Niles veteran provided oxygen for pilots

Tribune Chronicle / Raymond L. Smith U.S. Marine Vietnam veteran Gary Duane Pressell of Niles said he believes all young men should spend at least two years in the military.

NILES — When Gary Pressell volunteered to join the Marine Corps in May 1966, the then-18-year-old Niles McKinley High School graduate simply wanted to serve his country.

His older brother, Benjamin, had served in the U.S. Navy. Another brother, David, later joined the Air Force.

The idea of serving in the military was not something family members talked about often. It was just something they did, Pressell, now 72, said.

The new Marine was sent to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, S.C., where he received his basic training.

It was there that, based on his high test scores, Pressell learned he would be trained to place liquid oxygen into tanks for jet fighters.

“Oxygen tanks were needed so pilots could breathe during their flights,” Pressell said. “Our jobs were to load and unload the tanks each time the planes returned to the base.”

Pressell, along with 12 other Marines, for six weeks were trained at the Norfolk Naval Compressed Gas Station on how to properly fill and store the tanks.

“These were highly explosive,” Pressell said.

He was sent to Da Nang, Vietnam, in January 1969, where he was assigned to Marine Air Base Station 11, which is part of the 1st Marines Air Wing Battalion.

“We arrived right when the Tet Offensive in 1969 was just beginning,” Pressell said.

During the 1969 Tet Offensive, the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong mounted attacks on military targets near Saigon and Da Nang.

In February, the 1st Marine Division reported an upsurge in the People’s Army of Vietnam / Viet Cong activity around Da Nang, Vietnam. Over that month, Marines from the 1st and 7th battalions launched a series of attacks against PAVN / VC fortifications, killing more than 100 members of the PAVN / VC and destroying ammunition and rockets hidden around Da Nang.

On Feb. 23, the first day of the Tet Offensive, the PAVN / VC launched 25 122 mm rockets as Da Nang’s deep water port, hitting an ammunition dump and a fuel tank farm at Da Nang Air Base, according to historical accounts. An attack on the An Ho Combat base destroyed an estimated 15,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and ignited 40,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and 50 rockets were fired at Naval Support Activity Da Nang.

The next day, the PAVN attacked the 1st Marine Division headquarters on Hill 327 and the 2/7 Marines command post to the northwest.

The Marines suffered losses of 18 compared to the more than 75 PAVN that were killed.

Pressell said he and others assigned to loading the oxygen tanks placed them on the edge of the landing strip area because the oxygen tanks were volatile and could explode at any time.

“There was at least one enemy bomb that exploded right next to us,” Pressell said.

Because of the nature of his job, Pressell and the others were not required to go out on patrols, where they would have had direct confrontations with enemy combatants.

Stationed right outside of Da Nang, Pressell said they often worked side-by-side with area residents.

“I supposed they could have been Viet Cong, but those I came into contact with were good people,” he said. “Most were simply trying to live their lives.”

Pressell described his time in the Marines as an important period when he grew from a teen to a man.

“I think all young men should serve in the military for about two years,” he said. “You grow up very fast. It provides discipline, a sense of purpose and pride in the country.”

Pressell left the Marines in June 1969. He spent 33 years at the General Motors plant in Lordstown.