The American Legion is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2019. In addition to national and statewide activities commemorating this milestone, American Post 328 of St. Joseph is planning a number of festive and patriotic activities for the community.
One of those special events will be profiles of St. Joseph-area veterans published in each Newsleader during 2019. The Newsleader is joining with Post 328 to recognize veterans and Legion members who served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters of conflict and Cold War tensions.
by Tom Klecker
St. Joseph American Legion
Leander “Lee” Eisenschenk, 76, U.S. Army – Vietnam era
Before Lee was inducted into the Army, he was raised on a farm west of St. Joseph. He attended a country school. He was no stranger to hard work.
Lee was drafted at age 23. He was inducted into the Army on March 17, 1964. Basic training for Lee was at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Appreciating Lee’s mechanical skills, the Army designated his specialty as a heavy-equipment operator. After basic training, Lee was sent to Fort Walters, Texas, from August 1964 until February of 1965.
Having been transferred to an engineering battalion, he acquired additional skills. Lee boarded a troop ship in Oakland, Calif. – destination Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.
The trip over was not uneventful for the 3,500 soldiers on board. The journey was substantially longer than planned – 29 days. The USS Elroy Eltinch (an old ship taken out of mothballs) broke down three or four times at sea. The heat and stench below decks was memorable. Troops were transferred to another troop ship USNS Barrett at Midway Island. Lee says he was seasick most of the trip.
While in Vietnam, he helped build air strips. In addition, the 864 engineering battalion built ammunition bunkers and large warehouses. To protect themselves from incoming mortar attacks, they slept all too often in underground bunkers. These bunkers were always infested with rats. Vietnam at the time was overrun with rats, thus necessitating immunization against the Black Plague. The monsoon rains accompanied by mud presented their own challenges. Some of the forward bases were only accessible by air.
Lee spent 13 months in Vietnam during which time his meals were in the form of C-rations – MRE’s. He did take in a Bob Hope Show. At the end of his tour in Vietnam, he flew back to the United States in what he describes as a “champagne flight.” Boats over took 29 days vs. the flight into Oakland, Calif., took 48 hours.
Discharged from active duty, Lee arrived home in the middle of the night. When he got settled in, he bought a brand new car. He spent an additional 16 months in the National Guard.
Lee found employment in heavy equipment and construction, thus utilizing skills he learned in the Army. Lee retired from St. Cloud State University in 2005 having worked primarily as a welder.
In 1966 Lee met his wife Elaine. They were married after a 16-month courtship and have been married for 51 years. They have four adult children and nine grandchildren.
Lee enjoys a variety of hobbies and interests: restoring old tractors, gardening, cards and volunteering. Lee has achieved substantial notoriety for his excellent wood-carving skills. Lee has been a member of the American Legion for 47 years.
For 44 years, Lee was in the Honor Guard. Among the duties of the Honor Guard is to lead the Fourth of July parade in St. Joseph. Lee has painful recollections of how bystanders along the parade route were so disrespectful of the flag and the Honor Guard. There were hecklers, attempts to throw off cadence and a general lack of respect for what the flag represents and the veterans who proudly honored the flag. Throughout the years people were less disrespectful, perhaps more apathetic than anything else.
Lee says that “after 9/11 it all changed.” People seemed to be more respectful of the flag, veterans and country. Though we may not be as patriotic now, it still feels good to see parade watchers stand at attention, hand over heart or saluting as the flag passes by. It is particularly gratifying to see the little children imitate the adults in the crowd.
Lee’s expressions remind us of a poem by Rudyard Kipling as he lamented the manner in which British soldiers (Tommies) were treated:
“For its Tommie this and Tommie that and chock him out the brute, but its savior of its country when the guns begin to shoot.”
Lee Eisenschenk – Army veteran – as a grateful community, we thank you for your service.