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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Book, Documentary Profile 2 Heroic Wisconsin Veterans

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

Coincidence or not, two heroic veterans who fought in wars 65 years apart made their homes in the quietude of northeastern Wisconsin after surviving the Pacific and Afghanistan.

The stories of Lt. Frank “Ski” Tachovsky of Sturgeon Bay and Master Sgt. Brian Eisch of Luxemburg are being shared widely this summer, one in a new book and the other on Netflix.

Tachovsky and many of the Marines he led on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian didn’t settle in big cities after World War II. Tachovsky’s son Joe, co-author of the new book “40 Thieves on Saipan,” said his father followed his wartime bride, Roxie, to her hometown of Sturgeon Bay in 1945. Frank Tachovsky later became the city's postmaster and twice its mayor.

The book, co-written with author Cynthia Kraack, details the harrowing missions of Lt. Tachovsky’s elite Marine scout-sniper team, which operated at night behind Japanese lines on Saipan.

“Those guys usually settled in rural areas and small towns after the war,” Joe Tachovsky said. “Before the war, Dad worked in Pennsylvania’s steel mills. After the war, he wanted a remote cabin in the mountains, but Mom brought him home to help her parents with their hotel. He and his fellow Marines had a hard time rejoining society. It was like going to a party, knowing everyone inside, but feeling like you can’t go in because you don’t belong.”

Eisch, now retired nearly eight years from the Army, is the focus of “Father Soldier Son,” a frank, searing documentary about war and family sacrifices of today’s all-volunteer military. Eisch enlisted in 1992 through the Army’s delayed-entry program, and graduated from Hortonville High School in 1993.

The movie, produced by the New York Times, follows Eisch and his family for 10 years, starting soon before the career soldier deployed to Afghanistan in April 2010. Seven months later, Eisch suffered three gunshots to his legs while trying to rescue an Afghan policeman cut down in an ambush. Two bullets shredded Eisch’s left lower leg, which later had to be amputated.

While hospitalized at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland, Eisch knew he was no longer “mission capable.”

“I was told I’d be getting out of the military,” he said. Eisch retired in September 2012 after 20½ years in uniform. After returning to Wisconsin in 2017, Eisch and his wife, Maria, traveled the state before deciding to build in Luxemburg, a village of 2,515. Eisch liked the schools and supportive community, but said another factor was its access to good bass fishing around Green Bay and the Door County peninsula.

“Fishing is my thing,” Eisch said. “I go three to four times a week. It’s my zen. It’s for my sanity, and I enjoy it. I like to fish competitively, and I get to take a lot of high-school kids fishing to teach them what I know.”

Eisch grew up fishing walleyes on the Wolf River in the Shiocton area, and sometimes hunted deer and ducks with his brother, Shawn, now a water supply specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Eisch no longer hunts, but said it has nothing to do with guns or gunfire. “Hunting just isn’t my thing,” he said. “It never really was.”

Joe Tachovsky said his father’s outdoor recreation centered on fishing, too, and still owns his dad’s 1882 Springfield .45-70 Short Rifle. “He used that Springfield for deer hunting at least once after the war, but I don’t think he wanted to kill anything anymore,” Tachovsky said. “He never hunted again, but not everyone was like that. Bill Knuppel, the sergeant who helped Dad recruit and train the 40 Thieves, lives and hunts in Montana.”

Knuppel was one of several Marines that Joe Tachovsky tracked down while researching his book after his father died Sept. 10, 2011. Joe knew his dad fought in the Pacific, but never knew of his heroism until hearing a stunning eulogy at his funeral. He then learned of “Tachovsky’s Forty Thieves,” and that they were basically the forerunners of Navy Seals and the Green Berets.

Joe Tachovsky spent nine years researching and writing “40 Thieves on Saipan” to honor his father, and ensure he isn’t simply remembered as “the little old man in a wheelchair” that he became late in life.

Like many military men of their era, the 40 Thieves grew up shooting .22 rifles and hunting small game because meat was often scarce and expensive. Therefore, after Saipan was declared “secured,” Lt. Tachovsky and his men called it “rabbit hunting” when sent out to find and eliminate enemy soldiers who refused to surrender.

“Thousands of Japanese soldiers holed up on Saipan after the Imperial Army’s command was wiped out,” Tachovsky said. “They kept fighting on their own or in small units. The 40 Thieves worked at night clearing them out. It was hard to distinguish them by their uniform. The only sure way was to follow their tracks because they wore a split-toe sandal instead of boots.”

Unlike most of his 18- and 19-year-old men on Saipan, Lt. Tachovsky was married and in his late 20s. After a battle to secure an airfield, his men wondered if they would have been as fearless if they were his age and married.

If Eisch is any indication, that answer is yes. As a third-generation military man, Eisch sought service in Afghanistan even though he had sole custody of two sons, then 7 and 12, from his first marriage. When Eisch deployed at age 36 in 2010, he entrusted his boys, Isaac and Joey, to his brother, Shawn, in Wautoma.

As Eisch notes, older parents aren’t unique in today’s all-volunteer forces. Over 2.7 million service members have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. About 60% were married and nearly half had children. Over half have also deployed more than once.

Eisch said he felt duty-bound to serve in a war zone, but still questions that devotion. As he told the New York Times in 2010: “I question myself every day if I’m doing the right thing for my kids. I’m trying to do my duty to my country and deploy, and do what Uncle Sam asks me to do. But what’s everybody asking my boys to do?”

Other issues are more certain. Eisch doesn’t want sympathy, but admits feeling vulnerable. He understands some will judge him harshly after watching “Father Soldier Son,” basing everything on the mere 100 minutes they see and hear in the documentary.

“Most of the feedback has been good,” Eisch said, “but someone called me a narcissist, and others didn’t like that I raised my kids so they can leave the house and take care of themselves when they’re 18. I tell my kids it’s college, enlisting or paying rent. But I think service to country is honorable, whether it’s the military or something else.”

“Father Soldier Son” has been available on demand through Netflix since July 17. “40 Thieves on Saipan” (Regenery Publishing) was released June 2, and is available in hardcover and audiobook.

The documentary “Father Soldier Son” is streaming on Netflix, and “40 Thieves on Saipan” is available in hardcover and audiobook.

Retired Army Master Sgt. Brian Eisch is an avid bass fisherman and frequent competitor in fishing tournaments. — Photo courtesy of Brian Eisch

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