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Title:
Interview with Eli Takesian, December 13, 2002
Date:
December 13, 2002
Description:
Interview with retired Chaplain U.S. Navy Eli Takesian
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Takesian, Eli Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul and White, David Date of Interview:  12/13/2002 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  100 minutes

Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a staff person of the Randall Library at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Today is the 13 of December in the year 2002 and we're at Fort Myer, Virginia. I'm with Rear Admiral David White, United States Navy (Retired). Today we're interviewing Eli Takesian.

Zarbock: Sir, when did you go into the military, why did you go into the military and where did you go in the military?

Takesian: I was born and raised in Methuen, Massachusetts. At age 17 I graduated from high school. Wanting adventure, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Zarbock: The year is what, sir?

Takesian: 1949 … October. It was peacetime. Following recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, I was transferred to San Diego (February 1950) and attended Radio Operators School. The Korean War broke out in June 1950. I was still a student. A bunch of us volunteered for Korea; but the Marine Corps insisted we finish school first. I went to Korea eventually, in October 1951 (1st Marine Division), and served as a field radio operator. Attaining the rank of sergeant (not bad for a nineteen-year-old), I saw action in the Punchbowl (East Central Front) and the Western Front.

Honorably discharged in 1953, I entered Baylor University as a pre-ministerial student, graduated in 1957, and went on to study theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Princeton Theological Seminary.

Zarbock: Why did you decide on theology? What motivated you?

Takesian: That's an interesting question. I was baptized in the Armenian Apostolic Church. However, my parents rarely took my siblings and me to church … yet they thought kindly of the Church. Though a spiritually sensitive child -- sensitive, indeed -- I was woefully ignorant of religious teaching. However, my mother did teach me a couple of brief Armenian prayers. It was after enlisting in the Marine Corps that I began to attend church regularly. At age eighteen I had an intense spiritual transformation.

Zarbock: What was the nature of this significant influence at age 18?

Takesian: Well, as I said earlier, I reported to Radio Operators School at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego in February 1950. Five weeks later, on 26 March, a Sunday afternoon, I went to the Cabrillo Theater, located at the Plaza, and saw the movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. I left the theater at 1830 (6:30 PM). Hearing music in the Plaza, I gravitated toward the sound. It was a Salvation Army Band playing hymns, none of which I knew.

The hymns were followed by "testimony time" … never heard of a "testimony." An elderly female band member spoke of her spiritual walk with Christ. Her terminology was unfamiliar. I said to myself, "Wow! She's brave (group laughter) to stand up and speak." I was awfully shy about speaking in public.

Two fellows by my side were elbowing each other and giggling. I thought, "What a terrible thing to do. They shouldn't be giggling while someone talks about God." Though ignorant about religion, I'd been taught to respect it.

The Officer in Charge, Major Rody, concluded the ceremony by announcing, "Folks, we're marching to the Salvation Army Citadel. Those who want fellowship, follow the band." Fellowship was the magical word. Alone and without friends, I followed.

A crowd gathered in the Army's plain Assembly Hall. I sat up front. A pocket-sized hymnal lay on each folding chair. We began singing hymns. Everyone knew each hymn by heart. I knew nothing, not even the tunes!

Major Rody preached a hell-fire-brimstone sermon, my first ever. Listening attentively, I was clueless as to what he was yelling about … but was reminded that my life wasn't perfect. I laugh now, but I thought deeply religious people were absolutely perfect. Honest! I'm not kidding.

The preacher gave an "altar call." I'd never heard of an altar call. I figured the man was so carried away that, perhaps, for the first time in history, he was inspired to invite people to come forward and repent. So I'm sitting there, you know, ignorant … innocent … vulnerable … open … aware of my shortcomings.

Though hesitant, I was the first to rise and go forward. A Salvation Army musician pulled me down to my knees … and after praying over me, he asked, "How do you feel, brother?" I replied, "Good," which I did.

Following the service, people greeted me, among them a Mrs. Williams. When I told her I was from Boston, she replied. "Oh … do you know my son?" No, I didn't. "Ted Williams … Boston Red Sox," she said. "My goodness! Ted Williams! My idol! Here I was … conversing with his mother! A bonus!"

That evening the Salvation Army youth group extended an invitation to attend their Tuesday night prayer meeting. Not knowing anything about prayer meetings, I figured, "hey, human contact, with people my own age ... and girls!" So … on Tuesday, March 28, I showed up.

The meeting commenced at 20:00 (8:00 PM) in the library, a large room housing a long table. About fifteen young people were present. A fellow sitting at the head of the table moderated. He asked for prayer requests. In rotation, beginning with the man seated at his right, each person made a prayer request. Now it was my turn. I choked up. This was so new to me. Not knowing what to say, I gasped, "My family in Massachusetts." Couldn't think of anything else.

They stood up … turned their chairs around … knelt on the floor… each placing elbows on the seat. I followed suit. You know, monkey see, monkey do. Brother so-and-so began by reciting a laboriously long prayer, without notes. It seemed impressive, as I'd never heard a spontaneous prayer before. When he finished, I thought, "That's it. The meeting's over." But no, the next person took over … and the next … until I realized the chain was coming towards me. When it was my turn to pray, silence reigned … and reigned … and reigned … until the fellow to my right got the message. The meeting ended at 9:00 PM.

I left the building and walked toward Broadway. Noticing a neon sign, FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH, two blocks away, I remembered one of the guys in the barracks saying that First Baptist dished free chow to military personnel (laughter). So I headed for the church, descended a long staircase and entered a huge fellowship center. Rudy Ullrich, an associate minister, greeted me. The rapport was immediate. We chatted about baseball … spring training … prospects for our favorite teams. He was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan … and I, of course, was a Red Sox nut.

