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A hero among us

Sunday, November 11, 2012

NOREEN HYSLOP photo World War II POW and local hero, Harry Swinger, 91, is shown above at a Memorial Day event in 2010 held at the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery in Bloomfield. He served as a ball turret gunner in what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps. His plane was shot down over France on Aug. 13, 1944.
Editor's Note: Local Elks Lodge Veterans Committee Chairperson Shirley Alexander recently recorded a conversation with Dexter native and World War II Veteran Harry Swinger. What follows is an account of Harry Swinger's survival against all odds as a POW in Germany in 1944-45. Also contributing information for this article was Gary Swinger, son of Harry Swinger.


Managing Editor

Quickly disappearing from the pages of time are the veterans of World War II, and with them, their stories.

Some 270,000 World War II veterans died in 2011, an average of 740 a day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Another 248,000 are projected to be lost in the coming year.

Among the estimated 1.7 million veterans of The Greatest Generation's 16 million who served in World War II is Dexter's Harry Swinger.

Veterans and others for miles around who are familiar with Swinger's wartime history are quick to tell of their utmost respect for the now 91-year-old, soft spoken and unassuming war hero.

Swinger joined the Army Air Corps in the summer of 1942. He had just turned 21 years old.

After flight training in the states, Swinger was sent to Kimbolton Field, Bedford, England, and on D-Day, June 6, 1944, he flew his first three missions. The missions were in support of the D-Day invasion forces in Normandy, France.

"I was supposed to be the flight engineer on the B-17 -- the Flying Fortress -- but the fellow who was supposed to be the gunner in the ball turret was too large," Swinger recalled recently during a rare occasion at which he agreed to have his story recorded.

"So, they told me I'd have to be in the turret since I only weighed 123 pounds."

The job of ball turret gunner was the most dreaded of the 10-member B-17 crew. To enter the turret on a B-17, the turret, much like a bubble dangling from the underside of the bomber, was moved until the guns were pointed straight down. Swinger was required to place his feet in the heel rests and then crouch down into a fetal position. He then would put on a safety strap and close and lock the turret door.

The gunner in a B-17 sat in the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall. This left him positioned with his eyes roughly level with the pair of light-barrel Browning AN/M2 .50 caliber machine guns which extended through the entire turret, located to either side of the gunner. Typically, the smallest man aboard served as gunner. Harry Swinger fit the bill.

"There's no parachute in there. It's just you and your gun," he recalled. "Sometimes we'd drop tinsel out of the plane because it would mess up the enemy's radar."

His weapon as a gunner was a Sperry Automatic. His first mission resulted in two confirmed kills.

Twenty-five missions were planned from Bedford, but during the crew's 24th mission, full crews were in short supply. And so, Swinger's crew was told they'd have to fly an additional five missions. On their 27th mission, that number increased to 35.

Swinger readily recalls nearly every one of his wartime missions.

"On the 14th one," he explained, "an engine went out on the way back to Bedford."

The pilot was forced to land the bomber on the grass.

"It jumped and then hit the runway, spinning round and round and on fire," he said. "But we all got away safely before it blew up."

Another B-17 was provided for them to complete the planned missions, though. That plane was dubbed, he recalls, "The Fearless Fosdick," after a character in the Li'l Abner comics.

Swinger recalled missions over the North Sea in which as many as 500 to 600 planes would fly.

"We'd fly between 15,000 and 52,000 feet, and each squadron had its own mission."

On one mission, he left the turret to relieve himself, and when he returned to his position, he found a six-inch hole blown through the area he had just occupied. It was not to be Harry Swinger's closest brush with death.

On what was to be the crew's final mission on Aug. 13, 1944, Swinger's plane was shot down near Falaise, France, the city known for the battle of the "Falaise Pocket" during the Allies' reconquest of France in August 1944 in which two German armies were encircled and destroyed by the Allied armies.

"The shell had gone through the cockpit and killed the co-pilot," Swinger recalled, looking into space as if witnessing the descent all over again, but from the sidelines this time.

