad's best friend.  Steve wouldn't really know how much until years later.  Bars existed in the '60's where 18 year-old people were allowed to drink beer,  however, they were not allowed in bars that sold hard liquor.  It was in one of these "beer" bars in Porterfield (named "Mike's") that my mom and dad first "noticed" each other.  But Steve, who was always sure of himself, took care of the formal introduction. 

Life outside of Peshtigo  1965-1966

After high school, Steve and a close friend decided to take a stab at business school in Milwaukee (Spencerian).  Like most of us who attended college, Steve found that "there was more to life than just school".  He and his friends were known to attend a party from time to time.  "Squish" was very well-spoken.  As a matter of fact, it was at some of these parties that he would read a dictionary!  Since Steve still had family ties in Peshtigo, he would visit on the weekends.  My dad was taking welding classes at NWTI in Marinette, so when Steve drove up there he would occasionally give my mom (my dad's girlfriend at the time) a ride up there.  He would never accept gas money from her.  If he was ever coerced into taking money, he would make a stop at a fast food place and use the money to buy food for everyone.

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Squish's senior picture (click on image to enlarge)

 

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Steve and Susie's wedding picture.  My dad is the first guy standing to Squish's right.  (click on image to enlarge)

 

Changing Weather   -December 1966

By now a storm was brewing in Asia and it was evident that Steve was going to get drafted unless he volunteered first.  He considered the Air Force, but the grade requirements were very high so he settled on the Navy.  Steve finished basic training and shortly afterward he attended his advanced training (known as AIT) at Great Lakes Naval Station.  He finished his training as a Hospitalman or Corpsman as they are better known.  This was somewhat fitting since Steve always had a dream of being a doctor.  He once told my mom that she would be one of his nurses (she had plans of going to nursing school).  On December 7th, Steve married his girl friend, Susie.  They never did have any children.  The wedding was a large one.  During the course of getting his wedding pictures taken, Steve changed into his Navy uniform.  This caused him to be a little late to his reception. 

During the course of the next year, Steve would spend a lot of time with his in-laws, Helen and Clarence.  His mother-in-law owned and managed Badger Nursing Home.  Steve would spend a lot of time there helping care for the residents.

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The picture Squish took in his dress uniform that made him a little late to his wedding reception.  (click on image to enlarge)

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Squish and Bearcat back at the battalion aid station (click on image to enlarge)

An Unexpected Welcome to Vietnam     -December 17, 1967

Steve arrived in Vietnam on December 17th.  Another corpsman, Steve Cox ("Bearcat"), happened to be back in his unit's area (shortly after recovering from some wounds he received from a mortar attack).  Cox  was sitting on some sandbags when he saw Steve walking up.  Steve Cox just happened to be another Peshtigo native who knew "Squish".  "Squish" was Cox's replacement in the field.   Since Steve was new, he remained in this area for a couple weeks to learn the ropes; while a country-wide cease fire during the Christmas holidays was in effect.  This was also the Asian new year, known as the “Tet” celebrations. As a result, the two were able to celebrate Christmas Eve together.

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Squish and Bearcat back at the battalion aid station (click on image to enlarge)

The New "Doc" Becomes a Marine  - December 1967

Unlike the rest of the branches of the military, the marines get medical support from the Navy.  Corpsmen are attached at the platoon level consisting of 40 to 50 men and , ideally, each platoon would have 2 of them.  A corpsman went to war dressed in the same fatigues as the rest of the marines except they carried an aid bag and a .45 caliber pistol.   At some point before leaving for Vietnam, Steve made the comment to my dad that a corpsman had the worst job because you are a "marked man" or something like that.  Perhaps he said that because the corpsmen were more vulnerable due to their job on the battlefield.  At any rate, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong did not discriminate between soldiers and medics.  

The normal rotation for a corpsman was to spend the first 6 months or so of his 1-year tour in the field with a marine unit and the last 6 months was primarily spent at a battalion aid station (BAS similar to a MASH unit).  The foremost thing on your mind was to survive those first 6 months in the field so you could make it to back to the rear and finish out your tour as best you can. The corpsmen at the aid stations would rotate back out to the field as needed from time to time.  Typical military food in the field is pretty bad so they would catch an ambulance into Da Nang and pick up "about 50 cheeseburgers for the troopies".

 Steve ended up being assigned to 1st squad, 3rd platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (referred to as Lima 3/5).  Like any other corpsman, he was also known as "Doc". Corpsmen were held in high regard because, although they were in the Navy, they were people you could go to for your aches and pains and perhaps even save your life when called upon.  

