Durward Swanson recalls the
Pearl Harbor attack, Part 1
September or October, 1949. Country music legend Hank Williams was in the back seat of his Cadillac between Hillus Bertran and Durward “Dusty” Swanson on their way to a gig in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While Swanson napped, Williams started writing in a notebook. When Swanson woke up, Williams had written “Cold Cold Heart,” “Hey, Good Looking” and “I Can’t Help It.” He then told the other men that he’d have the three songs on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade in 60 days and he did just that.
Durward’s Army buddy, Stud Lloyd had taught Durward to play the guitar while they were stationed in Hawaii at the beginning of World War II. Not long after his Army discharge, Durward headed to Nashville in 1947, where he met waitress Mary Dunn Swift, who convinced him he had a good singing voice. Mary’s compliment led to the starting of a band, Dusty Swanson and the Georgia Playboys. Durward married Mary in 1949. The band became popular in the Nashville area and caught Hank Williams’ attention, resulting in Durward being hired as Williams’ front man.
Durward loved music and his Nashville friends, but decided the music lifestyle wasn’t for him. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, he entered Tennessee Technical College in 1950 to graduate in 1954 with a degree in civil engineering. That degree provided a career of building dams, bridges and spillways across the U.S. In 1964, he and Mary divorced in what lead to the completion of a great love story.
Durward is also a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack. Now 78 years after the battle which brought the U.S. into World War II, he maintains a remarkably keen memory of those times.
Former National Guardsman and veterans advocate Jerry Cox arranged for me and my friend Ronnie Yount to visit with the personable hero in his Maryville home. A man who could easily have an elegant lifestyle, Durward chooses to live in a small trailer that he finds more to his comfort. A large and still handsome man, he retains a slight hint of his former Georgia accent. A gifted communicator, he was soon into his story also preserved in a book he wrote with Cass Gannaway – sections of which have been used in this article.
Born in Troup County, Georgia, on June 12, 1921, Durward was the son of William Guy and Ely Arlene Carter Swanson. Weighing 12 pounds 1 ounce at birth, he weighed 22 pounds at two months and was nicknamed “Fatty Arbuckle.”
“He’s the last one,” his tired mother said. Durward’s mom had been from a well-to-do family, while his farmer dad had only a third-grade education, which led her parents to first oppose their marriage. After their marriage, William began building dams, steam plants and tunnels across the country, with his family moving along with him. Durward graduated from high school in 1939 at Dublin, Virginia.
Audrey Leonette Caswell had been Durward’s sweetheart since the sixth grade. After a prom night argument, Durward decided to teach Audrey a lesson and on August 3, 1939, joined the Army Air Corps. Sent first to Ft. Benning, Georgia, his commander was Col. George S. Patton. Moving on to Ft. McPherson, he got his shots and uniforms. At Ft. Moultie, he ate his first Corn Willies for breakfast. Boarding the U.S.S. Leonard Wood, Durward passed through the Panama Canal to Ft. McDowell, California, near Alcatraz Island. With the World’s Fair being held in San Francisco, the men were given three-day passes to enjoy the occasion.
After leaving San Francisco they landed at Honolulu on October 16, 1939. On his first pass, Durward learned servicemen weren’t highly regarded in Hawaii at the time, when he saw civilians being charged five cents for a cup of coffee, while servicemen paid 25 cents.
“It got sweeter before the war started,” he recalls.
The three main airfields in Hawaii were Bellows for observation planes, Wheeler for pursuit planes, and the new Hickam Field for the large bombers. Durward did his basic training at Wheeler before being transferred to Hickham Field. There he met Texan Albert Jackson “Stud” Lloyd, who became almost a brother. Early in 1940 he signed up for Aircraft Mechanic School to learn bomber maintenance. He also made a parachute jump to qualify for flying.
Following his schooling Durward was on the Harley Davidson that he and Stud shared. He was noticed by Sgt. Dallas M. Kramer, who promised him a promotion to staff sergeant in five months if he would transfer to head the air police motorcycle unit. Durward accepted the offer and found himself in charge of eight men who patrolled Hickam Field on Indian motorcycles in 12-hour shifts. It was during this time that Durward learned Audrey had married his best friend at home. Her husband later lost his life in Germany. She remarried and later divorced a man who was an alcoholic.
