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WWII vet recalls Pearl Harbor

December 07, 2006|by ERIN JULIUS

WARFORDSBURG, PA. - Vernon Swain stores reminders of the attack on Pearl Harbor in a small, brown tweed suitcase at his home.

Sixty-five years after the Japanese attack, Swain remembers watching the water burn. He remembers watching planes bomb a mess hall while soldiers were eating Sunday breakfast.

Linda Hixon unfolded yellowed copies of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, dated Dec. 7, 1941, as she helped her father tell his story.

"They're getting old, like me," Swain, 91, said of the papers.

The headlines scream about war and Japanese planes bombing Oahu. Today marks the 65th anniversary of the attack that led America into World War II.

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Swain was drafted into the Army on July 21, 1941. He was a 26-year-old newlywed Army corporal when he arrived in Hawaii in October 1941.

Swain doesn't remember when he realized it was a Japanese attack. It might have been more than an hour before he saw the insignia on the planes, he said.

But he vividly recalls the first time he was shot at.

"I can still see him sitting in that plane ... I can still see him sitting in there cranking bullets and they were all flying around me and my buddy. The Lord was with us because they didn't hit us," Swain said.

Swain was 15 miles from Pearl Harbor, waiting outside his barrack for a friend to pick him up for church, when the attack started.

Officers ordered Swain's unit into Pearl Harbor to help clear fields so reinforcements from California could land. The short trip took more than an hour because planes were shooting at their trucks. Every few minutes, men jumped off trucks and hid in sugar cane fields, he said. Bullets hit the sand all around them.

Pearl Harbor was just the beginning for Swain. He spent 47 months in the Army, fought at the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.

He doesn't want to talk about Buchenwald.

"I can't say anything more, just what them pictures shows, that's enough," he said.

One of the other soldiers took photographs at Buchenwald, and Swain kept a few in a scrapbook in his suitcase.

"They laid in heaps outside the furnaces," he said.

And he remembers the people he helped free.

"Skeletons, you might say, walking around."

Swain shivers when he thinks about the Battle of the Bulge. It was cold living in foxholes, he said. He shakes his head and closes his eyes.

"I freeze when I think about it," Swain said.

Inside his suitcase is a Bronze Star he earned for heroic achievement during the Battle of the Bulge. From Dec. 19 to 21, 1944, Swain voluntarily advanced on reconnaissance patrols and infiltrated hostile lines despite personal peril, according to the letter tucked into the medal's box.

After the war, Swain and his wife, Ethel, moved to Cumberland, Md., where they lived for a few years before moving to Buck Valley Road in Fulton County, Pa. He worked as a carpenter and retired from Fairchild Aircraft in 1981.

His best friend died years ago. Swain grew up with Carl True in Allegheny County and the two married their wives on the same day. Only months after the wedding, the men survived Pearl Harbor together.

His daughter was born in 1944, just before Swain was sent to the European front. A son, Rodney, was born in 1946.

Swain keeps in touch with other veterans through a Pearl Harbor Survivors' Association.

"Our motto is 'Remember Pearl Harbor and Keep America Alert,'" he said.

Swain never returned to Hawaii. A trip was planned for the 60th anniversary, but Swain didn't want to travel after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hixon said.

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