True to his form, Steve developed quite a rapport with the marines in his platoon.  At the end of the day when everyone was tired and just wanted to sit down, relax, and eat something, Doc Swatek would make his rounds and check on everyone.  He could have let the work come to him, but he did not.  Steve had the ability to catalog in his mind everyone's cuts and scrapes and he was proactive in keeping track of how they progressed.  He would make sure they had enough malaria pills, check everyone's feet, etc.  Lou Sorrell of 3rd platoon had some specific memories of Steve (click here).  Steve let his family know that he was extremely proud to be serving with the Marines.

To this day, if Steve were asked, he would refer to himself as a marine rather than a sailor.  As a matter of fact, Steve was one of the few corpsmen his platoon would actually refer to as a marine.  Doc Swatek would pack an M-16 rifle out in the field in addition to his .45 caliber pistol.  He wasn't required to do this.  During firefights, Steve would engage the enemy just like any other marine.  Occasionally he would return fire with his .45 and the rest of the platoon would laugh at him.  Anyone who has fired a .45 knows that they are only effective at closer ranges.  Since corpsmen are such a valuable asset to their units, they weren't allowed to participate in nightly ambushes.  However, Steve would literally sneak out with the platoon at night to go with them on these ambushes.  He would also make "house calls" meaning he would go forward to treat the wounded during a fire fight rather than let other marines bring them back to him in a safer area.  For these reasons, the marines in his platoon referred to him as "the kick-ass corpsman".  

 

 

 

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Squish's lighter which he had engraved in Vietnam.  It reads, "Doc Swatek"

"Lord, let this corpsman in to heaven for he has served his time in hell."

(click on image to enlarge)

 

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"Doc Swatek" in Marine fatigues.  Note the M-16 on his shoulder.  (click on image to enlarge)

 

 

 

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Big Plans      January 1968

During the Tet celebration, the 7th Marines were manning a fire base at Hill 55 (see map).  Lima 3/5 was detached from its battalion and helped man some of these positions while elements of the 7th Marines were out on joint operations.  The remaining line companies (I, K, and M) of 3rd battalion were tasked with conducting patrols in the area.  There was not much activity during this time because of the cease-fire in effect due to the lunar New Year for the Vietnamese people.  Little did the U.S. know, the North Vietnamese were making good use of this time to prepare for an all-out attack on South Vietnam targeting 32 population centers.  One tactic North Vietnam and the Vietcong in the South excelled at was infiltrating/eliminating the local town governments for the benefit of logistics and intelligence (among other things).  Rocket belt camps provided protection for the air field and supply depots nearby in Da Nang. There were frequent patrols to prevent the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and Viet Cong (VC) from setting up their 122mm rockets within range of Da Nang.  Units frequently provided civil action sweeps with the corpsmen playing an important role in providing medical care to the villagers.  This was a sort of a counter-measure to the NVA and VC's tactics.  According to an audio tape Steve sent home, the 3rd NVA was following his battalion ever since operation Union II which Steve Cox participated in.  Squish went out on patrol Christmas Eve and later Christmas Day and also New Year's Day.  

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Alamo. Courtesy of 1/1 Marines.(click on image to enlarge)

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Hill 55 and the "Alamo". (click on image to enlarge)

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Image of the Citadel 5 years earlier. (click on image to enlarge)

Hue City Celebrates the New Year    January 31, 1968

Hue (pronounced “way”) is a city located in the central portion of Vietnam in the Thua Thien province. With its various universities, it is (and was at that time) considered the cultural center of Vietnam.  It was one of the more developed, if not the most developed, cities in all of Vietnam.  The walled compound known as the Citadel of Hue is also situated within the confines of the city.  There is a water-filled moat around most of the 30 foot walls.  A suburban-like community (not unlike one you would find in the U.S. today) existed around this complex. The imperial city, with its soaring stone towers, is also within its walls. The citadel was a fortress built by Attila the Hun after he conquered the Indochinese. This fortress consisted of three huge, circular shaped walls each of which was 20' high and 20 feet thick. At the very center of the inner circle was the citadel itself. A somewhat unremarkable gazebo-type of temple contained a statue of Buddah. 

Local celebrations were underway in Hue City on the first night of the new year.  The North Vietnamese had spent months infiltrating and stockpiling weapons and equipment in the city.  Most citizens around the country would never realize until it was too late that the firecrackers they lit off in the darkness would be a fortuitous cover for the approaching North Vietnamese Army and their rifle shots that would soon overcome the din of the fireworks.  Hue's siege began at 1 or 2 in the morning with a 122mm rocket blast.  The whole city fell to the NVA that night except for two small areas of the Citadel, one being an ARVN compound.  This small foothold within the Citadel walls would probably avoid the loss of countless lives in the ensuing weeks ahead.  The Tet offensive was in full swing.  NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers would take advantage of the time it took for the US forces to understand the gravity of what happened the night of January 31st and the time it would take to marshal troops to Hue.  