Rudy switched the subject. "Are you attending church?" "No … I'm fairly new in town." "Well, you're certainly welcome to worship here." Then came a question that bamboozled me: "Are you a Christian?" I thought, "Well, isn't everybody (group laughter)?" I hesitated. "Do you know Jesus as your personal Savior?" From childhood I was told that Jesus was my Savior. Why, of course! He was my savior! So I answered, "Yes," but with a clueless expression on my face. I didn't know what "Savior" meant … another manifestation of innocence and ignorance.

"Have you been saved? Have you been born again?" he asked. These were strange, unfamiliar terms. "Funny you should ask," I replied, "because two nights ago I heard a Salvation Army guy, Major Rody, use 'saved' and 'born again' in a sermon, but I didn't understand." "Well, those words are in the Bible," said Rudy. I thought, "Well … if they're in the Bible, they've got to be OK." (In childhood we kids played a particular game: "If your house was burning down, what's the first thing you'd rescue?" Naturally, the Holy Bible! Absolutely! I'd rescue the Bible first … yet I'd never read it!)

Rudy kindly invited me to his office. Some evangelizers are obnoxious … too eager ... you know, in-your-face! He wasn't, thank goodness.

Now we're in his office. He opens a thick Bible … and flips to John 3. I'm thinking, "Hey! How does he know where to look in such a fat book?" He read portions aloud, commenting on each verse, describing a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus … where Jesus tells him he must be born again. Rudy explained that being spiritually reborn is like becoming a baby once again. I thought, "Gee, that's interesting."

Rudy then recited I Peter 2:2: "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word that ye may grow thereby," adding that, as one matures in Christian faith, the diet includes spiritual meat.

I was moved … really moved! Then he read a simple sentence: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). After Rudy commented on its meaning, I was stunned -- absolutely stunned -- for I'd never heard "love" described in such profound terms. "Do you mean that God loves me so much that God died for me on the Cross?" I asked. "That's right," he replied. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather! I was ready … open. The apple was ripe for picking. My time had come. I received Christ. To this day I celebrate the simple, profound spiritual event of 28 March 1950.

Years later, I discovered other spiritual routes to God. People come to faith in different ways. Taking several steps further, I now believe that a person does not necessarily have to be a Christian to experience spiritual rebirth. No religion has an exclusive monopoly on the Holy Spirit of God.

On 1 July 1967, seventeen years later, in Vietnam, I underwent another profound mystical experience. I was chaplain to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Humping over rice paddies and through jungles for a solid night, under cover of darkness, without sleep, the Battalion reached its destination the next morning, a remote Vietnamese village. We were tired and hungry. Our mission was to be a blocking force for the Seventh Marines, who were operating across the river … that is, we were to block any enemy unit trying to escape across the river.

I noticed a Buddhist monk, bald and wearing saffron robes. Introducing myself, I told him I was the spiritual leader of these Marines. He understood no English … I understood no Vietnamese. So there I was, playing charades for ten minutes, performing various gymnastics, trying to reveal my identity … until, finally, we connected. His eyes lighted up … his face beamed … and within moments we were embracing. It was in that embrace, seemingly timeless, yet mere seconds in duration, that somehow, someway, we transcended nationality … race … ethics … language … religion … all limitations! Even the word "god" was transcended, as names, teachings, preconceptions, etc., would have inhibited that spiritual moment. Good and evil had no meaning, no identity. For lack of terms, which are insufficient, I was in a state of "PURE SPIRIT." Believe me, the impact was utterly profound, perhaps the most spiritual, most blissful moment of my life. After embracing, we celebrated "communion." The monk mixed his rice with my c-rations … and we shared as one.

I have found that religion and spirituality are not necessarily the same. One would expect religion to foster spirituality … it does … yet such is not always the case. Religion, especially organized religion, often kills spirituality.

Anyway, the direction of my life changed dramatically on 28 March 1950. I became an intellectual/spiritual sponge, reading and learning all I could. Weeks later I dedicated my life for "fulltime Christian service" … meaning that, once discharged from the Marine Corps, I would attend college and seminary for ordination as a Christian minister.

In 1951, at age nineteen, I entered a new phase of life: military combat, exposure to foreign cultures and religions, etc., which I'd never experienced before. I was shipped to Korea. The war was on full blast.

I'm fond of saying that age eighteen was my "spiritual awakening" … and age nineteen my "philosophical awakening." In Korea, I began to ask "WHY" in fresh ways, about many things: God … justice … war and carnage … killing … suffering … truth … biblical teaching … heaven and hell … etc. I reasoned that, if church friends in San Diego are telling me this … and this … and that, then why don't these things measure up to what I'm experiencing? I had always asked "WHY" … but this was a new and different ballgame.

Zarbock: Did you ask these questions of any of your friends? Did you discuss this?

Takesian: Yes. Affected spiritually and emotionally, I sought answers, desperately. Correspondence with church friends in San Diego bore no fruit. So I went to see the Battalion Chaplain. Opening my gut, I shared my spiritual and intellectual struggle … adding that, having had a powerful, spiritually transforming experience in San Diego, I didn't want to hastily dismiss religion as "bunk."

I shared a litany of theological/philosophical questions. The chaplain's response was bland. I seemed to be addressing a machine. Perhaps he understood exactly what I was saying, but didn't want to address it. Perhaps it went over his head. I don't know. His solution: "After taking catechetical instruction and joining my denomination, you'll be okay." I dislike such pat answers.

Dismayed, I replied, "Sir, it's not a matter of switching from one denomination to another. It's whether I'm to remain a Christian!" I left his presence feeling empty … and more confused. I'll never forget it! That particular meeting had much to do with my becoming a chaplain years later, which illustrates how a negative experience, a spiritual disaster, can have positive results.

