Sunday, December 31, 2017

The saddest story I ever heard

Paul Swofford in 2009, with a photo of his son

   Way back in 1999, before they invented bucket lists, if I had had a bucket list at the time it would have included getting lost in every state in America. I got lost in Illinois once, looking for Russell Loop, a veteran of my father's tank battalion. I drove past miles and miles of farmland, corn fields if I remember correctly, and his instructions were to look for a store in the center of town -- the town being Indianola, Illinois, follow a state road to the end, then turn right. Only I followed the wrong state road and it didn't end, and it was dusk, and my car was low on gas. After several miles the road ended and I turned right and saw a house, so I knocked on the door and a young woman holding a baby answered and she never heard of Russell Loop and I wasn't in Indianola anymore. So I doubled back to the store and took the other road and eventually found his house. I got lost in a parking lot in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky once. In my defense it was the parking lot of the Drawbridge Inn, which is like a corn maze without the corn. But O.J. Brock, one of the youngest of the battalion's veterans, in his early seventies at the time, had brought his Harley-Davidson to the reunion on a trailer and wanted to put it in a storage facility, and asked if he could follow me out of the parking lot. That was pretty embarrassing, but I eventually found the exit.
   Florida, well, I could have crossed that one off a few times. I almost never met Paul Swofford, one of a number of veterans of the ill-fated Kassel Mission of Sept. 27, 1944, on my interviewing trip in 1999. He lived in Lakeland. There was a brand new road called the Polk Expressway and I got off at the wrong exit and drove around an airfield called Drane Field at least two times. GPS was a relatively new phenomenon and the closest thing to a cell phone was Maxwell Smart's shoe. Again it was getting dark and I finally pulled into a strip mall, found a phone booth and called Paul. Turns out the entrance to the development he lived in was an easily missed road off the new expressway's service road, but I finally did find it, and we talked for more than two hours.

Lt. Paul Swofford, rear, and his navigator, bombardier and co-pilot.
    That's Paul Swofford with the long face in the picture while three members of his crew are celebrating after a mission was scrubbed. The way he explained it, that would have brought him one more mission closer to completing the 35-mission requirement. Plus the responsibility for his crew as the pilot weighed heavily upon him.
   Thanks to the efforts of veterans like George Collar and his son Doug, and Bill Dewey and his daughter Linda, and Walter Hassenpflug in Germany and a young Belgian, Luc Dewez, the Kassel Mission is slowly taking its place in the annals of history, where it previously was relegated to little more than a footnote: biggest one-day loss for a single bomb group in 8th Air Force history. Thirty-five B-24 Liberators of the 445th Bomb Group flew off course and lost their fighter protection that day, and were ambushed by 100 to 150 German fighter planes. In a battle that lasted by most accounts about six minutes, 25 bombers and many German fighters were shot out of the sky before the American P-51s and P-47s, responding to a flurry of Mayday calls, arrived and the German planes skedaddled.
   All of the surviving bombers were damaged, some of them heavily. Three crash-landed in Allied-occupied territory. Two reached an emergency landing field in Manston, England. One was forced to overshoot the 445th's base at Tibenham, England, because there was construction equipment on the runway, and crash-landed five miles away. Four planes made it back to Tibenham.
   Paul Swofford was the pilot of one of those four. Shells from a Fokke-Wulf 190 had shattered his windshield and both Paul and his co-pilot had shards of glass in their face. One of the Liberator's four engines was shot out. The hydraulics didn't work. As he approached the base, Paul had his engineer fire flares to signal there was a wounded man on board. In response, the personnel on the ground fired red flares, denying him permission to land, because he was approaching a taxiway rather than the runway. The engineer would have to hand-crank the landing gear up and Paul would have to climb to 500 feet, and he didn't think that was  possible. But the engineer succeeded, Paul circled the airport and landed successfully.
   Paul kept his anger at the ground personnel inside all those years -- 45 of them -- and he remained angry until the day he died, but talking about it in an interview for the first time kind of opened up the floodgates. He bought a new computer and got onto the Internet and began downloading pictures of all sorts of airplanes that he put in a scrapbook. He spoke to Bill Dewey, who piloted one of the planes that reached Manston, and he even came to an 8th Air Force reunion at which the 445th had a hospitality room.
