Kenneth William McGwin
A gentle soul left this mortal plane on Sunday morning, July 10. If character and kindness shape the journey one takes after death, Kenneth William McGwin walked off into tall, green fields of corn leading to lush pastures filled with soft-eyed Holsteins and people he loved who went before him.
Ken was born to Howard W. and Ferol K. McGwin on June 24, 1948, and, with his brother John McGwin, continued the family farming tradition until 2000 when they sold the cattle. In 2001, he began work as an operating engineer at the University of Wisconsin power plant in Madison. He retired from that job as a supervisor in 2014.
He married Dr. Julie Ann Plesha on September 20, 1986, and together they raised son Sam and daughter Maggie who Ken loved dearly and who both cared for him lovingly during his last days in the home in which he was raised. Ken always said that if it wasn’t for Julie, he’d have had a lonely life on the farm, but instead, he travelled around the country and left a legacy of their two children and one grandchild.
Ken graduated from Montello High School in 1966 and was drafted into the United States Armed Forces in 1967. He chose to join the Navy hoping to “see the world,” and trained as a Machinist’s Mate. He was assigned to the USS Westchester County, an LST (landing ship, tank) assigned to the Army/Navy Mobile Riverine Force on the Mekong and adjoining rivers in Vietnam.
On the night of November 1, 1968, Viet Cong frogmen attached explosives to two sides of the hull of the Westchester exactly where the men were bunked in for the night. Ken had just begun his watch in another area of the ship when two explosions tore through the vessel, blowing the berthing compartments upward, knocking out the lights and filling the air with steam and vaporized diesel fuel.
In an interview for an article about Vietnam Veterans, Ken said that the ship’s gunmen began firing and the crew fought fires and tried to get to men trapped below. More than 300 tons of explosives were stored in the lower decks, a threat to everyone aboard.
“Some men were alive, and we couldn’t get to them,” Ken said. “Some drowned in diesel fuel. We couldn’t use torches to get to them because of the vaporized fuel. We tried to pump compartments out under the worst conditions.”
Ken was awarded a Bronze Star with Combat V by the Commander of the Seventh Fleet on December 20, 1968, for helping rescue two men trapped below deck in sleeping quarters. Working with a hospital corpsman, McGwin pulled two men out of the wreckage. The screams of the men as well as illness due to Agent Orange, were part of the Vietnam legacy that Ken carried with him throughout the rest of his life.
About his Bronze Star with combat V he said, “We were ordinary people in extraordinary times. I’m glad I was awarded it for saving people.”
Ken’s service story is included in the documentary film Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories by Wisconsin Public Television and in the companion book Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories Our Veterans Remember.
When Ken visited the moving Vietnam Memorial Wall, he could touch the names of 25 of his fellow sailors and soldiers who died on the USS Westchester County that night. It was the Navy’s greatest single incident combat loss during the entire Vietnam War.
Besides the Bronze Star with Combat V, Ken was awarded a National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross, Combat Action Ribbon and the Navy Good Conduct Medal.
Ken will be remembered for his sense of humor, his love for his family and his hard work. He labored to make the world and his country a better place and was patient and kind. He was well-read and could word joust with the best of them, puns being his favorite form of humor. His work ethic and how deeply he loved the land and his farm were evident every spring in the well-trimmed yard, blooming flowers and neatly painted buildings. In his retirement, he became a Master Gardener.
During his Future Farmers of America years, Ken won numerous awards including the American Farmer award which he followed up by winning the grand champion haylage award at the Dairy Expo World Forage Analysis Superbowl in 1988 with his brother John. They competed against forage producers from Canada and the United States during the drought of that year.
Ken was especially proud of his work with pigs over his years of farming. This work began in childhood when he was one of the Marquette County recipients of a “squealing porker” from the Sears Foundation Gilts at the Marquette County Pig Banquet. The young pig farmers were required to return two young pigs the next year from their stock for the next recipients in the self-perpetuating project. In 1966, Ken and his father Howard raised and sold Crossbred Feeder pigs, work he carried on when he farmed himself.
His dairy herd of Holsteins produced a surprise in 1999 when one of the cows gave birth to triplet bulls, born six days apart. It’s a rare occurrence and one the family never forgot.
You could often see Ken out in the fields, heading toward the barn or working in the yard, a dog or two always at his side. Whether he was tinkering on his beloved tractors or tending his beehives, the wagging tail of a dog was a part of the still life of Ken and his treasured farm.
For years he prided himself on growing the best tasting sweet corn and liked to believe he was the best pie maker, albeit his cousin Kathie would tend to disagree with the latter.
Ken is survived by his wife Dr. Julie Ann McGwin; his son Sam and wife Aliona Krupskaya and their daughter Amalasuentha; Ken’s daughter Maggie McGwin; his brother John (Sally); his brother Tim (Pauli); his cousin Kathie McGwin; his brothers and sisters-in-law Karen, Terri, David (Bonnie), Daniel (Sandra), and Bryan (Julie) Plesha and Jerome Herrick and numerous nieces and nephews. His father and mother, Howard and Ferol McGwin, sister Sharon Herrick, and mother and father-in-law George and Mary Patricia Plesha preceded him in death.
Ken’s hope that the giant 300-year-old Bur oak in his front yard would outlive him wasn’t to be, its gnarled branches leafless this year, but somehow knowing, we think, that Ken would soon follow.
Mass of Christian Burial will be at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 16, 2022, at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, with Fr. Gary Krahenbuhl presiding. Burial will follow in Oak Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo Township, Marquette County, with military honors provided by Marquette County Veteran’s Honor Guard. Visitation will be from 4:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. on Friday, July 15, 2022, at Pflanz Mantey Mendrala Funeral Home in Portage, and at the church on Saturday from 9:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m.
Memorials may be made to the family for donations to the families of veterans affected by Agent Orange.