Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 27

BIEN HOA, South Vietnam — When I arrived in South Vietnam in February 1967, I was doing what the first Swickard in North America had done 200 years earlier — traveled far and gone off to war.

Me in flight school
graduation photo.
Martin Zwigart arrived in Philadelphia in 1765. The Seven Years’ War had ended in Europe 2 years earlier. The North American iteration of that war, the French and Indian War, had concluded with a British victory about the same time.

Within a decade, British North America and Zwigart would be involved in a war of independence resulting in the creation of the United States.

Zwigart — whose name soon would become Americanized to “Swickard” — arrived in British North America with his parents, a brother and 2 sisters after crossing the North Atlantic in the sailing ship Betsy. He was 19 years old.

He was born in Kiechlinsbergen, Freiburg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, in 1746. He would die of pneumonia at age 95 in Jefferson County, Ohio, on May 22, 1841. Martin contracted pneumonia after walking barefooted across damp, cold ground while planting corn.

Martin Swickard was an active participant in the rebellion against British colonial rule of the North American colonies. He joined the Continental Army and served as a private under Captain Mumm until he was captured at Trenton, New Jersey, on December 28, 1776.

Martin later served under Colonel William Crawford in the Battle of Sandusky in early June 1782. Crawford — who had led an expedition to destroy Indian villages along the Sandusky River in Ohio Country — was captured, tortured and burned to death at the stake.

Martin was almost killed before becoming lost in the forest. He and another soldier made their way to safety in Toledo more than a week later.

During the War of 1812, when the British Army invaded the United States, Martin served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army.

His primary civilian occupation was farming on land he received from President Thomas Jefferson for his military service during the Revolutionary War.

During the American Civil War of 1861-65, Swickards fought on the Union and Confederate sides.

My grandfather, William, was a soldier during World War I, though he did not see combat duty.

In March 1943, during World War II, my twin brother Jules and I were born in Big Spring, Texas. Our father, Lieutenant Jack D. Swickard, was attending the Army Air Forces Bombardier School at Big Spring Army Air Field.

Because my brother and I were arriving 2 months premature, our parents decided to forego the military hospital. As a result, we were delivered by caesarian section at the local county hospital. Happily, we both survived.

However, my parents went into debt to pay for our births and the time we were in incubators. They swore they would never again go into debt. They never did. When my parents bought a car or a house, they always paid from their savings account.

Several months after my brother and I came home from the hospital, we moved to New Mexico, where my father was assigned to the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range. My parents found a home next to the foreman’s house on the Stahmann Farm south of Las Cruces.

Though both had been born and a raised in Indiana, my parents loved New Mexico from the start. They were particularly intrigued by the food. I recall my mother telling me about their first close encounter with an avocado.

They had no idea what it was, just that it was bought at a grocery store so it must be edible. My parents peeled off the skin and threw away the green substance surrounding the seed. Next, they tried to crack open the seed, knowing there must be something inside it to eat. After they learned the tastiest part was what they had thrown away, my parents were hooked on avocados.

They developed a longstanding love of New Mexican food. In nearby Mesilla, there was a small, New Mexican restaurant operated by a couple with 2 young daughters. While my parents ate inside, the owners’ daughters would babysit Jules and me in our family car outside.

With brothers Jules (standing on left) and Jeff
(in front of door) at Clark Field in 1950.
When my father’s military assignments took us far from New Mexico, my mother would carry green chile seeds with her to plant. In 1949, she took the seeds to Clark Field in the Philippines and planted them next to our house. One morning she walked out of the house and saw the gardener urinating on the young chile plants. Later that day, my mother pulled up the plants and threw them away.

Friends in New Mexico would mail her red chile powder, and the commissary at Clark Field carried large, shallow cans of corn tortillas.

My father, Jack D. Swickard, served in the military for 27 years and retired as an Air Force lieutenant colonel in 1969, a year after I returned to the United States from the Vietnam War.

Growing up, my brothers and I lived in the Philippine Islands and Great Britain, both of which recently had felt the terrors of World War II. Our playgrounds frequently included the toys of war. It was great fun to crawl through the hulks of Japanese battle tanks still scattered around Luzon in the late 1940s, as well as through the wreckage of Luftwaffe bombers in a field near our home in the London suburb of North Wembley in the mid-1950s.

Though World War II had ended 4 years before our family moved to the Philippines, there was still a guerrilla war in progress. The Hukbalahap, an anti-Japanese guerrilla army, had been taken over by the Philippine Communist Party as the People’s Liberation Army. The Huks waged war on the Philippine government and the U.S. military in the islands.

When we traveled on family vacations between our home on Clark Field and the mountain resort community of Baguio City, we boarded one of several military buses with heavy screens over the windows. Leading the way was a Military Police Jeep sporting a machine gun; a similarly armed Jeep followed the convoy.

Rest areas were barbed wire enclosures patrolled by soldiers. Years later in Vietnam, leftover French colonial forts would remind me of these armed rest areas.

The last time I visited Clark Field was on a refueling stop made by the airliner carrying me to Vietnam. Though I had left the Philippines 15 years earlier, I still recognized the airfield operations area in 1967. However, the landmark I remembered best — a Japanese Zero fighter mounted on a pole in front of Base Ops — was gone.

The military had become a family business among my father, brothers and son. All became career officers in the Army or the Air Force.

Son Derek (left), me, and brother Jeff (right) at
Derek's commissioning party at Fort Rucker.
One of my brothers, Jeff, was best man at my wedding 4 days after I returned home from Vietnam in February 1968. He thought flying helicopters sounded like fun, so he quit his job in a St. Louis bank and signed up for Army flight school. He was flying UH-1C Huey gunships in combat 18 months later.

Jeff stayed in the Army for 30 years, was in the first group of chief warrant officer 5’s, and flew fixed-wing aircraft during the Gulf War.

Jan, my youngest brother, made a career in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel. He flew fuel tankers from Oman during the Gulf War.

My twin brother, Jules, became an Air Force munitions officers, going on to command a squadron on the Japanese islands of Okinawa. He retired as a lieutenant colonel.

And my son, Derek, got the bug to fly helicopters after working his way up to sergeant in the Army. He was accepted into the warrant officer flight-training program at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Derek shipped out to Baghdad during the Iraq War and flew Kiowa Warrior helicopters.

I am the civilian at family reunions. After my Vietnam tour ended in February 1968, I was named adjutant and personnel officer at the 55th Aviation Battalion at Robert Gray Army Airfield, near Fort Hood, Texas. There we assembled and trained D-1 (deployable) air cavalry troops for service in Vietnam.

Killeen, Texas, was our first home after my wife, Renee, and I married in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Though tempted to make a career in the Army after being offered a promotion to captain, I decided to return to one of the early loves of my life — newspapers.

I left the Army in December 1969 as a chief warrant officer 2. A week later I was back at The Albuquerque Tribune, reporting on crime and the courts.


  1. Jack:

    There is no evidence that Martin Swickard was born in Kiechlinsbergen, Freiburg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. There as also no evidence that he was captured at the Battle of Trenton or served in the War of 1812. Furthermore, he did not receive his land in Jefferson County for his service in the Revolutionary War. These are all old unfounded family stories except for the Kiechlinsbergen origin claim which has only arisen in the past 10 years.

    Lance D. Gill Esq.

  2. Hello, Cousin. Martin Swickard was my third great grandfather. I came across your site when I was Googling Martin's war history. Good to know you and your family have served so proudly!

  3. Hello, Cousin. Martin Swickard was my third great grandfather. I came across your site when I was Googling Martin's war history. Good to know you and your family have served so proudly!