Anyway, my Korean tour ended in November 1952. Discharged from the Corps in Boston on 13 February 1953, I returned to San Diego, my spiritual birthplace, to readdress and resolve unanswered questions. At First Baptist I asked questions, lots of questions, with no satisfactory answers.

However, the pastor, Rev. Dr. Paul K. Whiteker, provided wise counsel. Always supportive, Dr. Whiteker never put me down. One day he asked, "Eli, since you're entitled to the GI Bill, are you planning to go to college? If so, why not enroll at Baylor University as a pre-ministerial student? You'll have four years to ask questions galore. But ask honest questions. Don't rationalize. Don't play games with professors, or with yourself. Be sincere. At the end, if you decide not to seek ordination, then prepare for something else." Now that was solid advice! So … I entered Baylor … and asked questions. Boy, did I ask questions!

Baylor's Department of Religion was a total dud … quasi-fundamentalist, with a narrow perspective … something I didn't need. However, history and philosophy courses were of considerable help. Professor Ralph Lynn (history) became my mentor. What a man! Without a doubt, Dr. Lynn remains my finest teacher, ever! I'm not certain, but I think he suggested that, since Edinburgh University had a distinguished faculty of theology, I might want to apply there. While at Baylor, I became a Presbyterian … but won't go into that.

After graduation, I studied theology in Scotland, at New College, Edinburgh University. Edinburgh was spiritually, intellectually and culturally stimulating … just what I needed. It was there, at age twenty-five, that I attended my first ballet, Cappella, and my first symphonic concert. I fell in love with the fine arts, another spiritual transformation, and have never turned back! I'm a late bloomer.

My presbytery in New England advised that, since my ministry would be conducted in the United States, I should undergo some theological training in an American seminary. Consequently, after a year-and-a-half at Edinburgh, I transferred to Princeton, and graduated in 1960.

One month later I was ordained … and commissioned a Navy chaplain.

Zarbock: Why Navy?

Takesian: Marines utilize Navy chaplains, doctors, nurses and hospital corpsmen; therefore, the Navy was my door back into the Marine Corps.

My first tour as a chaplain was with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I reported aboard just in time to go on a three-month deployment to the Caribbean, training primarily on the island of Vieques. Upon completion of the deployment, I was transferred to 1st Battalion, 6th Marines for yet another Caribbean deployment.

Lieutenant Colonel Bill Joslyn was the battalion commander of 1/6 … a phenomenal leader. One day, as he and I were shooting the bull, he said, "Eli, you're doing one hell of job with the troops. You're tight with them. Yet as a new chaplain, you seem to be shy of me … almost too respectful of my rank. Perhaps it's your enlisted background. Whatever the case, please know that I need a chaplain, too!" Those supportive words changed the course and manner of my ministry from that day forward!

Another significant thing happened after training on Vieques. We departed the island and pulled liberty in San Juan and Jamaica. In Kingston the battalion received an emergency message to steam full speed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, immediately, as Cuban rebels had just invaded the Bay of Pigs. From Guantanamo Bay we rushed to the Bay of Pigs. Sailing in circles for three weeks, we awaited for word to attack, or to go home. I was on an LST, with the assault company. Although we didn't go ashore, we did assist Cuban rebels … but I won't go into that.

Zarbock: Sorry, but for historical purposes, what year is this?

Takesian: This is 1961, April of 1961.

Zarbock: And how old are you at that time?

Takesian: Twenty-nine.

Zarbock: And your rank is?

Takesian: Lieutenant. Interestingly, only three men in the entire battalion had seen combat: the Battalion Commander … the Sergeant Major …and the Chaplain (group laughter). As I moved about the ship, some troops sought spiritual counsel. Some asked questions about combat. Among them, a few so-called "braver" souls, perhaps more anxious than brave, blabbed that, once in combat, they'd "cut off the enemy's balls." Yeah, sure … I let them know that talk is cheap, and told them to pipe down. In addition to religion, we'd discuss the Geneva Conventions … basic ethics … and rules of engagement.

Anyway, President Kennedy called us home.

After my tour with infantry Marines, I was assigned to a troop transport, USNS BUCKNER (TAP-123). It was glorified taxicab service, crossing the Atlantic, back and forth, from Brooklyn to ports in Europe. I enjoyed it.

Then followed a two-year civilian pastorate in Amsterdam, Ohio, my first pastorate … a profound growing experience … complemented by wonderful friendships that have flourished over the years (good, solid people!). The Navy recalled me to active duty … and from December 1964 to March 1967, I circuit-rode destroyers in the Atlantic, with two deployments to the Mediterranean … and one to the Persian Gulf. Having served aboard four fine destroyers, perhaps I shouldn't tell which was my favorite; however, since it happened so long ago, I confess that it was USS JOHNSTON (DD-821). Terrific crew! I'll return to JOHNSTON later in the interview.

Switching from church pastor to chaplain minimized my participation in organized religion. Organized religion is necessary, as it provides order, definition, guidelines and direction. It has made contributions - immense contributions - to humankind; yet I'm often suspicious of its motives. It seeks power and influence, sometimes for the wrong reasons. History bears this out, as does contemporary religious life: radical Islam … militant Christian fundamentalism … rabid liberalism … etc. Some religious bodies have become slick, commercialized, more concerned with image and bigness and money, than with the basic tenants of Jesus. Organized religion also tends to, well, "organize" a free, imaginative spirit. I know people who are confined inside a neatly packaged religious box. As a chaplain I interacted freely, universally, daily, with several Christian denominations, with people of various religions, and with those who profess no religion.

I wish theological seminaries and churches would teach more ministry and less dogma and less apologetics (defending the faith). Yes, people should know what they believe … and apologetics serve a positive purpose; yet apologetics can restrict, confine and, if not careful, set up "them/us" barriers … and hostilities. On the other hand, ministry reaches out to all people, compassionately, irrespective of one's religious persuasion, with a tendency to break down barriers.