There are claims that the local government and hundreds of other people who would create opposition were executed and buried in mass graves.  What had started out as a campaign by the North to sway the rest of the people in South Vietnam to endorse communism actually created the opposite effect.  The reverberation wouldn’t stop there.  The change in the complexion of the war would not go unnoticed by the American public.  Tet planted the seed that would grow into massive protests in the US.

Lima 3/5 would witness impressive 122mm rocket attacks the night of the 31st on Da Nang (the rockets being Russian-made). The NVA main units were thrusting north along Highway 1 attempting to capture Da Nang, with Mike Company taking the brunt of this attack.  They earned the nickname "Medevac Mike" after this engagement.  On the 2nd day Lima 3/5 was relieved by returning units of the 7th Marines at Hill 55 and rejoined their battalion at the "Alamo" as they called it and immediately were sent out on mop-up operations along Highway 1.  After several days Lima 3/5 was rotated into the camp for re-supply and replacements.  Units were at about 40-50 % strength.  The company that was in the "Alamo" was also tasked with being the reserve/reinforcement  group and was always on stand-by or "sparrow hawk" ready to go on a moments notice if needed.  

Lima had just enough time to get their first hot meal in weeks before jumping onto a convoy of trucks to go to Da Nang. Next, Lima 3/5 took a flight to a marine fire base at Phu Bai.  Once they reached Phu Bai, they re-supplied with double everything (rations, ammo, etc). The terrain they were operating in previously didn't lend itself too well to wearing flack jackets or gas masks.  So there was an anxious search for flack jackets and gas masks.  Ultimately, they found them. Next, they took another truck ride along Highway 1 to Hue City.  They arrived at the MAC-V Headquarter compound to report in.  They quartered in the University of Hue that first night.  On the second day, they moved to the soccer field and from there took some choppers across the Perfume River to the 1st ARVN compound in the northwest corner of the Citadel (the only area of the Citadel that didn't fall to the NVA) .

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Map of the Citadel.   (click on image to enlarge)

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Artillery fire mission at Phu Bai during the siege of Hue. (click on image to enlarge)

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Chinook landing just across the Perfume River.  (click on image to enlarge)

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MAC-V Headquarters.  (click on image to enlarge)

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Official DOD photo of Lima 3/5 South of Da Nang 7 Feb  68 (click on image to enlarge)

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Official DOD photo of Lima 3/5 pursuing NVA 7 Feb 68 (click on image to enlarge)

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Official DOD photo of Lima 3/5 halted on a road 7 Feb 68 (click on image to enlarge)

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Dong Ba tower under attack. (click on image to enlarge)

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Official DOD photo of Lima 3/5 in Hue 22 Feb 68 (click on image to enlarge)

 

Stepchildren   February 20, 1968

The battle group, Task Force X-Ray,  consisting of 1/1, 1/5, and 2/5 had already been engaged in some incredibly brutal street fighting in the west side of Hue.  There were cases where whole platoons (40 to 50 plus marines) ceased to exist in a matter of hours.  Task Force X-Ray was given operational control of Lima company on 20 February and was the only company from 3rd battalion to be sent to Hue.

Several factors made the battle for Hue extremely deadly.  Marine forces, who were trained primarily for jungle fighting, were about to engage in urban warfare.  Urban warfare by it's own nature is very costly when conducted by forces trained in this type of fighting.  Losses up to 60% are considered normal.  Most of the marines in Hue could count the number of hours spent training in urban combat on one hand.  But training was not the only thing working against them.  Since Hue was the ancient imperial capitol of the Vietnamese people, the "politicians" (I assume military and non-military) would not authorize any artillery, air, or naval gunfire support during the first phases of the battle. 

One simple, but very effective, tactic for a small unit under enemy contact is to lay down suppressing fire.  This suppressing fire is meant to keep the enemys' heads down while another, hopefully not engaged, unit makes a swing around one side of the now "suppressed" enemy to eliminate them.  You can imagine who has the greater exposure in this case (the flanking element). To make a terrible situation worse, Lima 3/5 was attached to another battalion (either 1/5 or 1/7).  Even though they had already been fighting Tet south of Da Nang, they were considered to be the "fresh" troops.  Steve and his company were basically the stepchildren.  As such, they were the ones who got to make assaults or flanking maneuvers in their area of operations during last days of the battle for the Citadel.