   In his house in Florida, Paul had a small room set aside for his memorabilia from 24 years in the Air Force, from which he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1966. He had an embroidered B-24 that he picked up somewhere mounted on a wall. He had certificates for flying so many thousand hours in different aircraft. He had served in the Strategic Air Command.
   In the memorabilia room, I noticed a figure, a doll really, of the ventroliquist's puppet Mortimer Snerd holding a baseball glove. I asked Paul about it.
   That was his son's baseball glove, he said, and Mortimer Snerd, who along with Charlie McCarthy was part of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's act, was his son's favorite character. His son was killed in an automobile accident when he was 19. Paul and Sybil didn't have any other children.
   I think that's what created a bond between Paul and me, unlike my relationships with other veterans I've interviewed, although I often visited Dorothy Cooney, the girlfriend of my father's buddy who was killed and who never married.
   Over the next few years I visited Paul on a number of occasions.He and Sybil, Baptists, were very religious. It was the embrace of religion that kept their marriage from falling apart after their son was killed, Paul said. Sybil, god bless her, eventually stopped trying to help me find Jesus, but I don't think she ever gave up hope.
   I posted several of my interviews with veterans of the Kassel Mission, including Paul, on my web site. One day Paul and Sybil were in church and his pastor read aloud a portion of Paul's account of the battle that he downloaded. He didn't say whose account it was. When he reached the end, he asked Paul to stand up.
   A Congressman was in church that day. A few weeks later, in a ceremony at the church, Paul was awarded the Silver Star.

Sybil and Paul at the Silver Star ceremony.

   Although I talked to him on the phone from time to time since then, the last time I visited Paul was in 2009. I brought my tape recorder -- my DVR, that is, having switched to a digital voice recorder a few years before -- because Paul was always reluctant to talk about the Great Depression and Sybil would always prod him to tell me how he loved flying and always wanted to be a pilot, but couldn't afford lessons, and about how poor his family was, which turned out to be a good thing for reasons I'll get to, but it was when she told me Paul was so poor that he took a cow with him to college so he could sell the milk, I said I've got to get this down on tape.
   "I want you to tell me a little bit about growing up in the Depression," I said.
   "Well, I was living on a farm," Paul said, "and I was in the third grade at school when it started in 1929, but I didn't know anything about what is going on here. I am about eight years old. We noticed it in what we were able to go to the store and buy. I was aware that my folks didn't have any money coming in, and we didn't have biscuits for breakfast any more. We didn't have any biscuits to take to lunch to school. Since we lived on a farm we raised corn, so we had cornbread three times a day. That was one of the things that we noticed. But being a young person like that, I wasn't aware of what all my folks went through.
   "My mother and father had 16 children. One of them was born in 1914 and he died after three weeks, but there were 15 that lived, so one of 15 is the way I grew up. I had older brothers in school. Most of the girls came along after me, but to start with there was one girl and seven boys. I was the eighth one, and then the girls finally overtook us, some of them even after I left home.
   "The farm was in western North Carolina, in McDowell County, that's where I was born, near Marion, and we later moved to Mitchell County. That's where Spruce Pine was the largest town, so we children went to school at Spruce Pine, and that's where I got my high school diploma in 1937, and if you start counting, you'll see that if I started in 1927 and graduated in 1937 is only ten years there, so when we changed school I conveniently skipped a grade, so all through high school I was the youngest one in school. And when I started college, I was the youngest one in my freshman class.
   "Appalachin State Teachers College was close to us at Boone, about 50 miles away, and I had two brothers that were also going to school there. Incidentally, in spite of the Depression and the fact that we didn't have any money at home and so many children, before me there were three of them that got a college education, and so it was just natural when I finished high school that I would also go to college and that's where I met my wife. Sybil says that the greatest thing ever happened to me was that when I came up to my senior year, I dropped out.