Toward the end of my tour aboard destroyers, the Chaplain Corps detailer offered me a year of post-graduate study, asking where and what I wanted to study. My first choice would have been "mythology and symbolism;" but I turned it down, opting instead to volunteer for Vietnam, specifically with infantry Marines. Although opposed to the Vietnam War (I have documentation to prove it), I needed to be with troops in combat. Remember my song-and-dance about spiritual struggles in Korea, and being short-changed by a chaplain? Well … I wanted to do for troops in Vietnam what the chaplain in Korea failed to do for me.

My request was granted. On 5 April 1967 I was in Vietnam and assigned to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, a great outfit, one of the most highly decorated of the Corps! Here's what I wrote in a published article, after that tour: "Negative experiences (in Korea) manifested positive results years later, especially in Vietnam, where troops posed the same kinds of gut-wrenching questions I had asked in Korea. What I knew, I shared. When uncertain, I would say something like, 'I don't know the answer; but let's talk about the question.' It helped them. It helped me. To be receptive to, and honest with the young Marine who shares from the depths is basic ministry." Two profound words are "I KNOW." Three profound words are "I DON'T KNOW." I know … and I don't know. The older I get the more universally affirming and more agnostic I become.

3rd Battalion, 5th Marines operated in the Que Son Valley (Spring/Summer 1967). I joined the battalion toward the end of UNION II, a bloody operation.

Zarbock: Union Hill did you say?

Takesian: No. UNION II. We suffered heavy casualties, but the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) suffered far, far more. Another bloody operation was SWIFT, which began 4 September 1967.

A Roman Catholic chaplain, a Maryknoll priest, Vincent Capodanno, relieved me at 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (I transferred to Regiment). Although he served the battalion for only three weeks, his spiritual impact on troops was profound. Vinnie and I became very close. He was killed on Operation SWIFT and posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I was on SWIFT with another component of the battalion when word of his death was announced. It was as if a shroud had covered us all.

Zarbock: How had he been killed?

Takesian: Troops of Mike Company were in a fierce battle, outnumbered and overrun by a massive NVA force. Father Capodanno was with them. According to eyewitnesses, Capodanno, who had been seriously wounded by shrapnel, was moving about the battlefield ministering to his Marines. He spotted an NVA machine gunner preparing to take aim at some wounded Marines huddled around a Navy corpsman (Leal) … whereupon he ran and intentionally shielded the wounded troops with his own body, sacrificing his life for their sake. He was shot in the back … and killed. We used to joke that troops shot in the back were often running away. It certainly was not so with Chaplain Capodanno, a courageous man, whose sacrificial act truly emulated Jesus Christ. Corpsman Leal bled to death from a groin wound. Capodanno's remains were flown to Da Nang within an hour or so, after the NVA broke contact.

Then fighting turned fiercer throughout the combat zone. Choppers were unable to land safely, and for several days scores of dead Marines could not be evacuated. Consequently, rigor mortis set in. Bloated by intense heat and humidity, their remains turned grotesque … and began to stink. Finally, when it was safe for choppers to take the dead Marines away, 3/5's Mortar Platoon volunteered to place their remains onto the helicopters. Someone suggested they wear gas masks to stifle the horrendous odor; but in the spirit of true Marines, the mortar men refused, saying it was a distinct honor to carry their fallen brothers … and would do so without gas masks. It's all so vivid in my memory.

As Operation SWIFT neared its end, the Regimental Commander came out to see us. He said, "Chaplain, hop into my chopper. They want you back at Division Headquarters in Da Nang, to give the eulogy at a High Requiem Mass for Father Capodanno."

I flew to Da Nang and reported to the 1st Marine Division Chaplain's Office. Cruddy from days in the field, I needed fresh clothing. After showering, I was issued new utilities. The Division Chaplain, John Keeley, offered shoe polish to shine my boots. I refused, saying, "Thanks, Father … but the blood of my Marines is on my boots. I can't cover their blood with shoe polish."

After scrounging Chaplain Keeley's jeep, I was driven to the morgue and viewed Father Capodanno's remains. The senior man, an Army master sergeant, greeted me with tears in his eyes. He said, "I'm Roman Catholic. When I heard what Father Capodanno did for those kids, I insisted on preparing his remains myself."

Upon entering a refrigerated room, the master sergeant showed me Capodanno's remains. I inspected the wounds. Three fingers were missing … shrapnel had blown away part of his left shoulder. There were exactly 27 gunshot wounds in his back. The one that killed him had entered the back of his head.

I'll never forget Vinnie Capodanno. I gave the eulogy at the Requiem Mass. I have copies at home ... if you'd like one.

Zarbock: Yes, I would like it.

Takesian: Allow me a footnote about the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) troops we fought in the Que Son Valley. It must be said. Unlike Viet Cong guerillas, the NVA were professional soldiers. Those we engaged in the Que Son Valley were seasoned, elite in every way. Having operated in that region for years, they knew the territory. Marines would serve in the bush from six months to a year … and then rotate out.

There were several small South Vietnamese villages in the vast Que Son Valley … and the NVA knew the residents well. For whatever reasons, the villagers rarely squealed on them. The NVA were clever. They were hard to find … unless they wanted to find us. The name of the game that summer (1967) was "a boy chases a girl until she catches him." We initiated several operations, chasing the NVA all over the place, with little to show for it, except for UNION and UNION II, both effective operations. The NVA kicked off Operation SWIFT, at great expense to us … but at much, much greater expense to them selves. Most NVA casualties in those operations were the result of artillery and air strikes, not small arms fire. The NVA employed no air power there.

