WWII veteran adrift behind enemy lines

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

Part Two in a Series


   As a World War II bombardier in the 15th Air Force, Wright Swanay's main objective was to complete his tour and return home to his new wife in Elizabethton. A tour consisted of 50 missions, and once he flew those he could go home.
   The Air Force was short on bombardiers, so Swanay filled in. After only 63 days in combat, he was ready for mission 39. "I would fly with my crew, then they'd stand down, and I'd be assigned to another crew," he said. "The week of D-day I flew 10 missions." That was too much flying, according to the flight surgeon, who ordered him to "stand down" three days.
   During one of those three days, the Allied Forces invaded Normandy. "So the day of the biggest battle of the war almost, I'm standing down not doing a thing. I always felt guilty for that," Swanay said.
   Just before his 39th mission, Swanay and a tent mate received their orders to go to the Isle of Capri, near Naples, Italy, for R&R (rest and recreation). They were to leave on Monday. But Swanay never saw Capri. Instead, he spent 10 months in five different prisoner-of-war camps.
   On Sunday, July 2, 1944, Swanay and his crew left base in Foggia, Italy, in a B-24 bomber, headed to Budapest. "We got over the target and dropped our bomb, but we got damaged by anti-aircraft fire from the ground. The controls were shot away and the pilot could no longer control the plane. We veered out of formation and the pilot gave the order to bail out."
   Swanay's position was in the nose of the plane. In case of emergency, there was a cord he could pull and the nose wheel door of the plane would open but the nose wheel would not drop. "I jumped out that," he said. "We were at about 22,000 feet -- about 4 miles.
   "I didn't hesitate. As I was trained to do, I counted to 10 to clear the plane, pulled my rip cord and the parachute opened. It was like hitting a brick wall. You come to a complete stop. I think I passed out for a little while and as I got lower I came to.
   "It was like I was just hanging there in the sky. I looked around and I could see Budapest and the other plane groups coming in. We bombed group by group, 35 to 40 planes at once. I could see the bombs dropping. Them shooting back. The smoke and flames from where our bombs had hit. Their planes in the sky. Our planes in the sky.
   "I think there were 36 planes in my group that day, and I watched them disappear. I counted 33, so we lost three. Quickly, they were gone back to base. That was the lonesomest sight I ever saw in my life. I'm hanging there in the sky and they're gone," Swanay said.
   He thought he was a dead man. He just knew that when he hit the ground he would be shot. He knew the Air Force would send his mom and dad a telegram; that letters from home would be sent back, marked "Return to sender. Missing in action." He still has a stack, written by family members who didn't know he had been shot down. "That's a cruel thing to get a letter back like that," he said.
   Hanging there in the sky, Swanay soon heard whistling sounds. Bullets going by. "I looked and I could see a little group of people down there and puffs of smoke, and then I'd hear, 'Ping!' I'd never been in a parachute before and I didn't know how much to pull the shroud lines." He pulled them anyway and floated away. "The wind caught me and took me out of their range, out of their sight."
   Suddenly, just 10 miles outside of Budapest, the ground reached up to him. "I just hit the ground and rolled over, gathered up my parachute and looked around. 'Should I run or should I hide?' " He took inventory and found that his dog tags had come off during the jump. He was in a foreign country with no identification. "They could shoot me as a spy," he thought. He looked around and found a dense thicket in which to hide.
   "I had on green coveralls over my flying suit. I crawled inside that thicket and laid on top of my parachute, face down, without moving. Soon I could hear them coming, thrashing through the brush, shouting and hollering, shooting the gun every now and then. I tried to draw up as little as I could. I wouldn't dare raise my head.
   "They hunted around a long time and then I heard an all-clear siren. They quit hunting and went away."
   Afraid they might have posted a sentinel, Swanay lay there all afternoon. At nightfall, stiff and with one arm numb from lying in one position, he finally left the thicket. "There I was, 500 miles from my base, deep in enemy territory, by myself, unarmed, nothing to eat. I was terrified. I could almost feel a bullet hitting me in the back."
   He hid out in the bushes 3-1/2 days, all the time wondering what he was going to do. "I got desperate for a drink of water. All I could think about was a drink of water. They say you can last 40 days without food, but thirst will get you in about four days. I was almost hallucinating.
   "The Fourth of July it rained. The next day I found a wagon track in grass where the rain had pooled, and I got down and drank out of that wagon track," he said.
   Not long after that day, Swanay was spotted by a Hungarian farmer, who was about 50 yards away. The farmer said something to him and Swanay muttered something back. The farmer took off in the opposite direction and Swanay knew he was a marked man. He moved to another location and hid in some bushes. He didn't know it at the time, but he was right beside a roadway.
   "I heard a car come up the road and four doors slam. I'm laying in the grass, spread-eagle. I raised my head and there was eight soldiers and that farmer. He led them down to where he'd seen me and then coming back, they were talking and I could tell they were kind of fussing at that farmer. The last one to go by stopped and parted the bushes and looked in and saw me lying there. He put his gun on me and, of course, I had to jump up and surrender. They all had their guns trained right at my heart."
   The soldiers shouted at him in Hungarian and escorted him to the car, where they put him inside. "They rode inside and out, on the hood and the back, hanging on the fenders. They took me to a little village about a mile away. It was just one street with houses on each side and at the end of it was a railroad and a little station house." They took him to what looked like a convent and kept him there for two days.
   Because he had no dog tags, they asked him to write his name, rank and serial number. "I wrote it down and this captain, he took it over by the window and he looked at that for the longest time, and he came back and handed me my dog tags. When I saw those dog tags, I smiled. He saw how relieved I was and he smiled too."
   Guards marched Swanay up and down the town's dirt street while villagers gathered alongside, yelling at him. "The kids and dogs would run around in front of me and throw dirt on me and spit at me. The crowd called me a gangster and a murderer and a terror flyer.
   "The authority there, he would question me: 'Ver you come from? You Ruskie? Italiano? Englander? North American?' Of course, I would just act like I didn't know what he was saying. Name, rank and serial number was all I would say."
   NEXT: Boxcars and prison camps