   "Well, the reason I dropped out is I didn't have any dollars to go to school, and I realized that my senior year I would have to do practice teaching. That means a couple suits of clothes. I didn't have a suit of clothes, and I didn't even have enough money to register, so I dropped out for a year, went out West, at 19, 20 years old, and worked for a year. I came back in '41 before Pearl Harbor and started back in, and about the first day of school Sybil and I met each other, first day of school. I was a senior and she was a freshman, just coming in. And Sybil says the greatest thing ever happened to me was I didn't have any money, had to drop out of school, because I'd never have met her. And that made a lot of sense.
   "When I went out West, I ended up working down in California on a ranch that raised sugar beets and aspara -- well, yeah, they had asparagus but mostly it was sugar beets, and my job was to work on a rain machine. They didn't have much rain in the summertime in central California around Sacramento, so we had to lay these water lines, get water out of the canals and pump them with a tractor to put pressure there, and they call them rain machines, the whirling two streams of water. So we'd let that soak for an hour or so and then shut her down, move it over about 50 feet, and set up shop again. That's what I did for about six months out there in the summertime.
   "I held onto everything I made and came back and even lived, that's the first time I'd ever lived in a dormitory. In my previous years I had to work for my room and board. It only cost me $25 to register at school. I never did have any textbooks, couldn't afford 'em. I'd go to the library and read their copies but I'd have to turn 'em back in at the end of the hour. I didn't have any problem remembering in those days, like you do when you get a few years on you, sometimes you don't remember what you went to the bathroom for.
   "In the dormitory I had a roommate who was about four years older than me but we were both seniors that year, and so I did practice teaching. That was a wonderful experience. Here I was 20 years old and I was doing practice teaching. I was doing practice teaching at the time of Pearl Harbor, in December of '41, and so I graduated in the spring, got a bachelor's degree, and then I went right -- I had told my father and mother all along that I wanted to be a pilot. That's before we were in the war. And my dad would say, 'I'm not gonna sign it for you,' because I was under age. The requirement was to be 21 and have at least two years of college, that was in 1941. But my dad would say, 'I'm not gonna sign it.' But his sly way of telling a joke, I guess, was never to laugh about it but he would say, 'I wouldn't mind flying an airplane at all, so long as I could keep one foot on the ground.' That was his kind of humor. But when I did graduate that year, after Pearl Harbor, they lowered the Selective Service age. That's the ones that signed up for the draft. But a month or two after Pearl Harbor they lowered the age to 20. So I was 20. I signed up in February, I've got the draft card right here with me. From February to my graduation I was on pins and needles because I was afraid I was gonna get drafted before I could get a chance to finish college before I was 21. I knew that the day I was 21 I headed to Charlotte and signed up for the Aviation Cadets. I took the test, of course such things as mathematics and so forth, here I'm just a brand new college graduate, it was no problem to pass the written exam and the physical exam, so I passed, and, well, the rest is history. I did become a pilot for the next 24 years."
   It was at this point that I asked Paul about the cow.
   "What was it that Sybil was telling me last time I was here with the cows," I said, "that you and your brother took a cow with you across a mountain?"
   "Well, we did," Paul said. "Since I skipped a grade, it put me up just one class behind my brother who was two years older, and originally was two classes ahead of me in school. Well, I jumped up, I always thought there's a little bit of resentment there. Of course he isn't alive anymore so I can say that maybe  he had a little bit of resentment that his kid brother was nipping at his heels just a grade back of him. But he had married when he was a sophomore in college. At 18 he got married, married this lady who was a senior in college. So he took a cow that was his at home, put it, a neighbor had a truck, and hauled that cow to Boone. And he found a place there to feed the cow and stake it out, and graze the grass, so my junior year, that was the year that was, we'll say 1939 and '40, we had a room in a place that had a bathroom outside and had a shower outside, and he'd milk the cow and sell about half of the milk, he sold it for ten cents a quart, at least half of the milk and we drank the rest of it. So that was the cow. He did most of the business with the cow, he did all the milking and all the selling and all of that. I was just a young squirt to him."