On SWIFT, the NVA knew what they were doing because at one point they cleverly drew us into a pocket our artillery shells could not reach. However, vastly outnumbering us, their leadership made a gross strategic mistake by breaking contact prematurely, thinking we had a larger numerical presence in the field than we actually did. Again, the NVA we faced in the Que Son Valley were good, wily troops. "Charlie" was a derisive term we used for the enemy. However, we called these NVA "Mr. Charles," with respect

Before the NVA executed an operation, they'd dig graves to accommodate 20% to 40% (I forget) of their number. Irrespective of Communist ideology, the dominant forces in their lives were religion, family, tradition and folkways. They held a common belief that whenever a dead body is dismembered, its spirit will be restless.

Lacking sophisticated field medicine and supplies, large numbers of NVA died of simple wounds and infections. Many contracted malaria, which can incapacitate a whole unit. One should not minimize the importance of field medicine, preventive or otherwise. Study the history of warfare. Wounds and diseases on the battlefield are often a soldier's worst enemy. To its credit, US military medicine as practiced in Vietnam saved the lives of thousands of wounded troops … and helped curtail serious diseases. Bless those doctors, nurses and corpsmen! Our medical shot records were kept up to date. Once a week we'd take a malaria pill, usually on Sunday. In the field, we'd use halizone tablets when refilling canteens with water. The tablets left a lousy taste in one's mouth, but made water safe to drink. Thumbs up for preventive medicine!

Although it was difficult to capture NVA troops, we did medically evacuate some of their wounded. Word of this might have gotten back to NVA commanders, perhaps by their soldiers, or by Vietnamese villagers. The highly disciplined Marines of our unit rarely abused NVA wounded or dead.

You know the old saying: "What goes round comes round." For good or ill, whatever you do to your enemy will come back to you. During UNION II and SWIFT some Marine positions were overrun … and in isolated situations NVA solders assisted wounded Marines before breaking contact. Many Marines remembered such good deeds … and (I imagine) some NVA remembered the way we treated their wounded. I've witnessed horrendous carnage on the field of battle … but have also seen genuine acts of mercy. I preached incessantly to the troops that once a combatant is wounded and unable to defend himself, he's automatically a noncombatant … and should be treated as such.

Allow me an appropriate footnote. When my first tour in Vietnam ended (April 1968), I went to say goodbye to my skipper, Colonel Bob Dewey Bohn, Regimental Commander of the 5th Marines. Chaplain Carl Auel was with me. To my surprise, Bob Bohn turned to Carl and said something like, "Eli helped save the lives of hundreds of Marines and Vietnamese people. Men in combat can become barbaric. Eli never let us forget the virtue of mercy, constantly underscoring our shared humanity with Vietnamese, be they friend or foe. He kept articulating the difference between combatants and noncombatants … and the meaning of compassion. I once overheard a bull session in which he told young troops, 'Remember, we're visitors in Vietnam. Imagine living in, say, Philadelphia, and being occupied by a foreign army. How would you feel if foreign soldiers entered your home … upended your furniture … raped your wife and mother and sister … and torched the house? How would you respond if they shot members of your family, or neighbors, unjustly? Put yourselves in their shoes. Create friends, not enemies. Don't alienate Vietnamese by violating their religious or social customs. If possible, show restraint. Try creating friends rather than enemies.' He held their attention. His words impacted their behavior, thereby minimizing innocent South Vietnamese and Marine casualties." It was one of the finest compliments I've ever received. Again, what goes round comes round … for good or ill.

Following Operation SWIFT, the 1st Air Cavalry Division relieved us in the Que Son Valley. The Fifth Marines relocated closer to Da Nang, where we spent the months of October, November and December of 1967.

Zarbock: What are you doing as a chaplain during these times?

Takesian: Oh … knocking around with the troops.

In seminary I'd been taught about the ministry. In Vietnam I learned there's no such thing as "the ministry." We were all ministers, one to another … a brotherhood of Marines. The kid who served me chow was my minister … so was the battalion doctor … and the rifleman that provided protection. I was their minister. You get the message. It's like Kipling's "Gunga Din." Gunga Din carried water, life-sustaining water, for the troops. I carried spiritual water. We were all "water carriers," making personal sacrifices for one another, even unto death. You … I … every person … is a water carrier … and all are called to ministry. I learned this lesson more on the field of battle than in church.

Zarbock: Cite me the year. Where are we in history?

Takesian: OK … in the Da Nang area … October, November and December 1967. During those months plans were being made to conduct spring/summer operations on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. So … in early-January 1968 the 5th Marines regimental headquarters transferred north, to Phu Bai, situated about ten miles south of Hue.

1st Battalion, 5th Marines settled in Phu Loc, a few miles south of Phu Bai. 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines came up from An Hoa and joined us in Phu Bai. 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, still located near Da Nang, was preparing to join us up north.

I remember visiting Charlie Parker, 1/5's chaplain, at Phu Loc. The topography of Phu Loc resembled a mini-Dien Ben Phu (where the French were sorely defeated several years earlier). The Marine compound was surrounded by higher hills infested with NVA units. It was a bit unnerving. Looking down at the Marine base camp, the NVA fired at will … but Marines always fired back, with much heavier armament. I think a hunk of shrapnel once wounded Chaplain Parker. I forget.

The NVA were quite active in January 1968, everywhere. Ambushes increased along Highway One, the major passageway in Vietnam. Marines traveling that road were told to do so with no less than two vehicles at any given time. Something fishy was in the air.

I have an amusing (not so amusing?) tale about an incident in Phu Loc. As noted, driving on Highway One, especially by oneself, was precarious. One Saturday night, in total darkness (we were strictly forbidden to show light at night), a pair of headlights suddenly appeared, moving toward the Marine compound. Troops yelled, "Turn out those goddamn lights!" They almost fired at the vehicle. Lo and behold, when it stopped, a chaplain got out (group laughter).

