Hickam Field survivor to cut cake at Air Force Ball

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Mike Meares
  • Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Public Affairs
The pockmarked scarred buildings on Hickam are a vivid reminder of the physical and mental scars suffered by the men and women who witnessed the attacks here more than 70 years ago.

A U.S. Army Air Corps veteran, who survived the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor, will return to the Hawaiian island of Oahu to see the place he was forced to become a man so early in his life.

Durward Swanson, a 91-year-old native of Georgia, is returning to be the guest of honor and the "oldest Airman" at the 65th Air Force Ball, scheduled for Sept. 14, 2012, at the Hawaiian Hilton Resort in Waikiki. He will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the youngest Airman at Hickam Field and cut the Air Force's birthday cake with an honor guard saber.

"It will be truly an honor to be in the presence of today's Airman and socializing with them," Swanson said. "They are the backbone of our defense program."

On a previous visit to Hickam Field, he went on a walkabout to remember the events that brought the U.S. to the forefront of World War II; to remember those men and women at Hickam Field who gave their lives to their country; and to pay tribute to the friends and family he lost.

"I just missed my death by about 10 minutes," he stood telling his story to the security forces Airmen who currently work in the same room where he slept so many years ago. "It brought back some memories, it did. It kind of brought back what I had been through."

Swanson was on duty the night of Dec. 6 as a military policeman on a motorcycle patrol. He finished his breakfast in the dining facility and retired to his quarters, which was a dormitory for the Hickam guards on the second floor of the fire station (Bldg. 1001). His downstairs section of the building served as the guardhouse for the military police.

He was lying in his bed on top of the covers, getting ready to go to sleep after pulling the all-night patrol.

"My bed was right along here and my foot locker here," he said pointing to a section of the room now used as an office for security forces personnel. "(Harry) Albright runs in and wakes me up hollering about the Japanese attacking us. I got up and looked out of this window right here," he said gently walking over to a window facing south.

"I saw a plane banking and the rising sun on the wing, and at that moment, I knew immediately, we were at war," he said. "I was scared."

When the bombing started, he still had his pants on, threw on his shirt, strapped on his .45 caliber pistol and ran out the door. As planned in the event of an attack, he rallied with the other military policemen at the front gate. Realizing his best friend, Sgt. Albert "Stud" Lloyd, was missing from the group, he asked "Where is Stud?"

He remembers someone in the group telling him, "'The last we saw him, he was in the middle of the ball diamond with a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) shooting and cussing at the Japanese.' I thought, 'Boy he is going to get himself killed.'"

He jumped back on his motorcycle and raced to get his friend. On the way, he encountered an attacking aircraft strafing Hangar Avenue, the same street he was racing down. He immediately looked for the first place to hide and ducked underneath a car parked on the side of the street.

"I thought it was a good thing at the time, but later on I realized how foolish I was to do it," he said. "I laid my motorcycle over and slid underneath one of the cars, and he went on by. But, what if he had seen me and started shooting at the car and hit the gas tank? I wouldn't have been here today."

Swanson found Lloyd at the baseball field, as reported, shooting and cussing at planes overhead. As Swanson watched the scene unfolding in front of him, another of his friends, James Strickland, was running across the baseball diamond to find cover. Lloyd fired at an oncoming attacker, but Strickland was strafed by the passing Japanese attacker, cutting him in half -- a memory Swanson said he will not soon forget.

"I grabbed Strickland and told him to hang in there," he said as he looked furiously around to find help. "I spotted a medic running across the street nearby and ran to grab him, but I was too late. Strickland was dead before I could get back."

As his story continues, Swanson said pillars of smoke from the many fires all over Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor bellowed high into the sky. During the security patrols after the attacks, he and Lloyd saw the flag hadn't been taken off the flagpole and was still waving in the breeze. The 3,200-man dormitory engulfed in flames, only yards from the flagpole, lit up the night sky.

"We were just out doing our checks," he said with a definitive Southern accent. "We had security guards posted around the entire field. Then it come nighttime, and I said to Lloyd, 'Stud, the flag is still flying. We've got to take that down.'