   Stephen Ambrose once wrote that he almost thought he developed PTSD from interviewing so many veterans of World War II. When I read that, my reaction was "Phshaw!" But over the course of hundreds of hours of interviews with men and women of the so-called Greatest Generation, I've rethought my reaction to Ambrose's remark. And while I wouldn't say I've come close to post traumatic stress disorder, I've seen many grown men cry, and shed many tears myself, and I've shed them in spades. First I get choked up while the veteran is telling me a particularly sad, or tragic, or poignant story. Then the tears start flowing while I transcribe the tape, or the digital file. I get choked up again when I transfer the file to a CD and again when I play it for patrons at the Reading World War II Weekend, and again when I relate the story to a friend or acquaintance. Next to the veteran who relives the story every day of his life, I probably replay some of the stories more than anybody else.  But don't cry for me Argentina, I didn't live through any of these experiences, and am little more than a conduit to bring the stories to a wider audience.
    I asked Paul if there were still a lot of Swoffords in Spruce Pine.
   "No," he said. "In my family, we went to the four winds, you might say, because of World War II, or I guess you'd have to go on back to the Depression, because I had two brothers to drop out of school before they graduated from high school and they went out to, quote, "seek their fortune." I don't know why they did it, but they left home when they finished about the eighth or ninth grade. One of those now is 93 years old. There's three boys that we have left in the family with the Swofford name, but, you know, Sybil and I, we lost our son when he was 19, in 1963. He had just completed his sophomore year at the University of North Carolina at chapel Hill. That was on June the 6th, so we were just saying yesterday, I was putting a new calendar for the month of June, I said on Saturday is the fateful day. It was just 19 years after D-Day that he lost his life. He'd just finished his second year at the University of North Carolina and was home for the summer, and I was on temporary duty, we called it TDY, out to California, to Merced, checking out in what we call the KC-135 tanker airplane. Incidentally, later, when I came back I was the commander of the KC-135 squadron. I was the commander of the field maintenance portion of the KC-135 wing, which was a tanker wing. That airplane was originally the DC-9 that the airlines used. Douglass built that DC-9."
   "So you were overseas when your son was born?" I asked.
   "No," Paul said. "I went overseas in '44. It took about a year to go through flight training, and then nearly another year to train on the B-24 to go to combat. So it took about two years to get ready to go to combat. So I went over, I left at the end of June of 1944, it's just in the same month as D-Day was the 6th of June of '44. So we were given an airplane. From our training camp we went to Topeka to pick up an airplane. They gave us a brand new airplane. I had a crew of ten on that airplane, and we flew it across the northern route, up through eastern Canada and Greenland and Iceland, to the British Isles, and we became part of the 8th Air Force."
   "When was your son born?" I interrupted.
   "Our son was born in '43, about a year after we were married. He had his first birthday, well, just about the time of the Kassel Mission. There's only a couple of us on the crew who were married. It wasn't always easy for the other members to understand what being married meant, how the two of us who were married and had children, we knew how to communicate with each other, you might say, easier than it was with the other fellows. The other crew member who was married was Joe Waller. He was my ball turret man, but we got to England, and the first thing they said, 'Give us this airplane, we're gonna send it somewhere and take the ball turret off of it.' Well, when we got to our combat group they says, 'You've got to eliminate one of your men since we don't have a ball turret.' So we discussed it with my co-pilot and my crew chief, because those are the ones I'd always consult on matters like that, and I said, 'Well, what do we do?' And it was unanimous among us three that we eliminate one of the others and keep Joe Waller and put him in another position, because we didn't want to lose him. We made him the tail turret gunner. He was the first one to see the enemy on my aircraft on the Kassel Mission because he could see them coming in from the rear. He had one definite kill and one probable. And my engineer manned the upper turret all the time. Normally the engineer would be standing up between the two pilots, and we'd talk about the functioning of the airplane, the functioning of the engines and so forth, so we had to have him there to talk to us. But when we would get into enemy territory, he would man the upper turret. He had a probable, we had one kill and two probables assigned to my crew."
   "You had said Steve's first birthday was around the time of the Kassel Mission?" I asked.
   "Yes," Paul said. "He was born in October of '43 and that was in late September of '44, the Kassel Mission, so he was just short of his first birthday there."