Zarbock: That's really a fate statement.

Takesian: The chaplain was a great guy … a great guy … but he didn't always use his head. He was an Army chaplain (name withheld). In the dead of night he had driven down from Hue with headlights glaring (not a soul attacked him en route), to celebrate Mass for the battalion. The XO, a Roman Catholic, chewed him out, saying, "Father, don't ever do that again! We almost shot and killed you." Then softening, he thanked the good Padre for coming. I'll get back to Chaplain ________ later.

But let's first talk about the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Tet is the most sacred period of the Vietnamese calendar. The Tet Offensive ignited in late-January 1968, dramatically affecting all of South Vietnam, from the southern tip to the DMZ.

Reacting immediately, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines was ordered to Hue, to help recapture the city. Their chaplain was Dick Demers, a Roman Catholic priest from Fall River, Massachusetts. Tall and brawny, he looked like a Notre Dame linebacker … a damned good chaplain … admired by all! The troops called him Super Cross. He was wounded in action, perhaps in Hue.

The following is an excerpt of a sermon I preached years later, about a peculiar worship service celebrated in Phu Bai, in the beginning stages of the Tet Offensive:

"Several military units were stationed at Phu Bai. On or about January 30, the North Vietnamese Army made a bold and massive military assault on all major cities of South Vietnam. This became known as the Tet OFFENSIVE of 1968, the bloodiest operation of the Vietnam War.

"A few miles to our north lay the city of Hue, the old Imperial capital and most beautiful city in Vietnam. Quickly, methodically, the North Vietnamese had taken most of Hue. U.S. military units began to retaliate.

"Meanwhile, on Sunday, February 4th, as the battle in Hue raged, troops of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines were being transported from Phu Loc to Phu Bai, for an overnight stay, before moving on to Hue.

"Chaplain Carl Auel, a Lutheran, was the senior chaplain at Phu Bai. Carl asked me to preach that evening in the base chapel (Hochmuth Chapel), a huge barn-like structure. He was to officiate. The service would be informal, he said, akin to what Baptists do on Sunday evenings. Attendance would probably be less than a hundred. And because of our vulnerability to rocket attack we were to congregate for no more than forty-five minutes.

"There were light showers. About 80 men showed up. The service began with 'hymns by request.' Someone asked for number 187 ... and we sang hymn 187. 95 ... we sang 95.

"Suddenly, to our amazement, the congregation began to swell, by the hundreds. 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had just arrived, and troops filtered into the chapel, some to worship, some to get out of the rain. 99 ... we sang 99. We kept singing … and troops kept coming. A strange, but wonderful feeling overtook us.

"The chapel was now filled to capacity. On we sang, louder, with spiritual gusto. Attracting even more worshippers, we were packed in like sardines, almost a thousand of us, with standing room only. We sang for two hours. One gospel song stood out: "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms," which was requested and sung at least four times.

"I thought Chaplain Auel would close the meeting with prayer. We had assembled for much too long. An enemy rocket would have done us in. You just don't pack a thousand troops in such confined space. But to my surprise, Carl announced that Chaplain Takesian would now read the lesson and preach the sermon. Once in the pulpit, 'something' possessed me (I don't normally talk like this). I had the strangest feeling I was outside my own body, seated in the congregation, looking at myself.

"Everything was hushed ... and floating. A still, small voice seemed to whisper, 'John 3.' I dismissed the prepared text and sermon, turned to the third chapter of John's Gospel, and read about Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus. Then, as if clay in the hands of God, I spoke softly on the text, John 3:8. The crowd sat in awe. I remember saying, 'The Spirit of God is like the wind. You don't know where it's coming from … you don't know where it's going … yet you can feel it passing through. God's Spirit is here, now, passing through, touching each of us in an urgent way.' I was mesmerized, knowing we were in the hands of the Living God! We were leaning on the Everlasting Arms!

"I sat down. Surely, Chaplain Auel would give the benediction. He stood, hesitated, and asked, 'How many would like to receive Communion?' Hundreds of hands went up. 'O.K. I'll go into the vestry and prepare the elements. In the meantime, sing more hymns.' So we sang more hymns. Carl returned, bread and wine in hand, and we celebrated the Lord's Supper together. The congregants filed out, quietly, as soon as they received the Sacrament. Finally, the service ended. We had worshipped for almost three-and-a-half hours!

"After the service, when I told Carl of my strange feelings, he said, 'Eli, the same came over me. I had no control of time or worship. I, too, seemed possessed.

"The next morning, the majority of that congregation mounted up and headed for the battle in Hue …and they entered the Citadel. I joined them there. It took several intense and painful days to wrest the Citadel back from the North Vietnamese. Casualties were high on both sides. 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had gone into Hue with less than 1000 troops. More than 100 were killed … and over 350 wounded.

"Here's what I wrote about that courageous battalion: 'In the Citadel of Hue, all men of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, participated in a special act of 'communion.' Ours was a common lot, a common adversity, and a common union (communion). The wounds of many were the wounds of all. The elements present were not bread and wine but, rather, broken bodies and shed blood. Many who survived will never again be the same, for they have come to know the bitterness of mankind's alienation … the enormous cost of sacrifice … the futility of war … and the absolute need for reconciliation.'

"This morning, as you and I prepare to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, let us remember those brave young men who worshiped God that night in Phu Bai. Many never lived to see their twentieth birthday. Let us rise and sing with them these simple words of faith, trust, confidence and peace: 'Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.'

"What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms; What a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms.

O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way, leaning on the everlasting arms; O, how bright the path grows from day to day, leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms? I have blessed peace with my Lord so near, leaning on the everlasting arms.

(Refrain) Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms, Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms." (The End)

It was a most unusual service … so eerie.

