Love and War in Vietnam and elsewhere

This snapshot of Ivar Svenson and Ann Byerlein was taken in Da Nang just before Ann completed her year in South Vietnam working at a civilian hospital and headed back to the States. He was serving in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Photo provided

Col. Ivar Svenson, United States Marine Corps, was in charge of plans and operations for the III Marine Amphibious Force headquarters unit stationed in Da Nang, South Vietnam in 1968. Ann Byerlein was head nurse of the intensive care unit at Da Nang Provincial Hospital in May of that year, during the height of the Vietnam War.

They met in a change of command ceremony in Da Nang for Lt. Gen. Robert Cushman, commander of the III Marine Amphibious Force. It wasn’t long before their romance was flourishing on “China Beach.” A couple of years later, the couple was married in Washington, D.C.

“We nurses were in our white uniforms. We looked a little bedraggled in the 130-degree heat. It was during the change of watch ceremony that I met “Swede,'” Ann recalled with a smile 35 years later. “We spent some time together on ‘China Beach.’ The beach was a recreation area we nurses took advantage of, as did the Marines.”

When Svenson arrived in Da Nang in ’68, the American forces were having problems catching enemy troops off guard. Most of the time, the Vietcong and the North Vietnam Army troops seemed to know the Americans were on their way, and would flee.

“It was my job to keep the enemy from finding out what we were up to in advance. That was a big problem,” the 73 year-old retired Marine colonel recalled, in his Punta Gorda Isles home. “It turned out we were doing things in advance that tipped them off.

“For example, before the B-52 bombers dropped their bombs, the Air Force would send out notices in advance to airmen all over the world to stay out of a certain area (of Vietnam) that were about to bombed. Or when the Marines were about to make an amphibious landing in an area controlled by the Vietcong. The day before the landing we would send a hospital ship to anchor off the beach. This tipped the enemy off we were coming.”

Svenson was able to correct these problems and confuse the enemy about future American battle plans.

Anne’s Vietnam adventure began in 1967 while she was working as a nurse at Los Angeles County General Hospital . After receiving a letter from the State Department saying they were looking for nurses who would like to serve in Vietnam, she decided to investigate the possibility further.

She qualified. following the completion of six months of Vietnamese language and culture training, Ann was sent to Da Nang in the spring of 1968.

“Our whole purpose for being there was to raise the nursing standards. I became the chief nurse in the intensive care unit of the Da Nang Provincial Hospital. My Vietnamese counterpart was the head nurse for the hospital,” she said.

The civilian hospital in downtown Da Nang was a 500-bed facility that had twice as many patients and often put two patients in the same bed. Each patient always had a family member that lived under the bed to help him or her with food and other necessities while convalescing.

“The Vietnam nurses and people were warm and so appreciative of American help. I was there when America landed the first man on the moon. The Vietnamese were so thrilled to be allied with a country that could do something like that,” Ann said.

Medically speaking, South Vietnam was in the Stone Age. When the country was split between north and south, Hanoi in the north, retained the medical school and had all the medical books. Saigon, in the south, had to start from scratch and create a medical dictionary and its own medical school.

By the time Ann arrived, the South Vietnamese medical community was moving ahead, with the assistance of visiting American doctors who regularly arrived for three-month tours. Accompanying them were nurses from the States, like Ann, who spent a year there.

Ann Svenson worked as head of the intensive care unit at the Da Nang Provincial Hospital. The nurse in the center was the hospital’s chief nurse. Photo provided by Ann Svenson

“It was a very fulfilling job. It was a wonderful opportunity ,” she said.

When her tour in Southeast Asia was over in November 1969, Ann decided to continue in Civil Service employment. She went to work at D.C. General Hospital.

A short while later,”Swede” was posted to the Pentagon. He became operations chief the National Military Command Center for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington.

Their romance picked up where it left off in Vietnam. Two years later, they were married. By this time he was a bird colonel and she was working as a surgical nurse at D.C. General.

He was a long way from where he began his military career while still in college.

“Since I was 10 years old, growing up in Milton, Mass., outside of Boston, I had always wanted to attend the Naval Academy,” the tanned, muscular Marine colonel said.

“I started wearing glasses in the 10th grade so I never bothered to apply for Annapolis. In those days you had to have 20-20 vision to attend the Naval Academy.”

Since he couldn’t be an officer and a gentleman, he thought, Svenson decided to become a scientist. During his sophomore year in 1948 at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., a Marine recruiter came through and convinced him to take the physical for the corps.

“I happened to end up at the end of the line . The last thing they checked were your eyes,” he recalled. “I saw there was a scale right beside the eye chart. So I went up and weighed myself. While standing there checking my weight, I memorized the eye chart. I passed the physical and wound up in the Marine Reserve.

“I receive my second lieutenants bars upon graduation on June,2, 1950, with a degree in physics. Three weeks later, the Korean War started,” Svenson said.

Because he had majored in physics in school and the Marines were short of artillery officers, they put him in G-Battery, 11th Marines. He spent most of his time as a forward artillery observer with the 7th Marines in Korea.

The closest the colonel ever came to getting killed was in the fall of 1951, when they started talking about a cease-fire and peace talks began in Pyongyang along the 38th Parallel.

