Remembering Pearl Harbor: UT Center Helps Preserve Veterans’ Stories

Durward Swanson Photo credit: Paul Efrid, Knoxville News Sentinel

Photo credit: Paul Efrid, Knoxville News Sentinel

Friday was the seventy-second anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor—a day forever etched in the memory of one East Tennessee veteran who earlier this year shared his story with UT’s Center for the Study of War and Society.

“This past spring, we had the pleasure to interview Durward Swanson, an Army Air Force veteran who experienced the devastating events first hand,” said Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, the Lindsay Young Professor of History and center director.

The center, founded more than twenty-five years ago, has collected more than 350 interviews with veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The interviews are transcribed and posted on the center’s website as time and funding allows. Those finished can be found at the center’s website.

“We are losing the generation of World War II veterans at a terrible pace now. As a result, we risk losing their personal first-hand accounts of the most decisive moments in American history,” Liulevicius said. “Our center is working to collect their oral histories, to preserve those for generations to come. This gathering of memories is only one of part of the center’s mission, but it is one with lasting impact.”

Swanson is one of only a handful of Pearl Harbor survivors to have shared his story with the center. Others have donated materials to the WWII archival collection in UT’s Special Collections Library.

The center’s program coordinator, Cynthia Tinker, met Swanson last year at a local Pearl Harbor Day ceremony. Tinker, along with graduate assistant Will Rall and undergraduate intern Kendal Youngblood, arranged to meet Swanson later and record his memories of December 7, 1941.

Swanson, ninety-two, is from Georgia but now lives in Maryville. His story has been shared in numerous news stories over the years.

Swanson was an eighteen-year-old member of the Army Air Corps when he arrived at Hickam Air Force Base adjacent to Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in October 1939.

During his oral history interview, Swanson describes how he had just come off duty in the wee hours of the morning of December 7, 1941. He’d eaten breakfast and then gone back to his barracks to sleep.

“I missed death by ten minutes. I just come out of the mess hall, and the bomb hit that and killed forty-three men eating breakfast,” he said.

But shortly before 8:00 a.m., he was awakened by a fellow airman shouting about the Japanese invasion. Swanson set out on his motorcycle to patrol the island and find his friends.

“I was scared,” Swanson reflected during this interview with the center staff. “If somebody tells you they weren’t scared, they either crazy or a big liar.”

Despite his fear, Swanson tracked down and rescued a close friend amid heavy strafing from Japanese aircraft. While securing the base’s perimeter on his motorcycle, he recalled seeing an explosion and the sinking of the USS Arizona.

Hickam Air Force Base suffered extensive property damage, aircraft losses and personnel casualties in the attack. The National Park Service says Hickam’s casualties totaled 121 men killed, 274 wounded and thirty-seven missing.

Swanson told center interviewers that he considers himself lucky to have survived the attack. He says he’s never forgotten the friends and fellow servicemen who died, and he visits the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific as often as he can to honor their memory.

Swanson was severely injured while flying on a B-17E bomber that attacked a Japanese ship during the June 1942 sea battle near Midway Island in the South Pacific. The heavily damaged bomber had to ditch in the ocean and Swanson, who suffered a leg injury, had to be pulled out of the sinking plane. He and other crew members were picked up by a PT boat and taken back to the base.

Swanson received the Distinguished Flying Medal and a Bronze Star during his tour of duty in World War II. He wrote a book about his experiences called, Pearl Harbor: The Life of a Country Boy and the Service to His Country During World War II.

Swanson, who once served as national president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, is in Hawaii now for commemoration events, according to center staff.

The Center for the Study of War and Society is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of the relationship between war and society. For more about its work, visit the website.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

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