"We took the flag down and folded it the best we could, as shattered at it was," Swanson said. He remembers feeling angry while trying to fold the flag and "wanted a piece of them."

He said seeing the historic buildings still riddled with pockmarks and the still torn and tattered flag encased in the Pacific Headquarters Building reminded him of the physical and mental scars he has carried most of his life. He said the events were best described as chaos. Of the casualties on the island, 184 Airmen, two civilians and three Honolulu firefighters were killed on Hickam Field.

"I lost some good friends here," he said. "I have a cousin and a good buddy still entombed in the USS Arizona."

In the days and weeks afterward, Swanson re-entered his first career field as a B-17E Flying Fortress crew chief. Called to action during the battle of Midway, June 5, 1942, his plane was shot down. Riddled with holes and missing sections, Swanson was among the three survivors, leaving seven friends perishing in the Pacific Ocean. He suffered severe injuries to his left leg, arm and face.

"We had zeros all over us," he said. "Spot (in the back of the plane) called to me and says, 'I'm hit! I'm hit!,' and that's the last thing I heard him say. I looked back through the fuselage and I could see the tail was just about half gone. I knew they had got him. Blood was dripping all over me from the top turret. I hollered, 'Captain, the zeros are all over us!'"

Capt. Joseph Tuell was not able to fully control the B-17. Lt. R. Macey, a bombardier, dropped their remaining ordnance on a Japanese war ship as they passed over before plunging into the Pacific Ocean. Swanson, bleeding profusely from multiple places, was pulled from the sinking wreckage as the air and sea battle raged around them.

"(They) pulled me out and my leg was shattered," Swanson said. "I don't know what hit me, if bullets hit it or shrapnel or what."

The battle in the sky above him was the last thing on his mind after he was treading water waiting for a rescue boat. There was not a safe place anywhere in the area. Shot out of the sky, severely injured and bleeding, Swanson said he was more worried about the sharks.

"Since I was a kid growing up, I've always heard that blood attracts sharks," he said. "I could just feel a shark coming up and taking that leg off, but with the flak and all falling into the water around Midway, there were no sharks around."

A small U.S. Navy patrol torpedo boat picked the three men up after less than ten minutes in the water. Once in the boat, they immediately worked on his leg, putting a tourniquet to help stop the bleeding, which helped save the badly damaged limb.

"My childhood clean up to that day flashed before me while in that water," he said. "There's a lot to look back over and thank the Lord for. I'm glad I turned my life over to him."

Swanson joked about his service in the military and his desire to stay in for 30 years. "And I would have stayed in except the Japanese decided to retire me early," he quipped.

More than 70 years later, Swanson said returning to Hickam Field is always a dream come true. Visiting his barracks, seeing where the dining facility once had a bomb rip through it and visiting the torn and tattered flag he and his best friend pulled down from the pole.

"I can't believe I was standing in the same spot I was more than 70 years ago," he said. "I was just doing what I should have done; what anybody would have done. If you'd been here, during that time of the attacks, you'd done the same thing.

Swanson, like many others, was in survival mode, first at the attacks on Hawaii and then over the skies of Midway. He just wanted to stay alive during the ordeal.

"People have labeled me a hero because of the attacks and the Midway battle, but I don't consider myself a hero," Swanson said. "I consider myself a protector of America like every Soldier, Sailor, Airmen, Marine and Coast Guardsman that's serving today."

It was because of his story and willingness to make the journey back to Oahu, the Air Force Ball committee chose Swanson to be the guest of honor at the Air Force Ball. For Swanson, this will be a first in his lifetime as he served before the Air Force became an official entity of the Department of Defense.

"I am delighted and happy to be back at Hickam where I was stationed," he said. "I am especially delighted to attend the Air Force Ball. This will be my very first one."

As survivor's stories are told over and over, they seem to come off the pages of a Hollywood script. Stories being told, like Swanson's, about the days the U.S. entered WWII are becoming more and more legend as that generation passes away. Instead of thinking those stories are from the pages of a Hollywood script, Hollywood takes their stories and adapts them for the screen.