“Even though they were talking peace, we had the bloodiest fighting of the war near the Soyang River north of Inju. The Chinese were dug in and we lost 165 men out of 240 men in our company during three days of fighting.

“There were four men and myself in our forward observer team. We collected five Purple Hearts,” he said.

Then Svenson lucked out. He got a call from his commanding officer about a “volunteer job.” His artillery unit needed a tactical air observer – someone to sit in the back seat of an OE Cessna and spot targets for the Marine and Naval artillery fire.

2nd Lt. Ivar Svenson and the Cessna he flew in over the front lines in Korea as a Marine artillery spotter. Photo provided by Ivar Svenson

“Flying as an artillery spotter was exciting and fun. On New Year’s Day we wanted to give the enemy a wake-up call, so we were up before dawn, flying at 50 feet above the ground,” he said. “We were flying so low, we could see the expression on the enemy’s faces as they sat in their trenches. I would sit in the back with a hand grenade in each and and the pilot would tell me when to drop the grenades. We we would also strafe the enemy with our .38 revolver that had tracers.

“One day we came down and were flying low. I happened to look out and see this Chinaman coming out of the bunker. He looked up and saw us flying over. He put a round in the chamber of his rifle and pointed it right at us as we went by. I could see the bullet heading right for us. It lodged itself under my seat. It was fascinating.

“One of my big thrills while I was an air observer was that I got to adjust the main battery of the battleship Wisconsin. That was really exciting.

“Because of the importance of the target the battleship was firing at, they sent us up the day before to check out the targets. It was a fantastic sight. The battleship was off the coast, sitting in nice, cobalt-blue waters, when we made contact with it.

“They were shooting at an enemy command post that covered a mountaintop. The country the ship was shooting at looked pretty because it was covered with snow. It was our job to call in the fire on the target. We could actually see our incoming shells because they were so big.

“On the Marine Corps’ birthday–Nov. 15, 1951–the 1st Marine Division commander decided to invite our Chinese advisor and their friends to our birthday celebration,” Svenson said.

The lieutenant general in command had a one-page flier printed showing a picture of a table set with bowls of rice and cake. Below the picture, the message read: “You are cordially invited to attend the celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday to be held on the United Nations side of the line on Nov. 10, 1951. Refreshments. Bring your friends.”

The day before the proposed affair, the general had his air wing drop thousands of fliers along the front lines. On the flip side of the sheet, the message was written in Chinese for the benefit of the enemy troops.

“The next day, to show the Chinese we meant business we gave them a firepower demonstration. Starting exactly at noon on Nov. 10, 1951, the birthday of the corps, the division’s artillery let loose all at once. The whole division front just exploded. It was fire and smoke. Everything was going off at the same time,” Svenson said. “We kept it up the rest of the day, firing at targets of opportunity.”

Fifty-four 105 mm howitzers, 18, 155mm howitzers, a 4.55-inch rocket battery with 72 tubes, 96, 81 mm mortars, 36, 4.2-inch mortars, a battalion of Army 8-inch guns and a battalion of Army 155 mm guns, the 16-inch guns of the Battleship Wisconsin, the 9-inch guns of a heavy cruiser and Marine bombers targeted all the known and suspected enemy installations.

“That night the whole division front was completely silent. We didn’t hear a thing from the enemy,” he said. “In the morning, across our division front, there were 600 enemy out there waving white surrender flags. They were shell-shocked,” he said.

“It was the greatest birthday celebration I ever attended for the United States Marine Corps.

By the time Svenson completed his tour of duty at the Pentagon in the early 1970s, he was posted with Ann, his new wife, to Subic Bay in the Philippines, where he served as provost martial. He held a similar job as assistant chief of security at Camp Pendleton, Calif., his last three years in the service. He retired in September 1975, after 25 years in the Marines.

By the time Ann hung up her stethoscope, she had spent 42 years in various capacities in nursing. She is a graduate of the Providence Hospital School of Nursing in Detroit, Mich. for her service to the United states during the Vietnam War, she received a special civilian medal from former Secretary of State Ellsworth Bunker.

Col. Ivar Svenson of Punta Gorda Isles, Fla. and his wife, Ann, squat on the stern of their 41-foot Hatteras “China Beach.” Sun photo by Don Moore

Because of his military experience as a provost marshal, which included providing police, fire and ambulance protection for a military community, Svenson was a marketable commodity in civilian life. The Svensons returned to Detroit where Ann had grown up. While there, Svenson was hired as director of security for the Renaissance Center in Detroit, an urban renewal project backed by Ford Motor Co., that was under construction in 1976.

He held the post for three years until an Atlanta developer learned of his success in Detroit and “made me a deal I couldn’t refuse.” For 18 years, Svenson ran the security operation for the CNN Center in Atlanta until he finally retired for good and moved to Florida’s Southwest Coast in 1994.

“We were looking for a place where we could have a boat in our back yard. Punta Gorda Isles fit our needs just right,” he said.

That boat would be a 41-foot Hatteras cabin cruiser they call “China Beach.”

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, June 23, 2003 and is republished with permission.

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