All in all, the 4-week battle for Hue cost some 140 plus marines' lives.  Lima 3/5 started their portion of the campaign with 193 troops.  By the time they left the area, they had less than 100 marines remaining.  35-40 of these being new replacements that arrived a couple days before they left Hue.  1st Platoon's 50 plus marines would leave Hue with only 13 of its original members.  The battle for Hue is known as the fiercest battle of Vietnam.  It was so remarkable that it is the only Vietnam campaign name (out of many) to be given to a navy ship (Hue City).  This expenditure of people and material is a testament to how important this objective was to North Vietnam.  It was supposed to be a supply base for the capture of Phu Bai.  The NVA didn't just pack up after February 26th and go home either.  There were a lot of North Vietnamese units still intact outside of the city. They were the reinforcements for the assault forces in Hue.  Now these support units were cut-off from the forces that were in the city.

 

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House-to-house fighting was extremely dangerous.  (click on image to enlarge)

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Near the east gate.  (click on image to enlarge)

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M-60 firing over the wall (click on image to enlarge)

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Official DOD photo of Lima 3/5 in Hue 22 Feb 68 (click on image to enlarge)

On the Run     February 27 or 28, 1968

After having battled their way to the south wall of the old imperial palace, Lima 3/5 was denied the final conquest.  The political powers left this to the South Vietnamese forces.  Up to that point, there were tell-tale signs that the enemy was in the process of displacing from Hue.  The marines of Lima 3/5 would encounter delaying actions rather than fully committed engagements.  During one of these actions, the 3rd platoon point man recalls seeing machine gun positions along the top of a wall in which the North Vietnamese manning these numerous posts literally had their hands tied to the guns.  Following a brief period of inner city security occupation, Lima 3/5, still the step child, was tasked with company-sized patrols in the outskirts of the city.  The majority of the NVA forces still in the area were making their way to the northeast and ultimately trying to make their way back west to the Ho Chi Minh trail.  Lima 3/5 was in hot pursuit.  

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Lima 3/5 on the move.  (click on image to enlarge)

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Steve's Last Day   March 1, 1968

March 1st started out fairly unremarkable. It was hot and sticky as usual. But there was also very heavy, low-hanging cloud-cover in the skies.  The terrain around Hue was littered with foxholes.  These positions were probably prepared to give the NVA more flexibility to shift their forces as needed depending on how the battle developed. Lima received their marching orders early that morning. Intelligence reports stated that a sizable contingent of NVA had been spotted north and east of them, moving in a northeasterly route. The basic strategy laid out was that each platoon would take a different sector, fan out across it and then secure it.

The company made its way out of the Citadel across a causeway.  They began by first locating a large asphalt road, referred to as the "road to Cocoa Beach", and then proceeded eastward on it. Third platoon was assigned the lead that day which meant Lou Sorrell was walking "the point." 2dLt Paturick was platoon commander of the "third herd,"  Cpl Strauss was the 1st-squad leader. Lou always walked "point" about 50-100 yards in front of the main element, figuring he could be more quiet alone and therefore observant. PFC Bohrer was directly behind Lou and to his left, with PFC Pugh behind him and to his right, and PFC Ridriquez bringing up the rear of the point fireteam. The remainder of 1st squad, along with the rest of the company was also in a "staggered-column" formation.  This meant that Marines were located on both sides of the road and with alternating distance between each person. All in all, they were fairly well dispersed several hundred yards down the road.  

After walking about one mile up the "road to Cocoa Beach" (Cocoa Beach was an aircraft refueling point), and following the coordinates given to Lou, he turned left on a secondary road. Third platoon “peeled off” to proceed to its sector. This asphalt road was about twelve feet wide and led to what can only be described as a suburban area. Lima 3/5 was heading well outside the main portion of the city and into an area that resembled many well-kept, but unplowed, farms.  The fields were divided up by thin "living fences" of bamboo and other brush.

According to Lou's map and coordinates, he was supposed to be looking for a major path that he would turn right onto. There was nothing else on the top of the map (north) since this path was located, quite literally, at the very topmost portion (they were issued new maps just a few days prior and were operating near the very edge of it).

Lou continued marching along the right edge of the road. He proceeded slowly, cautiously (since they were purportedly chasing the enemy) constantly checking his map against significant landmarks in order to ensure that he was where he was supposed to be.  After walking a distance of about 3/4 of a mile he came upon the remains of a block building located length-wise and parallel to the road. Most of the end-wall (nearest the road), part of the right-side, and the top of the building were gone (destroyed).  Only a shell of the building remained.   