The next morning I learned that Chaplain Charlie Parker had been medically evacuated. I don't know why. 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had departed for Hue without a chaplain.

The regimental commander (Colonel Bob Bohn) gave me permission to join the Battalion. I hooked onto a convoy heading for Hue. When I arrived at the Army's MACV compound, situated on the southern shore of the Perfume River, near the University, the MACV executive officer took me aside and said, "Our chaplain, Father _______ went with Marines into the Citadel without my permission. I gave him specific orders not to move from this compound. When you see him, tell him to return here as soon as possible." Well, I don't blame the chaplain for going, you know. The troops needed a chaplain. To his credit, he wanted to serve them … but he should have gained permission from his CO first.

According to the MACV executive officer, Chaplain ______ had been with an Army unit north of Hue when Tet kicked off. He returned to the MACV compound by hitching a ride with an Army convoy. They dropped him outside of Hue because the convoy was heading in another direction. The chaplain, alone, calmly walked through enemy territory, the NVA-occupied part of Hue, in broad daylight, crossed over a Perfume River bridge, and into the MACV compound … unscathed. Amazing! He feared nothing. Chaplain _______ had nine lives.

Zarbock: Who knows.

Takesian: I've taken several risks in combat … calculated risks … and a couple of dumb ones … but, hopefully, none so outlandish as to unduly endanger the troops around me.

I remember a particular firefight back in the Que Son Valley (Operation PIKE). It happened two hundred yards from our CP (command post). We received a radio message that a couple of Marines had been seriously wounded … and were asking for the chaplain. Immediately, without thinking, I ran toward their position unarmed, to assist, only to find myself in "no man's land," chased by enemy troops. Trying to elude them, I hid behind bushes, then ran, then hid, then ran. They fired at me several times … and missed, fortunately. The rounds came awfully close. I could hear zings as they ricocheted around me. A comical thought ran though my mind: "Gee, just like in the cowboy movies!" I evaded them, whew, and reached my destination safely. I should have asked for armed assistance before bursting out of the CP. Dumb … dumb … dumb. At least I'm here to share the story.

Anyway, back to Hue. Several South Vietnamese Marines led by Lt. Col. Bill Leftwich (a top-notch Marine and very dear friend), a French photojournalist named Catherine Le Roy, and I boarded a Navy amphibious ship laden with ammunition, and we crossed the Perfume River, into the Citadel, a large walled fortress, once the Imperial City of Vietnam.

Cathy Le Roy is French, about 4' 9" tall. Hands down, she was the saltiest, scrappiest person I knew in Vietnam. She could out-cuss any Marine; yet deep within, Cathy was a tender rose, with a heart of gold. Quite celebrated, she had taken several famous photographs for periodicals, including Time, and one that appeared on the cover of Life. That tiny woman saw more intense combat than any American in Vietnam. She spent several years there covering the war.

As we crossed the Perfume River, the NVA fired at us with rocket launchers, mortars and machine guns. If they had hit the ammo aboard, tons of it, mine would have been a sad day (group laughter). But they missed. We sailed up a long narrow channel to the northeast corner of the Citadel, where I joined the Battalion. I reported to the Commander, Major Bob Thompson, one of the coolest heads I've seen in combat … anywhere … anytime. A top-notch leader!

I said, "Major, I'm here to pinch-hit until we can assign a new Battalion Chaplain." He welcomed me. I asked the whereabouts of the visiting Army chaplain. He didn't know for certain. I shared my concern because all of our wounded were being brought to the BAS (Battalion Aid Station) for treatment. The priority at that moment was for chaplains to spiritually assist the wounded.

Chaplain _____ showed up at dusk, explaining he'd been visiting a rifle company. Starting with a putdown, which was uncalled for, I said, "Chaplain, I don't know how you Army guys work! You're with Marines now. We have four rifle companies in front of us. We're taking severe casualties. With so many troops being shot, your place is in the BAS, to care for the wounded and dying." He replied that he'd been caring for the wounded of Bravo Company. "Fine," I said, "but in the process, guys from Alpha, Charlie, Delta and H&S are also being shot … and all casualties are brought to the BAS, where you and I ought to be. When appropriate, we'll go and serve individual rifle companies." There's a time and place for everything!

I noticed he was carrying a 45-caliber pistol. "That's verboten," I said. "The Geneva Conventions stipulate that chaplains will not bear arms." He said his pistol was his friend … and in current conditions the NVA couldn't tell the difference between a combatant and a chaplain. He had a point … but so do the Geneva Conventions.

I continued. "Marines haven't engaged in street fighting since the battle for Seoul, Korea. We've not been trained for city fighting, as most of our time has been spent in the boondocks. Here in Hue, NVA snipers are occupying buildings and working out of spider holes. The configuration of streets is such that you and I can get lost easily. So here's how we'll operate. Before venturing to any rifle company, we'll get permission from the battalion and company commanders … and in such circumstances, we'll leave here with no less than a fire team - that's four Marines -- and one of them must know the way."

I remember adding, softly, "Chaplain _______, we must do all we can for these troops … all we can … but you've also got to think of possibly returning to your family." His response was immediate, unflinching and tender: "These kids are my family!" Hey, yes, he did some foolish things … but he was also a focused and dedicated priest of God. He was willing to give all for his new family of Marines! For this I applaud and honor him. (I shared his moving words with a French correspondent, which were later published in Paris Match)

So the next morning, Chaplain _______ disappeared, contrary to orders. No one could keep tabs on him. At about 1600 (4:00 PM) Major Thompson announced that the entire battalion would be moving forward in 30 minutes, just before dark. We saddled up. At the designated moment, the entire battalion pressed forward. The CP (command post) and BAS settled inside a ravaged Roman Catholic parochial school. No one knew the whereabouts of Chaplain _______.