The captain was able to turn the aircraft around and was trying to drift back over friendly lines, but the plane was then hit by another round -- completely disabling the aircraft.

"The pilot lost all control. We lost formation, and I knew it was over."

The captain, he said, was yelling at the crew, ordering them all to bail out of the aircraft.

"One of my buddies helped me out of the turret and helped me get my parachute on and told me to jump."

The plane was still 22,000 feet above the ground, and Swinger told his comrade to go first.

"Before I knew it, he kicked me out of the opening." The ground was then about 17,000 feet below. Of the 10 crew members aboard the B-17 that day, only six survived.

Swinger drifted toward the earth, with pieces of his aircraft falling around him, any piece of which could have sliced through his chute. Finally, he was on solid ground. At that instant, Harry found himself looking at another chance at life and at the same time, staring death in the face.

Seven German soldiers awaited their descent and immediately took hold of the six survivors. So began Swinger's life as a World War II prisoner of war.

The men were taken by trucks to Paris first and then put in the Concierege, which was a prison in the center of Paris that now serves as Police Headquarters.

Since Swinger's B-17 was shot down on Aug. 13, 1944, and Paris was liberated by US Forces on Aug. 25, 1944, the Germans had to get all people and prisoners out of Paris ahead of the US forces coming into town quickly. The prisoners were told that they had to march, and did so at the point of guns and bayonets. To avoid being seen by US fighter aircraft, they were forced to march at night, hiding in French barns along the way in daylight. They marched to Metz, which is a French city some 200 miles east of Paris. There, they were put onto trains which had previously served as cattle cars.

Frenchmen got on top of the cars and spit on them, Swinger recalled, and urinated on them through the top slats. The cars were put just behind the train engines in hopes that the Allied fighters would not shoot at the trains. The theory proved to be a bad one, and the train was attacked by several aircraft, with many prisoners killed by their own unknowing comrades.

No food was provided; neither was water. There were no toilet facilities. Rather, he said, "We just found a corner. It was pretty bad, and they kept us on that train for two weeks. We prayed for rain, and if it came, we'd hold our cups out the window."

Conditions didn't improve much once they were taken off the train.

When the prisoners were removed from the cars, they marched 140 miles to Stalag Luft IV, a prisoner camp situated in Gross Tychow, Pomerania (now Tychowo, Poland). The march was later referred to as the Heidikrug Run, and would go down in the books as one of the most brutal marches of imprisoned American and British soldiers who were tortured continually along the route. Some soldiers' accounts tell of beatings and infestations and recollections of soldiers who had fallen being dragged off by a guard. A gunshot would be heard, and the guard would return to the march alone.

Swinger would spend the next seven months at Stalag Luft IV with only three of his crew.

"When we arrived there, the German soldiers would line up with their guns, bayonets, and dogs and they'd kick and threaten us as they went by."

The POW camp housed nearly 9,000 prisoners. Daily provisions consisted of one rutabaga, a lump of coal, a match, a tin cup, one thin blanket and a bucket. It was winter. Dark came at around 3 p.m., and daylight at about 9:30 a.m. Night temperatures hovered around zero. The guards taunted the men, Swinger recalled, by kicking them every time the prisoners would pass in front of them during a head count. They had a roll call each day, sometimes lasting several hours in the bitter cold.

"We'd try to aggravate them sometimes by jumping from row to row so that they couldn't count all of us."

An electric fence and two barbed wire fences about 10 feet high with a razor wire at the top prevented any escapes at Stalag Luft IV.

"Some of the guards were nice, but we knew it was just because they were trying to get information from us but we didn't have any information to give them."

The Red Cross, Swinger said, would visit periodically, but they were not allowed by the guards to provide anything other than playing cards.

A report by the International Red Cross in October 1944 described Stalag Luft IV's conditions as "generally bad." The camp was reportedly divided into five compounds, separated by barbed wire fences, with the POWs housed in 40 wooden barrack huts, each containing 200 men. Prisoners in compounds A and B had triple-tiered bunks, but there were no bunks at all in compounds C and D; POWs slept on the floor. Swinger slept on the floor the entire time he was at Stalag Luft IV -- and in his only issue of clothing. Lice and dysentery were commonplace at the compound.