Oddly enough, the road itself came to an abrupt end.  Lou could tell that there was a path just ahead at the end of the building and that it turned to his right. About 25-35 feet behind him was another path that also intersected the road.  He stopped just short of the building and began checking his map against the physical surroundings. The building, which would normally have been on the map, wasn't. Looking forward at the end of the road (15 feet away from him), was a small but well-constructed footbridge. It wasn't on the map either. Also not on the map was a rather large ditch or stream that the bridge crossed over nor was the hill that ran parallel to that ditch or stream. Directly to his right was an open field with a couple of small houses at the end (east) of his line of sight and abutting heavy foliage. Between the building he was standing next to and the open field was another ditch heading in the direction of the bridge in front of him (north) . This ditch was full of water so he assumed it was some sort of an irrigation ditch. Directly to Lou's left, on the other side of the road was extremely heavy foliage. Between the foliage and the road was a small ditch that ran parallel with the road. He assumed that it was probably a drainage ditch for water runoff from the road.

Lou felt uneasy with his surroundings (a feeling that he had many times before and would many more times thereafter).  He had stopped because he was unsure if he was supposed to turn right just in front of the building or if he should have turned right on the path located just behind him. PFC. Bohrer was to Lou's left rear between he and the other path. PFC. Pugh was directly behind Lou, a few feet further behind Bohrer, and closer to the path in question.  Cpl.  Strauss approached Lou while his radioman advanced but had stopped next to PFC Pugh for some reason. Cpl.  Strauss asked him "What's up? Why did you stop? We have everyone strung out down the road!"  (or very similar words to that effect). While Lou was explaining his dilemma to him, 3rd platoon's new Right Guide, Sgt. Moreno came rushing up along the left side of the road. He was shouting something indiscernible to them when a Russian-made machinegun opened fire followed quickly with AK47 and AK57 supporting-arms fire. The absence of the snapping sound of the bullets that flew past them told them that they were armor-piercing rounds.  Sgt. Moreno was hit hard several times, falling into the ditch on the left side of the road. Cpl.  Strauss and Lou got down quickly, hitting the ground and rolling to cover behind the building. From their position they were able to figure out that the machinegun was located directly across from the front of the building that they were laying behind.

The other squad and platoon members began shouting, asking them if they were “Ok” and "Where are they (the enemy)?"  It was at this time when Lou heard someone back in the distance shout "Corpsman up!"  Doc Swatek didn't hesitate, he just reacted, quickly running forward at full speed to answer the call.  To this day Lou doesn't know whom or why that call went out from so far back in the unit. It shouldn't have. Sgt. Moreno was mortally wounded in the first volley of fire but no one behind them realized it.

Doc Swatek ran directly to Sgt. Moreno to assist him. Lou watched him as he approached Sgt. Moreno, Cpl Strauss and Lou shouted to him, "Get back!  He's dead!" But the Doc either didn't hear them or he was already committed in his heart and mind to help his fellow Marine. He arrived with a field bandage already in his hand and immediately began to dress Sgt. Moreno's wounds. It was then that the enemy noticed him and began firing at him.  With complete disregard for his own safety, he continued the job of dressing Sgt. Moreno’s wounds. When he took a second round from enemy fire he fell down and slightly behind Sgt. Moreno. They weren't sure if he was dead or not, only that he had been wounded. In fact, the way in which he fell resembled someone falling behind a dead body in order to use that person for protection when no other cover was available (an unfortunate yet necessary act in war). Lou only saw two rounds hit him and, from his vantage point, neither looked as if they were mortal wounds. Once down, he said nothing. He wouldn’t respond to their queries asking if he was alright.  They didn't find this non-response necessarily unusual, however, because when you are in the line of fire and alive, you don't answer anyone and let the enemy know that you are, in fact, alive.

At about the same time Doc arrived to help Sgt. Moreno, Staff Sgt. Dunn, 3rd Platoon Sergeant, also approached. He was running on fast-forward. He was located just to the left and middle of the road. Cpl. Strauss and Lou shouted at him  "Stay back!" and in fact he tried to stop his forward momentum.  Joe realized he made a mistake and tried to stop and change direction at the same time.  He crossed the point of no return.  He was hit several times by enemy fire and went down in the street, rolling slightly left of center. He was too far away for anyone to just reach out and get him since he was out in the open.  He was still alive. They shouted at Doc to stay where he was and that they would get SSgt. Dunn. Doc didn't reply.

