By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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“I don’t get upset about a whole lot of things, but this was so disheartening,” said Joan Shields Bennett, the widow of the Medal of Honor recipient who visited the Gardiner Cemetery gravesite Monday.
Bennett discovered the missing coins Thursday when she went to drop off a load of bricks that were going to be used in her nephew’s Eagle Scout project to decorate a garden around the cemetery’s entrance sign.
The bricks went missing Thursday night, she said.
“There’s no value to them unless you’re the person who left them or the person whom they were left for,” Bennett said.
Bennett and her husband, Dick Bennett, also a Navy veteran, got another load of bricks for their nephew’s project, which Seabees from Bremerton, Everett and Whidbey Island helped assemble Friday.
Shields, a native of Discovery Bay and a 1958 graduate of Port Townsend High School, is a legend of the Seabees, the only member of the unit to receive the Medal of Honor after being killed at age 25 in Dong Zoai, South Vietnam, while taking out a Viet Cong machine gun nest in 1965.
He was the first member of the Navy to earn the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.
Seabees — shorthand for the Navy Construction Battalion — commemorate Shields’ death every Veterans Day at the Gardiner Cemetery.
Many have left behind challenge coins, which are small medallions created by various military units to mark their participation in a campaign.
The three stolen coins were all specially minted by Mobile Construction Battalion 11 with Shields’ face on one side and the Seabee emblem on the other.
“It’s a tradition to leave things like coins, or some people leave rocks, at military graves,” Navy spokeswoman Leslie Yuenger said.
“Unfortunately, they get taken, and there’s not really much you can do about it.”
Bennett hoped the thieves were area children who did not realize what they took.
But she also noted that she no longer flies an American flag at the cemetery year-round because thieves kept taking the flags.
President Lyndon B. Johnson posthumously awarded Shields the Medal of Honor in 1966 for gallantry during combat.
On June 10, 1965, Shields’ team arrived in Dong Zoai, South Vietnam, to build a compound for the Army Special Forces.
Viet Cong soldiers spotted the Seabees and began to fire machine guns onto the group.
Shields fought for almost three hours after being initially wounded by artillery fire.
He was wounded again, but went out to retrieve and rescue another more critically wounded man before firing for four hours more.
When commanders asked for a volunteer to go take out the machine gun nest, Shields stepped up.
Returning to camp after taking out the gun, Shields was shot again — this time with the bullet that would take his life.
Shields was honored by the Navy in several ways.
The USS Marvin Shields, a frigate built in Seattle, was used during the Vietnam War and in the 1991 Desert Storm campaign in the first Gulf War.
On the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Shields’ name is engraved on Panel 02E, Row 007.
The bachelors’ enlisted quarters at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard is named for Shields.
On the North Olympic Peninsula, he is the namesake of the Marvin G. Shields Memorial American Legion Post 26 in Port Townsend.
A ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Shields’ death is planned for next June, Yuenger said.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at email@example.com.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb contributed to this report.