Service & Sacrifice

Robert Swanson: ‘I wondered what I got myself into’


Journal City Editor

The Marine Corps were a good fit for Bob Swanson. When college didn’t work out and he got drafted into the army, Swanson decided to join the Marines instead.

He went on active duty on Sept. 9, 1968, and found that stepping off the plane in Los Angeles to report for boot camp was a completely different world than he was used to.

“I got onto what they refer to as a cattle car, which was a very crowded bus. I think all of the recruits arrived at the same time. It was dark and we were taken to the Marine Corps. Recruit depot in San Diego. And I wondered what in the h**l I got myself into,” Swanson said. “I knew no one, and I was being yelled at. I wasn’t moving fast enough. I had to stand on yellow footprints. I got all my personal belongings taken away from me. I was given a uniform, I was told how to wear it, I had my hair cut down to nothing and every answer had to be “sir, yes sir,” and it was that way for nine weeks.

He said people who would not or could not comply with what Corps required of them left within the first few weeks.

“They say the Marine Corps build men,” Swanson said. “They tear everybody down to nothing and then they build from there.”

Looking back on it now, Swanson said joining the Marine Corps was probably one of the best things he did for himself in his life.

“It gave me a sense of self-discipline and camaraderie – teamwork. All of those things came out of that experience,” he said. “Even though it was only two years.”

Once he completed boot camp he got orders to a transient facility in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he stayed for ten days.

“When I got there, everyone I was with had order sending them to Marine units around the area. I had no orders sending me anywhere. So I stayed in Da Nang – and every day I would go and check with the officers and see if I had any orders and I didn’t.

‘I can’t tell you what I did on those ten days because I had nothing to do,” Swanson said. “(Here) I am in a war zone, hearing stuff, and I have no clue what the h**l is going on. It was pretty scary, I would think. But then, I wasn’t afraid because I was a Marine, right?”

When Swanson finally got his orders, he was sent to Okinawa, Japan to work for the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade, part of the 3rd Marine Division.

He said he didn’t see any combat, because he worked as an administrative clerk.

“I worked in an office,” Swanson said. “I used to refer to myself as a Remington Raider because I was an 0141 which was my military occupational specialty. And I was not an O311 which was ground infantry, otherwise known as a grunt in the vernacular. My ability to type, which I learned how to do in high school was what got me to Okinawa. It was what saved me – kept me out of combat.”

His company did visit Vietnam once a month.

“We would take a plane from Okinawa and fly to Da Nang and visit the various 3rd Marine Division Units around the area,” Swanson said. “We would go down there for 2,3 or 4 days. We would get our hostile fire pay, and we would be exempt from federal income tax for the month and we’d go back to Okinawa, and I did that for 8 months.”

It was only when the 3rd Marine Division started pulling out of Vietnam that the Swanson’s unit was no longer required to make those trips.

He noted that because of his position, he did not have a lot of interactions with Vietnamese culture but when he did, the people always seemed to be looking for something.

“I remember once, there were some new guys there and this Vietnamese boy came up. He was offering to do ‘shine, shine,’” Swanson said. “So one guy got out his boot polish and brush and stuff and as soon as he got it out the kid grabbed it and ran off with it. But that was the needy stuff. We were told not to trust anyone.”

He had far more interactions on Okinawa.

“I was a 20-year-old Marine. That’s where I learned to drink. I didn’t get into any major trouble on Okinawa,” Swanson said. “I came close, but I never did.”

He made friends with the natives and ate local fare.

“I ate squid, I never had sushi, but the squid was prepared in packages. Pretty much that was my social life when I was in Okinawa to go out into Kin-Ville,” he said.

After he came back to the U.S., he was able to fly home to Michigan to see his family, but he doesn’t remember having problems at the airports like other vets did.

“You know you hear about these peace advocates coming up and putting flowers into the muzzles of rifles, but I didn’t have a rifle with me. The only thing I had was that I wore the Marine uniform,” Swanson said. “And we were the baby killers. I don’t remember that, but I have a tendency to forget things that are scary or painful. I didn’t find anything scary in Vietnam…I don’t remember any negative interactions, and I’m sure that there were.”

He then went to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to finish the last few months of his tour. He was offered an extension, but decided to go back to civilian life instead.

He went through a program called Project Transition prior to returning home where he learned to be a U.S. Postal Service clerk/carrier. He started working at the Marquette post office in April, 1971. Then he became an Ishpeming Police Officer for a few years.

Swanson admits that he abused alcohol for a little over a decade after he got out of the Marines.

He has been in recovery for more than 30 years as of today, worked as a substance abuse counselor before retiring and continues to help other people who are recovering from addiction.

He’s now proud to be part of what he considers to be a very honorable group.

“I have a Vietnam Veteran license plate on my truck,” Swanson said. “I have a baseball cap that says I am served in the Marines during the Vietnam war”

He said his feelings about the war itself have changed over the years, especially after hearing form another relative that his older brother opposed the war.

“I had no opinion on the war. But as all this information came out years later I realized we were lied to. The president of the United States at the time was lying. But I didn’t know. You believe what you believe. But when all the pieces come together, I can say ‘Yeah, I’m a Vietnam veteran. And I did what I was supposed to do. I didn’t kill no babies or any of that. I was an office clerk. But I supported the war. That’s what I did.”

He participated in the 15th Honor Flight to Washington D.C. several years ago, which he called one of the most moving moments of his life.

“When we got off the plane at Reagan International Airport, there were people there waiting for their flights, and they were applauding, saying thank you for your service,” Swanson said. “But the most moving thing for me was when we went to the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

The guard, walks twenty-one steps along a rubber mat on the plaza in front of the Unknown from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, as well as an empty crypt, honoring those lost in Vietnam. A sentinel’s shift lasts an hour, until he or she is relieved in a changing-of-the-guard ceremony.

That just impressed the heck out of me. That kind of mental discipline is kind of what it’s like to be in the Marines,” he chuckled. “Almost.”