Durward Swanson: Willing to Give His Life, if Necessary
I have wanted to meet Durward Swanson, a WWII Veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor, for more than 10 years, ever since I learned about his experiences when he spoke at a Memorial Day Program, not long after moving to my community a decade ago. So it is appropriate that he is the inaugural “On My Journey” post (on Memorial Day 2017) about people I’ve met throughout my life.
Mr. Swanson is 95.
Mr. Swanson spoke Saturday during another Memorial Day Program in my home community, which has always honored our veterans. He was stationed at Hickam Field when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.
Given his advanced age, I wondered about his health and how that might impact his speech. He was sitting in wheelchair up on the courthouse veranda along with other military personnel, both active and veterans. A large podium was stationed in front, and I thought they might roll him to the side so that everyone would be able to see him.
Boy, was I wrong. He stood up, made his way slowly to the podium and belted out a song – acapella style – while the audience watched and listened transfixed.
Already a hero to me, Mr. Swanson grew to rock star status. In a time when people are getting various forms of dementia in their late 50s and early 60s, here was Mr. Swanson fully alert and unaided by notes of a prepared speech or the lyrics of the song.
He explained the song’s significance.
“Last year, I had the pleasure of going back for our 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I had watched one of my closest friends get cut half in two by the Japanese. We done a memorial for him last year, and I sang the song. I’m going to try to do it for y’all this morning.”
Someone stationed at Hickam had written the song the day after the war started, and the lyrics were included in the Hickam Highlights, the base’s newsletter.
As I found out later, Mr. Swanson sang in a band for a short period of time while living in Nashville. His voice still hit sweet notes.
“Don’t forget the people who gave their lives to keep this country free.” Durward Swanson
Mr. Swanson grew up in rural Georgia and joined the Army Air Corps after a fight with his sweetheart. After arriving in Hawaii, he wrote her a letter telling her where he was and said that maybe they would get back together one day.
They eventually did get back together and married in 1965. They were married for 36 years until his wife, Audrey, died in 2001.
Mr. Swanson was stationed at Hickam Field before America entered the war. Hawaii was still only a territory at the time. On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack, which pushed us into the war.
That morning, he had finished his shift around 6 a.m., had breakfast at the mess hall, which was struck by the Japanese bombers a short time later killing 143 men, before returning to his bunk at the guardhouse. Someone came running in, not long after he had laid down, yelling “The Japs are bombing the hell out of us.”
The startling news took Mr. Swanson only moments to absorb.
“My bed was right between two windows. I rolled over and seen one of the planes banking the rising sun. That’s all it took.”
He jumped out of bed and took off on his motorcycle toward the main gate. A Japanese plane strafed his motorcycle, and he put it down on the road and slid under a vehicle. “They were strafing all around, dropping bombs. …It was chaos that morning. All day long.”
Mr. Swanson and a buddy managed to survive the attack, and that night, they took down the American flag, tattered and torn by Japanese bullets. Later in Saturday’s program, Mr. Swanson initiated an impromptu auction of two black and white photos including one of the flag he had taken down at Hickam Field that night.
After the United States entrance into World War II, Mr. Swanson participated in the Battle of Midway and earned a Purple Heart for injuries he received there. This is a story for another day. He has written a book about his experiences.
During the Memorial Day program, the wind began to pick up as soloist Stephanie McKeen, McGhee Tyson ANGB, sang the national anthem. Heavy storms had been predicted for that morning but a later forecast had pushed the timeline back until the evening.
The flags, at half-staff, waved in the slight breeze as she got to the words “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” And as if to verify this was in fact true: “Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave,” Old Glory lifted up in the wind.
It is because of the brave men like Mr. Swanson and so many other men and women who have served our country that we are free to celebrate our flags waving in the wind. It comes with a price.
Mr. Swanson reminds us: “Don’t forget the people who gave their lives – I almost did mine – to keep this country free.”