At this point, Cpl. Strauss took charge of the situation.  He shouted orders to his radioman, about 30 feet behind them, to call for supporting artillery fire . The guns fired as far as they could, but the spotter round landed about one hundred meters behind them in an open field. After some discussion (via shouting), the radioman told them that the guns were on "jacks" and firing as far as they could. Strauss told the radioman to call for air support, and he began doing so.  The platoon was still in column, although everyone was down in a safe position.  While the building was effectively blocking the machine gun from inflicting additional damage, it also had them all pinned down.  Between the terrain and the line-of-fire of the machine gun, none of them could maneuver in any direction - not even backwards.  Strauss told Lou that they would just have to wait for an air-strike to hit the position before they could move. They attempted several times to try to get SSgt. Dunn to take hold of a “rope” that they had fashioned out of their rifle slings, but he couldn’t get to it and every time he tried, the enemy would shoot at him again. They kept telling he and Doc that help was on the way, to just “hang on” and they would come get them.

Lou and Cpl. Strauss discussed how and where to move during the air strike.  They decided to go after the wounded and dead first.  An Air Force pilot was the first to answer the call but told them that the cloud cover was too low and thick and that the ceiling would have to raise a hundred feet for him to drop in.  A short while later a Navy pilot basically told them the same thing, except that he said the ceiling would have to lift fifty feet. Finally, a Marine Phantom pilot came up on the air and asked them for grid coordinates. After receiving the coordinates he told them that he would drop down under the cloud cover and make two passes. He would "spot" on the first pass and "drop" on the second. The pilot only had one 250 pound bomb so they would have to be really accurate in marking the enemy position. Cpl. Strauss told Lou that he would go inside the building to throw the smoke grenade. Lou was to watch for the aircraft and tell him when to throw. They decided to throw about 30 feet directly in front of the building (a best guess as to how close the enemy position was to them). As Strauss entered the building, the machine-gunner must have heard him because he opened fire on the building, tearing a couple of fairly large holes into the exposed wall and narrowly missing Strauss in the process. He reached the forward wall anyway.

It was about at this point when 1st platoon appeared to their right flank and began an assault across the open field. They were shouting at them to go back and that they had air support coming in.  With all the noise of both their guns and the enemy's, they didn't hear them. The ill-fated assault continued anyway and Marines began falling. The first person to be shot and killed in 1st Platoon was their 1st squad leader, Sgt. Morey. A single shot to the head took him down. Many more began falling and the 1st Platoon began trying to pull back but were basically stuck out in the open.

The Phantom appeared through the clouds out of nowhere.   He swooped in really fast and really low with his 20mm cannons blazing.  Cpl. Strauss threw the red-smoke grenade in the direction of the enemy exactly when Lou said “Throw!” This blind throw, it would turn out, was exactly on target.

The enemy was obviously confused from the planes’ gunfire and the 1st platoon's assault. While the pilot was circling to make his final pass, Cpl. Strauss and Lou ran out into the street to get SSgt. Dunn (he was the closest one to them). Realizing that Cpl. Strauss could handle SSgt. Dunn by himself, Lou turned and ran over to the ditch and grabbed Doc Swatek and dragged him back to safety behind the building. Cpl. Strauss was already tending to SSgt. Dunn's wounds, so Lou turned and ran back to the ditch to get Sgt. Moreno. As he grabbed hold of Sgt. Moreno and began pulling him, his helmet fell off and rolled back into the shallow ditch. Sgt. Moreno carried the platoon flag in that helmet. When Lou returned to cover with Sgt. Moreno, he looked over and saw the red and yellow colors of the platoon flag. By now Cpl. Strauss was already tending to Doc Swatek so Lou ran back to the ditch to retrieve the helmet with the platoon flag. He didn't realize until much later when others told him, while they were running into and across the street, the machine gun and AK's were alternately firing upon them the entire time.  Lou later received a navy commendation medal for these actions.

PFC Pugh had moved into the water-filled ditch beside the building during the initial assault of the 1st platoon. He was attempting to fire his M79 grenade launcher at the machinegun position. Suppressive fire from that gun nearly hit him and he pulled back under water (they could see the top of his helmet moving through the water).  It was about at this moment that the Phantom reappeared and dropped its payload right on target. They watched five enemy bodies literally fly up into the air along with their weapons. They advised the pilot of the confirmed enemy "kills."

Lou turned his head towards Doc Swatek and asked Cpl. Strauss how he was doing.  Doc was dead. He was only 20 years old.  Lou remembers hearing Cpl. Strauss remark in a compassionate, low voice, "Damn it Doc, I always told you not to make house calls."

