The most trying part of wartime might not come in the line of fire, but in the waiting and not knowing suffered by loved ones back home.
Ninety-two-year-old Willard W. Swanson looks out reflectively through a set of glass doors into a green, sun-filled courtyard. He lives a quiet life at Governor’s Ridge assisted living center, punctuated by bingo, sittercize and trips to Wal-Mart.
About 70 years ago, he and four of his brothers were all serving overseas in the U.S. Army during World War II.
“There were five of us in the Army all at the same time,” Willard said. “That was quite a thing. I don’t think it happened again in World War II with five brothers all in battle at the same time. There were a few with three brothers at the same time. There was another Iowa family with four brothers.”
Willard grew up on a farm near the small town of Russell, Minn. His father, Olaf, immigrated from Sweden in the early 1900s and married a woman named Minnie. They had six daughters and six sons.
“There are six boys total, and five of them were all in World War II overseas,” said Brian Swanson, Willard’s son. “The youngest one, Howard, was too young to serve in World War II, but he served later in Korea.”
“I was drafted,” Willard said. “We were all drafted.”
“My mother had the worst deal,” Willard said. “Can you imagine sitting at home during World War II with five sons out there in the war all fighting? You can’t imagine how someone could go through that.”
The most trying time probably came when his younger brother Arden, now 89, was captured behind enemy lines.
Arden served January 1944 to December 1945. He was trained as a sniper but was captured Nov. 20, 1944, in Metz, Germany – only eight days after he entered the field of combat.
“Arden was in an aggressive combat unit, and he was captured inside Germany, behind enemy lines,” Brian said.
In a recorded interview several years ago, Arden recalled some of the events that led up to his capture and his time spent as a prisoner of war.
“We encountered some Germans in the woods and attacked them,” Arden said. “A bunch more came behind, and they had us. They captured about 50 of us. Then they marched us right to this prison camp.”
They went, hands-up, to a camp known as Stalag in the Black Forest. The Germans forced them to build railroads every day. While incarcerated, his entire diet consisted of barley coffee for breakfast and potato peel soup and molded bread for dinner.
He was finally freed May 7, 1945, after guards just opened the gates and abandoned their posts. After fleeing the prison, he spent the next 10 days with a local farmer until he was finally picked up by allied troops on May 17. He spent the remainder of his service guarding German prisoners back in Wyoming.
“It must have been terrible for my mother while Arden was a prisoner of war,” Willard said. “Arden weighed close to 200 pounds when he went, and he lost more than 100 pounds while he was in. He was the one my folks worried the most about.”
His older brother, Sgt. Elmer O. Swanson, now 94, was a squad leader and munitions expert. He served November 1942 to October 1945. He was the most decorated of all the brothers, fighting in campaigns in Northern France, Rhineland and Central Europe. Among his many honors were the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He was a member of the 104th infantry division, the Timber Wolves.
Elmer was awarded the Bronze Star for actions on Jan. 4, 1945, when his company was subjected to intense mortar fire. One round crashed through the roof of a building housing ammunition and ignited a box filled with white phosphorous grenades. Elmer and six other men evacuated the building and moved as much ammunition out of the building as possible before it collapsed. Their efforts saved many lives and preserved munitions and vital bridge-demolition material.
Another brother, Staff Sgt. Earl M. Swanson, would be 97. He served December 1940 to November 1945 as a mechanic in the Pacific Theater.
Younger brother, PFC Lee H. Swanson, 86, avoided combat during his time. He served as mail clerk and driver for the post commander.
The youngest brother, Staff Sgt. Howard W. Swanson, was too young to be drafted for World War II. But he served as an engineer in the Air Force in Korea from January 1951 to November 1953.
The family has collected extensive documentation from the U.S. military proving the dates, times and campaigns all the brothers were involved in.
Coming from a hard life on a cold Midwestern farm, Willard actually found military life a reprieve of sorts.
“At 18 years old, just before I joined the service, I was working a team of horses at a farm,” Willard said.
“He grew up on a farm where you worked hard every day,” Brian said. “He ate salt pork, fresh eggs every day, the milk was as thick as cream and not one of them ever had high cholesterol or heart attacks … He thought basic training was a joke. He said the work was easy – he got all he could eat, and he could go out at night. Other guys were sacked out tired from a day of training. He thought it was the best.”
Willard joined thousands of other young men and traveled by ship from Houston to England.
“When he finally went out to sea, he couldn’t believe how powerful the United States was,” Brian said. “They left from the port of Houston. Then they got out to sea and met all the other ships going overseas. By two days out, you could see vessels as far as the eye could see forward and back. And the ships also spanned almost as wide as you could see.
“We spent the first two years of the war just producing, producing, producing,” he said. “One of the biggest strengths of the U.S. was our manufacturing prowess. It was unbelievable. We out-produced the rest of the nations involved in the war, the Axis and Allied powers, combined.”
Willard served as paratrooper in the war for more than four years from July 1942 to August 1946 – but his scariest moment occurred en route to England. A French carrier lost its steering mechanism and rammed into another troop transport, killing 100 pilots right in front of him.
“The water was rushing in,” Willard said. “I ran up and slammed the door shut from going into our unit. But when the big raft of water came in, the 100 air corps men in there got washed out. It killed all of them.”
Willard and his roommate sealed the bulkhead door and kept the water from coming back and killing even more.
“That was the closest I ever came to getting killed,” he said. “If I’d been seated 20 or 30 feet more forward I would have been swept out with all them.”
His grandson, Will Swanson, is an eighth grader at McCarroll Middle School in Decatur. He said the service of his grandfather and great uncles has influenced him.
“I think it was really something to be proud of,” Will said. “They were protecting everybody else. I want to be in the Army, too.”
Amazingly, Willard’s parents never received a visit from a man in uniform informing them of a son dying overseas.
“We were all lucky,” Willard said. “We all came home alive.”