Durward takes it from December 7, 1941.
“I was making $72 a month and was in charge of security at Hickam Field and was dating Mary Ocou, an RN at Queens Hospital. Me and Lloyd had bought a ’37 Ford convertible and a Harley Davidson that we would hill climb on. On December 7, I had six air police. Me and Harry Albright rode in pairs on 12-hour shifts and two others had just relieved us. I had just gotten off duty and went to the mess hall, then to the barracks to sleep. I had just dozed off when a sergeant came running through the barracks shouting, ‘They’re bombing the H--- out of us!’ I looked out the window and saw a plane bank with a rising sun on it.
“I put on my shirt and shoes, got my .45 out of the rack, jumped on my motorcycle and headed to the main gate. I asked where Lloyd was and was told that he was sitting in the ball park shooting at the Japanese with a Browning automatic rifle. I headed out to get him and we headed back. I felt bullets whiz by me and wondered why I ain’t got killed. We had three prisoners in the guardhouse and went back for them. I called the Officer of the Day, Lt. Robert Richey, and he said to release them because we were at war.
“There were three waves and three attacks. Dive bombers and fighters first struck Wheeler Field, then Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor at 7:55. The Air Depot at Hickam and Ft. Kamehameha were the first targets hit. I had only left the mess hall a few minutes before and it took a direct hit that killed 143 men at breakfast. They hit our new ‘Big Barracks’ where many died in their sleep. The dive bombers then attacked Hickam’s hanger row and flight line and blasted our B-17s and B-18s. They were parked close together and one hit would cause several planes to go up in flames. We also had 12 B-17s from California where several would suffer damage.
“Our water lines were hit and we couldn’t fight the fires that destroyed many buildings. Our baseball field was a prime target because they thought it was the location of our underground oil tanks. My buddy PFC James E. Strickland Jr. ran out of the barracks in his shorts onto the ball field and was cut in two by machine gun fire. He asked us to shoot him and get him out of his misery. I went for the medics and by the time I got back, he had died. The 27th Infantry Division had come from Schofield Barracks and set up machine guns around the perimeter and the ammo dump, and placed sand bags at the main gate in case of an invasion from the shore.”
Lloyd and Durward followed directions and were standing by the main gate when there was a huge explosion and a mushroom cloud. They learned later that it was from the bombing of the USS Arizona. Durward’s friend from Georgia, Lewis “Pee Wee” Howard, went down the ship. At the gate the two men watched as a few American pilots, who didn’t have time to get permission, take to air to fight the enemy planes. Durward watched as Lt. Welch, who was flying a P-40 Warhawk, fought and shot down an enemy Zero, then shot down another. Badly outnumbered, Welch was credited with shooting down six enemy planes while Lt. Taylor shot down four. Both were recommended for the Medal of Honor, which was refused by the post commander because the men didn’t have permission to engage. At dusk, Durward and Lloyd took down the tattered post flag and handed it over.
With no one knowing what to expect next, Hickam Field was surrounded by security guards in the event enemy troops might attack. Gunfire erupted throughout the night from the nervous guards. While making his rounds, a tracer bullet whizzed by Durwood’s head. That night the men slept in tents. Thinking that the water might be poisoned, Durward went to the NCO club to get scotch and beer for his men to drink, and reported he was too occupied for the alcohol to have its effect. At mid-morning the next day, a two-man Japanese submarine washed up at Bellows Field. Durward and Lloyd picked up the sub commander and took him to Hickam for questioning. As clean-up and rebuilding began, another of Durward’s friends, PFC George Smith was found dead under a pile of lumber with six bullet holes in him.
Durward had earlier met a then-Lt. Joseph Truell, who was promoted to captain over a B-17E bomber. Truell was handpicking a crew and wanted Durward to be his crew chief. Durward signed on and was on to another experience that would closely rival his Pearl Harbor experience. That story will be told next week.
-Jim Claborn is a retired history teacher and a historical reenactor, as well as a published historian.