By this time the 2nd and 3rd squads of the 3rd platoon had joined the assault with 1st platoon. Cpl. Strauss asked Lou about SSgt. Dunn and he told him that he too was now dead. The remainder of the squad joined them and Cpl. Strauss directed them to secure the bridge. Bohrer, Pugh, Rodriquez and Lou led the way across the bridge and secured the area to the immediate left of it since elements of the 1st Platoon had already crossed the water-filled ditch and were securing the area to their right.  Once the bridge was secured, Bohrer, Sorrell, and Pugh returned to the open field where the assault had begun and began helping the wounded. Emergency helicopter evacuations were already arriving to carry-out the dead and wounded. Cpl. Strauss, Bohrer, Pugh and Sorrell carried Sgt. Moreno, SSgt. Dunn and Doc Swatek to the helicopters before returning to their fighting positions at the bridge.  

Another marine, William Klawitter, from second platoon was killed in another action in a cemetery later that day.  Dan Archibald was the Corpsman who ran out when he was shot. William was the point man and was probably 50 yards in front when he was hit by rifle fire. There was a call that someone was hit and Dan could see where he lay on the ground since it was an open area.  He shed his pack and other stuff so that he could run faster to get out to treat him.  He ran out and reached him where he lay in the open.  Another Marine was taking shelter in a depression in the ground nearby.  Klawitter was still alive but hurt very badly.  Dan felt the best option was to get him back to the squad and call in a medevac.  He rolled Klawitter on his stomach and was going to pick him up using a fireman's carry whereby you pull a person up from the back and then move around to take them over your shoulder.  As he stood up and started to bend to pick up Klawitter, the sniper shot Dan in the shoulder, the force knocking him off his feet and throwing him a couple of yards to the ground.  Miraculously the round only tore a big hole in his flack jacket but didn't wound him, although he often thought that the sniper had the back of his head in his sights.  He took cover next to Klawitter as the sniper fired a few more rounds. When Dan got a chance to check  over Klawitter again unfortunately he had stopped breathing.  There were a few more rounds from the sniper but when it abated the other Marine and Dan made their way back to the platoon and after dark a fire team went out and brought Klawitter's body back.

 They spent the night in those positions dug by the same enemy who earlier had killed or wounded their friends and fellow Marines. That night, someone said they heard movement just beyond the bridge.  Pfc. Bohrer and Lou had to crawl back over that bridge because "they knew the area".  They never saw or heard anyone during the reconnaissance. The following morning the C/P (company command element) received orders to return to Hue and await further orders. Lima 3/5 marched back to rejoin the C/P group with the third platoon back on point.  They crossed the same area where so many brave marines had just been killed and wounded.  They returned to Hue with feelings of sadness, remorse and yet, also feeling damn lucky to be alive.

The next day they pulled back to a staging area in Hue before returning to Phu Bai. For them, the battle for Hue was over. The enemy had totally capitulated and was literally running north. They had the consolation that "Our brave brothers had not died or been wounded in vain".

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John Herbert Moreno in his dress blues.   (click on image to enlarge)

 

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John Moreno with his brother Ray's future wife Patricia.   (click on image to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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General location of 3rd Platoon action.   (click on image to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Citation for Steve's Bronze Star (click on image to enlarge)

 

The Trip Back Home     March 2, 1968

Steve Cox, the friend who had welcomed him to Vietnam, was devastated when he was given the news.  Back in the U.S., a white government sedan pulled into Peshtigo and drove directly to the nursing home where Steve's mother-in-law, Helen, was working.  Steve indicated that she be notified first so she could tell his wife instead.

Helen, with whom Squish had grown very close, had asked Cox to escort his body back to Peshtigo.  Twenty-four hours later he was on a plane to the US.  Steve Cox tried to wear a Marine uniform at the service, but was ordered to wear a Navy uniform.  Doc Swatek was buried at the Riverside Cemetery in Peshtigo.

Steve was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. From the Vietnamese government, he received the Vietnamese Military Merit Medal and the Gallantry Cross.  The citation for his Bronze Star reads:

"For heroic achievement on 1 March 1968 while serving as corpsman with Company "L", Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, First Marine Division, in connection with operations against enemy aggressor forces in the Republic of Vietnam.  During operation HUE CITY, Hospitalman Swatek's unit observed several enemy soldiers moving across a road near Hue, and immediately brought them under fire.  Suddenly, the Marines began receiving immense automatic-weapons fire.  In the initial enemy barrage, a Marine fell wounded in an area dangerously exposed to hostile fire, and another Marine attempting to move to the side of the casualty also fell wounded.  Fully aware of the personal dangers involved, Hospitalman Swatek left his covered position and rushed toward his wounded comrades.  As he crossed the fireswept area, he was hit by enemy fire and fell mortally wounded.  His courage, sincere concern for the welfare of his comrades, and selfless devotion to duty inspired all who observed him and were in keeping with the highest standards of the United States Naval Service."