None of the huts at Stalag Luft IV were heated. There were only five small iron stoves in the whole camp. Latrines were open-air, and there were no proper washing facilities. Medical facilities and supplies of food and clothing were also inadequate.

On a cold winter day in early February 1945, the prisoners could see and hear flashes of the Russian guns from the east. The German soldiers told the prisoners they were going to evacuate, marching for three days to their destination.

That three-day march, however, was a 500-mile march that would be recorded in history as "The March" or "The Death March," one of the most outrageous cruelties ever committed against American fighting men. The march lasted 86 days. The sick were mistreated when dysentery and diarrhea set in. Some prisoners were bayoneted; others were kicked and hit along the way. The march took place in the dead of winter. Shelter was either a barn or under the stars, in the rain, snow, or whatever happened to be. A bushel or two of steamed potatoes for a barn full of men was the best ever received at the end of a day. Often, the food was placed in the barn in the dark of night for the men to get what they could. POWs carried two blankets and an overcoat for bedding. During the march, the average POW lost one-third of his body weight since capture. Water was often contaminated. The soldiers drank from ditches beside the road or ate snow when available.

"There were other things," Swinger recalled with that far-away look again, "but they were just too bad to talk about."

Many died along the march. When it ended, the men took a 60-hour long boat ride before completing the trip to Berlin. Packed into the V-bottom of the ship, the men were lowered a bucket for latrine purposes and what little water came descended in what was believed to be the same bucket.

Finally, the men were placed at another POW camp near Barth, Western Pomerania, Germany. The presence of the prison camp is said to have shielded the town of Barth from Allied bombing, the POWs would later learn. It was called Stalag Luft I, and it would be Harry Swinger's home for several weeks until the last day of April 1945 when the Russians were successful at liberating the POWs from the camp.

Recalling that day, a smile came over the face of the now weathered and watery-eyed Harry Swinger.

It took about 30 days before the troops left the camp, but eventually the men -- mere skeletons of their former selves -- were put on a train to Camp Lucky Strike in France.

The troops were at last well fed, Harry recalled, although they were limited to quantities initially for their own safety after being nearly starved to death.

"I never ate another rutabaga," he noted with a smile.

Swinger eventually was taken to Aurora, Colo., to mend before being allowed to go home. Pneumonia as a POW left him with a diseased lung, however, and doctors in Colorado told him they wanted to remove the bad lung.

"I asked them how long I had before it got really bad, and they said about a year. So I decided to wait it out."

A year after being discharged, the lower half of one lung was removed in a Memphis hospital.

In August 1945, just over three years after enlisting in the Army Air Corps, Harry Swinger was discharged from the service. His commendations are numerous, but seldom discussed.

Harry and his wife, Mary, whom he had married shortly before enlisting in the Army Air Corps, were reunited that month.

Like a vision out of a wartime movie, Harry described the reunion. "I walked into the front yard, and she passed out and hit the ground!"

Even though he weighed in at only 123 pounds when he entered the service, he'd been a strong, lean young soldier in uniform. When he walked toward his wife that August day in 1945, Mary Swinger saw the figure of an 87-pound stranger. Little did she know that 10 pounds had been regained since his release from Stalag Luft I.

Harry Swinger and the love of his life, Mary, would go on to spend 61 years of happiness together until Mary's passing on Feb. 28, 2003. Harry remained in the home they shared on Bain Circle in Dexter until recent declining health required a move to Central Gardens Residential Care. It has only been in recent months that Swinger has been open to sharing his history with others.

Harry Swinger has been a familiar face over the years when there is a flag raised and a tribute to be paid to all the principals for which the U.S. stands. He is a quiet, small-framed gentleman and a giant among men. He is a patriot, a proud American, and a hero. And every day he reminds us, with words unspoken, that freedom is not free.

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