Herbert Douglas Swasey
Sargent—U.S. Air Force— 509 Composite Group
World War II (1942-1946)
Herbert Douglas Swasey was born in San Francisco, California on May 15, 1922. He grew up San Francisco where his father worked as a house painter and his mother was a homemaker. His father, his only close relative to serve in the military, shared stories with his son about serving as an Army engineer in France during World War I.
In 1940 Swasey graduated from high school in San Francisco and went on to study at Cogswell Junior College in San Francisco, California. At this time he apprenticed as a wooden pattern maker. He remembers the impending mood at the time when all men his age received their draft notice. His draft notice came from 26th & Folsom Street in San Francisco. After listening to his Dad’s experience and witnessing what happened to the Army guys in WWI, Herbert enlisted in the US Air Force at the Marvin Street recruitment center.
Swasey was mechanically inclined and, “they saw fit to put me in that area” as he served in the US Air Force from October 1942 to February 1946. His first assignment was at Fort Ord in Monterey, CA where, “he got a lot of shots and immunizations.” Next he went to Stockton Field, CA. He reflected that the training was up to par. “The war had just started and things were just starting to roll.” Most of his time at Stockton Field was spent cleaning planes. He recalled one time when all the planes went out for a fly over. He had wiped one of the basic trainers so clean by removing the rust and making it shine so that he could identify it amongst the hundreds of others.
Swasey attended the Army Specialized Training Program at Chapman College in Los Angeles for officers training. He didn’t make grade and was transferred back to Air Force. Then he was sent to Kearns, Utah for approximately five months where he received his first rifle at weapons training. He then received training for sheet metal work at the graduate school of engineering at Chanute Field, IL. At the time he held the rank of private and was paid $16 a month. Work there was “hush, hush” secret. He also served outside of Lincoln, Nebraska working with a crew on B29s at the Air Force troop-training base.
From McCook, Nebraska, he and two other fellows were transferred to Wendover Field, Utah. This was where the 509 Composite Team was being formed. There was absolutely no mention of atomic at that time. Swasey worked to alter 15 special B29 planes to carry the heavy load of nuclear bombs. From November 1944 to June 1945 Swasey was a sheet metal worker on this project.
From there he traveled to Tinian Island. To get to this remote island, he boarded a victory ship that left Seattle for Hawaii and transferred on to Tinian Island. At the time, Tinian had the largest airfield in the world and the 509 Composite Group. Here he repaired planes that had been hit by Japanese.
When he arrived on the island, he wasn’t scared because the threat of the Japanese “had kind of evaporated, but you never knew what was going to happen at any time.” The enlisted men lived in tents. Supplies were ample which included good meat from Australia. The crew worked all day long then afterwards they could swim in delightful, warm, clear water. In fact, the guys from the sheet metal shop made their own diving screens to keep water out of their face. Once you arrived on the island, there wasn’t any shipping out for vacation though; you were there.
The general morale of group was very high. The group was a highly selective group of people and each had been checked out by the FBI. Swasey believed the commanding officers were very capable individuals. He was as motivated as any red-blooded American was at the time and motivated by Pearl Harbor.
At the time, they didn’t know that the activities at the base would alter the course of history. Even though they may have been in the same unit, MP’s prohibited their access to certain parts of the base. They knew something was big though. The day the first atomic bomb was dropped, the planes left at 2 or 3 a.m. and returned at 2 or 3 in afternoon. Swasey remembered, “the flight crew didn’t know what the mission was.” When the planes came back, the commander assembled all personnel and made them put on their khaki uniforms. The commanders announced that a bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The second bomb dropped on Nagasaki was executed in a similar way. They didn’t really feel threatened on the island in-between atomic bombings since the Japanese Air Force was so depleted by that time.
At a reunion of the group years later a commander told them that there were orders for a third bomb if there had not been a surrender. The bomb was retrieved from Wendover and brought over to Tinian. When the War was over, it was taken back, but it would have been deployed had there been another strike.
Swasey reflected, “the whole thing was worthwhile under the conditions and was a very vital final decision which saved many lives.”
In November or December of 1945 Swasey left Tinian to rejoin the 509 Composite Group in Roswell Air Force Base, NM. In February 1946 he left Roswell, NM and went to Santa Ana Air Force Base, CA where he was formally discharged. Upon release he experienced the feeling of “joyous freedom.” The whole feeling at time of the war’s end was that of joy and happiness. Guys who thought they would have to go from Europe to Japan to continue fighting didn’t have to go; they were extremely happy about that.
Right after his release, Swasey took a short vacation with his family then went back and completed his apprenticeship as a pattern maker. He worked for the San Francisco Iron Foundry as a pattern maker but was laid off after 23 years. He then opened his own craftsman antique repair business in Larkspur, CA.
Throughout his service he sustained one injury to speak of. While taking the train from Nebraska to Chicago he fell asleep next to an open window. By the time the train reached Chicago his ear hurt so much he had to get off and go to the hospital to treat his infected ear. At the time they did not use penicillin, which probably would have cured it, but they used sulfur. He ended up with some partial hearing loss in that ear.
While Swasey hasn’t joined any formal veterans organization, he has participated in reunions over the years. Reflecting on his service he feels it was, “absolutely justified.” People seemed more patriotic back then, in his view. His service didn’t necessarily change his outlook on life. One of the toughest parts of serving was getting used to just being a number, simply part of a regime and having no choice. It had its scary times. Heading out in rough waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Seattle, he thought their victory ship had been torpedoed. In fact, it was just a wave hitting the bow very hard. Some of his most memorable experiences were the dances and parties at Wendover Air Force Base and in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Some advice Swasey offered was, “be civil to everybody and tolerate your place in line.” Swasey clearly emphasized, “the use of atomic weapons saved a generation of Americans and a generation of Japanese from getting killed.”
Interviewed by James Stanton Leavitt on September 3, 2012.