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The memorial that Helen kept at the nursing home for several years. (click on image to enlarge)

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Citation for Steve's Purple Heart (click on image to enlarge)

A Flashback    July 1967

Shortly after my twin brother, Michael, and I were born, Steve was visiting my dad in Milwaukee.  I think he was done with AIT and was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Station at the time.  My dad called my mom who was still in the hospital then.  Steve was informed that one of the "twins" was going to be named "Steven Paul" during that phone call.  Steve's initial comment was "Oh no, not another 'S-S'.  People are gonna make fun of him."-My first and last initials were S-S as well (my last name changed when my mom remarried).  But, Steve actually warmed up to the idea and when he thought about it, it touched him.  My mom thinks he finally realized just what he meant to my dad.   She remembers hearing him punching a pillow and saying, "It's kind of like having your own kid!"  There are three other Peshtigo natives whose names have "Steven" (after Steve Swatek) somewhere in them.  Don Richter's son, Christopher Steven, is one of them.  My son Alex Steven is another.  So in a way, he still lives on in us.

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Citation for the medals Steve received from the Vietnamese government (click on image to enlarge)

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Photos of the Vietnam Memorial

Vietnam memorial wall in Washington, D.C.   The photo was taken by my brother. -Notice Alden Morey and John Moreno in the upper right-hand corner and Joe Dunn in the upper center in addition to Steve's name in the middle of the panel.  

DSC06633.JPG (3358820 bytes)Visitors looking at a picture of Steve that my brother and parents placed under his name on the wall.

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(click on image to enlarge)

John Moreno's brother Ray called me in July 2013. He read Steve's story on line and finally learned what happened to his brother, John. His brother's records said the same thing as Steve's: "Other explosive device" as seen above. That is probably why my family always said Steve stepped on a landmine. We thought this might be someone's way of de-personalizing their relative's death to avoid telling the brutal truth of how they really died. But curiously, Joe Dunn, who was killed during the same action, has his casualty detail stating: "Gun or small arms fire".

 

Click here for some post script comments by Lou Sorrell as he sent them to me.

Thank You!

To all those who helped contribute to this article; namely my mom Karen Van Hefty (Strojny), my brother Michael (for the Vietnam Memorial photos and this story's cover page he designed), Helen and Linda Newbury, the men of Lima 3/5 who graciously recounted their stories with me and other friends.  Especially John Presnall (2nd Platoon Sgt.)-my valued "technical advisor", Joe McLaughlin (1st Platoon Sgt., got me in touch with Les and Lou), Steve Cox "Bearcat" (Corpsman and friend), Don Richter (friend), Lou Sorrell (the point man), Les Bohrer (3rd platoon), Alan Swatek (cousin), Dan Archibald (Corpsman Lima 3/5), Ray Moreno (John's brother).  None of this would have been possible without your help.

Bibliography:

Warr, Nicholas. Phase Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968. New York.  Ivy Books, 1997.

Nolan, Keith William. Battle for Hue, Tet 1968.  Novato, CA. Presidio Press, 1983.

Mills, Nick.  Combat Photographer, The Vietnam Experience.  Boston, MA, Boston Publishing Company, 1983.

Smith, George W.  The Siege at Hue, New York, Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999.

Laurence, John, The Cat from Hue, New York, Perseus Books Group, 2002.

Videos:

A&E Television Networks, Vietnam:  On the Frontlines, Volume 2, New York, New Video Group, 1996.

Websites:

Battle for Hue and the Tet Offensive Unit Websites
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/107ts.html http://www.marzone.com/7thMarines/Mp0001.htm

(a good place to find maps and Area of  Operations locations)

http://members.tripod.com/LANCREW/Battle.htm http://www.kcstar.com/test/CAP/documents/wheretowrite.htm

(describes how to obtain unit command chronologies)

http://www.vietvet.org/cakewalk.htm#cwfinal http://members.tripod.com/Lima35/
http://www.olywa.net/sdotctho/m12/huetet68.htm Miscellaneous
http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/browning/136/tet68.html http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Quarters/7650/lettershome.html
http://www.worldwarii.com/Vietnam/articles/1997/0297_text.htm http://servercc.oakton.edu/~wittman/warlinks.htm
The '68 Tet Offensive http://members.aol.com/veterans/warlib6v.htm
http://members.aol.com/veterans/warlib65.htm http://thewall-usa.com/index.html
  http://hometown.aol.com/veterans/warlib6v.htm
General Information about Hue

http://www.fold3.com/ (this is where I found the DOD photos)

http://svidaho.net/~toohey/hueair.htm  

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