Lt. William Swanson

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Vietnam War pilot from Brooklyn Center finally comes home

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS
  • Star Tribune
  • June 11, 2012 - 7:58 PM

Forty-seven years after Lt. William Swanson of Brooklyn Center was shot down in the mountains of Laos, he is finally coming home.

The Vietnam War attack-plane pilot, a University of Minnesota graduate, will be buried Monday with full military honors at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. In the years since he went missing, his parents have died, but his brother, sister and other relatives will be present.

"I am proud of him," said his brother Bob Swanson, 61, of Crystal. His brother's commander on the USS Ranger aircraft carrier wrote that all the men aboard considered Swanson "a good stick," he said.

On April 11, 1965, the 27-year-old Swanson led his Skyraider group through thunderstorms to the mountainous jungle around the Ho Chi Minh Trail, hunting for Viet Cong supply trucks. Swanson made several low passes and was returning for another look at a suspected vehicle when he was hit by antiaircraft fire, a wing pilot reported later.

A citation he would receive later with a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day described what happened next:

"His craft was last observed to be enveloped by hostile antiaircraft fire, following which it commenced a steep gliding turn and crashed into the jungle. Lt. Swanson's cool, daring and professional airmanship on this extremely hazardous mission was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

As Swanson's bomber plummeted, the wing pilot watched in vain for a parachute. The other bombers returned to the Ranger to refuel then returned to search for Swanson's plane. But thick jungle concealed the wreckage, and enemy forces in the area made further recovery efforts impossible, military officials said.

Searches in the jungle

Swanson posthumously received a Purple Heart and a gold star for his second Distinguished Flying Cross for his final mission. He also was awarded two air medals and the Navy commendation medal with valor for his service, his brother said.

In October 2000, a joint U.S.-Laotian team looking for missing aircraft in Khammouan Province was directed by villagers to a crash site in the mountains north of Boualapha. The searchers found aircraft wreckage, unexploded bombs and rockets of the type Swanson's plane had been carrying. In 2009, another team excavated the site and found charred bits of the plane and equipment.

A year later, another team finished the work, recovering human remains and other evidence. Military scientists from the POW/MIA Accounting Command used bone fragments and other evidence to identify Swanson's remains. Bob Swanson said searchers found bones, links from a wristwatch and parts of dog tags.

A promising young man

A few days after Swanson's plane went down, his family was informed that he was missing in action and presumed dead, and began a long period of mourning, never knowing exactly what happened to him.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey spoke at his memorial service in Minneapolis in August 1965, said his sister Peggy Ricker, 69, of Prescott, Ariz., who will attend Monday's service with two of her daughters.

Ricker, seven years younger than Swanson, said she looked up to her brother, who overcame polio as a teenager. "I tried to emulate his motivation and his good spirits. He was positive and generous," she said.

Swanson also liked kidding around, she said, recalling how he chased her through their Brooklyn Center home one wintry day when she was a child, and ended up tossing her into a snowbank.

At the U, he was an honors premed student, driven and motivated. He told her about his biology and science classes, which sparked the interest that led her to become a cardiac care nurse, said Ricker.

Swanson enlisted in the Navy rather than be drafted, she said. He had several chances to return to Minnesota and medical school, but he re-upped three times, she said.

"He was dedicated to what he was doing, and he stayed with what he was doing, and it cost him his life, ultimately," she said Sunday. Up until the last POW was released from prison camps in North Vietnam, she kept hoping that her brother had somehow survived the crash.

"It's bittersweet now," she said.

Noting that many veterans came home from Vietnam to little if any thanks, she said, "I pray that maybe this will bring about some more awareness for the veterans that did so much more for our country than we will ever know."

Added Bob Swanson: "I am glad that he is finally home."

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283

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