That night the situation became worse. Our own casualty figures had caught up with us. An ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) unit was supposed to cover our left flank … but never showed up. Because of attrition, we the pursuers were becoming the pursued, as fresh NVA troops, attempting to enter the fray, were climbing over the Citadel walls, to trap us. Our artillery support was insufficient. So we radioed US Navy ships, requesting H&I (Harassment and Interdiction) fire support to prevent the enemy from breaking through. Two ships assisted, a cruiser and the destroyer USS JOHNSTON (DD-821). I detached from JOHNSTON a year earlier, almost to the day. I had once been present for her crew when they needed me … now they were present in Hue for my Marines and me when we needed them. The entire night was boom-boom-boom, all around us, rounds accurately placed, providing needed protection, thanks to superb firing from the cruiser and USS JOHNSTON (DD-821). A small world!

Troops went looking for Chaplain _____. They couldn't find him. Early next morning I discussed the matter with Major Thompson. We agreed to continue the search for a bit longer before contacting MACV, his command. At about 1000, ARVN troops drove into our compound … and lying on a mule (small flatbed vehicle) was the corpse of Chaplain _______. There was a gaping wound in the back of his head. His .45 was missing from its holster. Tied to his ankle was a long rope. I thought, my goodness, maybe the NVA captured him … shot him through the head … and took his weapon.

Such was not the case. An ARVN gave us the chaplain's weapon. His body had been found near our old position. The Battalion Surgeon found a hunk of shrapnel in his head, concluding that Chaplain ________ had been killed, inadvertently, by our own naval gunfire.

Zarbock: What was the relevance of the rope?

Takesian: Fearing his body might be booby trapped, the ARVN tied a rope around his ankle and dragged him a few feet before taking further action.

I'd like to repeat something I said earlier. Chaplain _______ did some foolish things … but the troops absolutely adored the man.

Zarbock: He was a real pioneer, wasn't he?

Takesian: Well...

Zarbock: Sounds like Daniel Boone. Nobody is going to tell me.

Takesian: Right, no one was going to tell him … but once again, he was a devoted priest. The Tank Battalion Chapel at Camp Pendleton, California is named after him, which is fitting.

Zarbock: In his honor?

Takesian: Yes, in his honor.

I don't want to sound too fatalistic … but Chaplain _______'s death saved my life. Let me tell you about it. A couple of hours after we received his remains, I was conversing with two Navy corpsmen, when a young Marine called to me from across the way, wanting to share new input about Chaplain ______'s death. I walked over to him … and began to chat … when seconds later a mortar round hit the spot where the corpsmen were standing, where I had just been, and killed them instantly.

In Hue approximately 70% of my time was spent in the BAS. When things calmed down sufficiently, I'd go out to the rifle companies and conduct brief services, offer Holy Communion, and assist in other ways. I was almost hit a few times. Let me tell you a story about my visit to Delta Company … but first, some background.

My sister Helen lives in Methuen, Massachusetts. Last year (May 2002) she phoned and told me she'd received a strange call from a Brian McCabe, who's also from Methuen. He said the purpose of his call was "to find out where your brother Eli is buried … because veterans of Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines want to render honors at his gravesite." She replied, "My brother's not dead. He's living in Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC."

Shocked, he explained that he had served with Delta Company. He was not in the Citadel battle itself, but was assigned to Delta shortly thereafter. "The guys kept talking about Chaplain Eli. One of them thought he saw your brother shot through the head."

"Why are you seeking his grave now, after 34 years?" asked my sister.

"Well … recently I read an article about the Battle of Hue … and your brother's name was mentioned, stating he was from Methuen. I got excited and contacted our old platoon leader, Cajun Bob Thoms, and told him that Chaplain Eli Takesian was from my hometown. Cajun said, 'Wow! Find out where he's buried … and we'll do something special in his memory.' That's why I'm calling now."

The next day Cajun Bob phoned me: "When I learned you were still alive, I broke down and cried like a baby. You're the little short guy with glasses, right? I remember we'd been in a heavy firefight with the NVA, and things calmed down a bit … and suddenly you appeared. You asked if I was the platoon leader, I said yeah. I'd been wounded slightly, and you prayed for me. Then all hell broke loose again … and both sides were exchanging fire like crazy. Do you remember that?"

Me: "Yes, I remember the firefight."

Cajun: "Well, I saw you moving through heavy fire, in the open, assisting one wounded Marine after another … and another. You might not know that, in the process, an NVA sniper was shooting specifically at you … and had missed a couple of times. Detecting this, we blew him away before he blew you away. What amazed us was that, having no a weapon to protect yourself, you remained in the open, caring for the wounded."

Me: "You guys were open targets, too. I didn't do more than anyone else. Several of you were killed. I came out unscathed."

Cajun: "Well, I was wounded again, for the umpteenth time. I'm lying there … and out of the corner of my eye I would have sworn I saw you shot through the head. So all these years we thought you were dead."

Me: "I was pinch-hitting because 1/5 had no chaplain at the time. Shortly after the Tet Offensive, I rotated back to the States. That why you never saw me again."

Cajun: "Well, we loved you … and we gave you a nickname: "THE PADRE WITH BALLS OF STONE." By the way, were you awarded the Navy Cross?"

Me: "No."

Cajun: "I was so moved by your bravery and what you did for us … that I scrounged a pencil. No one had paper. So on the cover of a C-ration box top I wrote you up for the Navy Cross. I gave the box top to a corpsman and told him to make sure it got to the Awards and Medals section at Division Headquarters. I'm sure it got lost."

Hey! To be remembered so affectionately, after 34 years, by a bunch of Marine grunts is a medal all its own! Here's a copy of an e-mail Cajun Bob sent to fellow veterans of Delta, 1/5:

[e-mail clipped]

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