   "And it was June 6th that the accident was?"
   "That's right. June 6th of 1963. Just about four months, a little more than four months short of his 20th birthday. He came home for the summer and as I say I was in California, and he he had come home for the summer and another young fellow there that he palled around with, we lived on the base, in base housing, and I was assigned out to California for that KC-135 school, and Sybil was there alone, and she went down to Chapel Hill and picked him up and brought him back home, and the two boys, our son and the other boy, the other boy had his father's car, and so they were out on the afternoon there, just before they were both going to have a job for the summer. And the boy, the driver, decided to pass another car and happened to be right on a rise. I don't know why, it would have been surprising because it was almost in front of the high school that both of them had attended. They were familiar with that road. He decided to pass on the rise. It went head on into another car. The other car was driven by an airman's, a sergeant's, wife, from Lockbourne Air Force Base where we were, in Columbus, Ohio, and the sergeant's wife was killed also in the accident. Head on. And our son was killed, and the driver, a young driver about the same age as our son, had a broken arm. That's, that was the end of our descendents, right then and there.
   "Well, it just so happened that particular day, the 6th of June, had long been my graduation day from KC-135 schooling in California. That was at Merced, it was Castle Air Force Base, and we graduated in the morning. Of course, being three hours later out there, by the time I started home from there, about noon, I started driving east. I had my own automobile out there, and so that was about 3 o'clock Eastern time, and about noon time out there that I started driving, and towards evening, it was approaching darkness, somewhere around Needles, just before I was to get into, I don't remember if I had come into Nevada or Arizona, they're both pretty close there, as I was approaching Needles I decided as it got dark that I would find a motel. So I saw one and I just drove right into the driveway, near the office, and I looked in my rearview mirror, and right on my rear bumper was a highway patrol. And I got out of my car and I says, 'Well, Officer, is there a problem?'
   "He asked me if I was Major Swofford. I was a major at the time. And he said, 'Call your command post.'
   "I'd never heard of such a thing, but apparently the authorities back at Lockbourne in Columbus had called, they had first contacted the military at Merced and they said I'd already left, heading east. And so, I don't know where they got information about the car, the policeman, the highway patrolman, had been alerted to, I think all of the patrol were alerted to look for me. And they said, 'Call your command post.' So I just, before I even checked in at the motel, I went over to find a place to call, and there was one pay phone in all of that little, it was just a village then, Needles, that's quite a while ago, and there was one pay phone that was available, and there was a long line there and so I had to get in line. I got in, and it was always arranged when we were away from the base that I could just put in a quarter and call and the number that I would call, they would return the quarter to me. And so I got the base number and called and talked to my commander, and the commander told me that my son had been killed that very day. And so, so then, I had, well, I had the commander to give me back the command post there, it was hard for me to talk, like it is now, really, after 46 years it's hard. But he gave me the command post that was on the base, and I asked them where I was. I says, and they told me, said you're just, I was 100 miles south of Nellis Air Base, which is in Las Vegas. And so I asked them while I was on the phone there, 'How about you making arrangements for me,' I says, 'I can drive up there but I don't know, you find,' I says, 'I have no way of knowing what airplanes are flying' and so forth. So the people at the command post got ahold of the airline out  in Las Vegas that was near that air base in Las Vegas, and they found out that that there was a plane heading east at a certain, about two hours from there. And they says, 'We told them if you didn't get there to hold it.'
   "Well, that was a pretty hard drive, you know, at night, a hundred miles, and I had to go across Boulder Dam, late in the evening, and Boulder Dam, strange territory, at night, by myself, without even knowing where I was, but I finally got to that airfield up there in Las Vegas, that's 100 miles away, and they were holding the airplane for me.
   "And when I had talked to the commander earlier, he told me they couldn't, what time of day our son had lost his life had been about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, they couldn't find Sybil. Sybil had gone up to town and was spending the night in town somewhere, and they hadn't found her yet, so I heard the news before she did.
   "Well, before, when the commander told me that, there were people outside the phone booth there in Needles wanting to, they wanted the telephone, they were clamoring there for me to shut up and get out. And since they couldn't find Sybil there's no point in me calling her so I called Sybil's mother. Steve was the first grandson, he was the light of their life, and I started off by saying I'm out in the middle of the Mojave Desert in Needles, California, and she says, 'Well, how wonderful! How are you gettin' along?' And I says, 'I didn't call for that.' I says, 'Steve is dead.' And I know that shocked Sybil's family head to toe. But I got up there and got on that airplane, left my car there, parked there in the lot, and headed East, and the next morning I was at home in Columbus. And Sybil met me at the door as I came in. That's a tough time."
   "What sort of a kid was he?" I asked. "Was he like an Air Force brat?" As the words came out, it occurred to me that that wasn't the most sensitive thing to say. "Air Force brat," I tried to correct, "that's not ..."
   "I know what you mean," Paul said. "He didn't much like the idea of me being in the military. It didn't send him any at all. But he was a wonderful, wonderful, young fella. Look over your shoulder."
Paul holding the picture of his son that was on the wall.
   "Oh my goodness," I said. "He was a good looking kid."
   "That's made when he was 19," Paul said. "That's just ... missed him every day. And so has Sybil, but she's not as vocal about it I guess as I am. I'm the one in our household brings his name up all the time.'
   "Well, after that, I'd already had three tours overseas -- one tour in England in combat, later had a tour in, just at the end of the war, '46 to '48, in Okinawa for about a year and a half, and left them at home. And then in the mid-Fifties I was sent up to Thule in northern Greenland for a year and left them at home. And it came up to 1965 and I was approaching 24 years in the military. That's when I was the commander of my field maintenance squadron at the time. I was still on flying duty, and so I took a Gooney Bird, that's a C-47, took it to haul some Strategic Air Command personnel. We were part of the Strategic Air Command or SAC as we called it. I had to take some of their personnel to some of the outlying sites down in Oregon like stopping at Portland and so forth, and I learned by looking at my manifest that they were from the personnel section at headquarters Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha. So I turned the controls over to the co-pilot and I says I'm going back and talk to this chief of personnel back there. And when I saw him, I says, 'I've been stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base there in Columbus for eight years. I'm eligible for retirement. I says I've got 23 years, and I says, 'Do you have anything open down in Florida where I can spend my last years in the military?'
   "He says, 'You mean you've been stationed here for eight years? Why, you're hot to go to Vietnam.'
   Of course, the Vietnam business had just started a little bit before, and when I came back from the flight, I said to Sybil what happened there. She said, 'What time does the personnel office open tomorrow morning?' I didn't have to ask any questions. I knew what she meant. And I did it. I was there when they opened up the next morning. I says, 'I want to put in for retirement.' So I put in for retirement there, and I asks the personnel chief, I says, 'How safe is this now? If something happens after this, can it be called off??''
   He says, 'Negative.' He says, 'You put in for retirement and we accept it,' he says, 'you'll retire.'
   Well, that same personnel office, about ten days later, called me at my office and says, 'I've got a Twix [TWX] for you.' That was the military message, and he says, 'You need to come over to the personnel office and read it.'
   "Well, when I got over there and opened it up, it says, 'You have been reassigned to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam, in Saigon, and to report immediately and be the chief of maintenance there.' And I just laughed like I laugh right now, and I says, 'Well, Colonel,' I was a lieutenant colonel at the time also, I says, 'That's hilarious, isn't it?' I says, 'I'm safe, right?'
   "He says, 'You're safe."
   Because Sybil had said, 'I don't want you ever to leave me again.' She says I've been away too much, we lost our son, and she says, 'If you went over there, in the first place you may not come back, and the other is, we're gonna be apart.' So I retired in about six months then in January of 1966, got credit for 24 years service, pay wise that means 60 percent of base pay for retirement."

These are the three tracks from the interview in which Paul talks about his son:

Edgar Bergen and Mortimer Snerd, Steve Swofford's favorite character

(Paul Swofford passed away on April 20, 2016, eight days shy of his 95th birthday. Sybil Swofford lives in an assisted living facility in Florida.)