“Cead Mile Failte” or a hundred thousand welcomes was the Irish greeting for the American Legionnaires and guests at Camp Cecil Perkerson in Greenville at their monthly meeting held Monday, March 14th. Being the week of St. Patrick’s Day but having lots of pasta and sauce on hand, the Irish and Italian cultures conveniently intertwined for a delicious spaghetti supper. Standing by the Irish decorations provided by Toots Hobson are Miriam Holliday, Isabel Keller, Mary Anne Harman, and Babs Gordon.
Monday, March 7, 2011
Greenville’s American Legion FDR Post 186 has been conducting interviews at Camp Cecil Perkerson of our World War II veterans for the Library of Congress’ Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans’ History Project. The following interview of John Albert Swanson was conducted on March 4, 2010 and is in his own words.
I was born November 27, 1924 in Greenville on Jarrell Road in Meriwether County. I went to the Jarrell Road school, near where Meade was, and walked to school-about two miles everyday. We had two teachers and the school went through the 7th grade. One teacher was for grades 5-7 and the other for children up to 5th grade. After 7th grade, I walked to Greenville to school.
My buddy was Lonnie Thrash, and we walked through the fields to Methodist Hill where the old school was. My dad worked in Manchester, and when it rained he automatically stopped by and picked me up and even got me out of school. I dropped out in the 8th grade, but I finished 7th grade. I was the only kid in family and I had farm chores to do everyday: cut the wood and to smoke the meat. We had a smokehouse and we used a two person saw to cut wood.
As a boy, I used to see FDR. My grandmother lived where Meade was and lived on a hill and FDR came through on the train to Warm Springs and everyone would be out by the tracks waving and cheering him on-I saw him as a little boy.
I registered in 1942 when I turned 18 as I had gotten a letter from the government telling me to report. We reported and I had to go to Ft. Benning. I had hoped to go into the army. We all lined up with no clothes on and they asked me if I wanted to be a Marine. I did not. We stayed at Benning a couple of days and they sent me to Augusta with another black man from Warm Springs.
We got to come back home but then caught the bus in Greenville on the south side of courthouse steps and went to Atlanta and there we boarded the train and rode all night. It took all the next day to get to Camp Lejeune, NC and then a truck picked us up to take us into camp. We had a pretty rough introduction to the 48th platoon: we’d wake up and get out early and have our exercise and come back and get breakfast but over in the day they’d call us back out and we’d march practically all day. My buddy was with me, but he did something wrong and the last time I saw him was with rifle over his head and he was running. I didn’t see him anymore. I’ve got one little scar on my neck. I wasn’t doing an exercise right and the instructor called me out and hit on head with the butt of the rifle. It bothers me now, but I never had it on record.
I wasn’t used to so many people. They’d call us out into the night at 1 am and make us stand and they’d talk and the mosquitoes were bad. You couldn’t help slap at one and then they’d say stand at attention another hour, but then someone would slap and it’d be another half hour standing there. If somebody did something, we’d all get punished for it. Training at Camp Lejeune was teaching togetherness-whatever we did we did together; we got punished together and it made everyone think about togetherness. I finally made it through training and then they said we had to go overseas.
We boarded a train to go to California. We went through Atlanta where we wanted to get off and go home. St Louis was hot as it was the last of July. The desert was rough and hot too, but we stopped along the way and went to nice restaurants. I still can feel the hot air going through the dessert. We finally got to Oakland.
We stayed there five days before we boarded the ship. We boarded around 1 o’clock but didn’t leave ‘til around 5 as the sun was going down. I remember going under the Golden Gate Bridge-tears rolled partly because it was the 3rd Sunday in August and I was supposed to be in church!
I got seasick but got over it in a couple a days. It was a big world; we were in the Pacific and we were on a ship. Some say they can’t sleep with the ship noise and lights. The ship creaked all the time. We’d get up in morning, and we played cards. When you’d look around, there was nothing but water-no other ships.
We were worried abut getting killed; we got over in dangerous waters where the Japanese would set off bombs. I finally saw land after 27 days on ship. We stopped in New Caledonia and got off the ship. After we got off, I was going for lunch and saw James Jackson, my Odessadale friend. We talked about where we would go next. I was afraid of some places because we had heard they all got wiped out there.
We stayed at New Caledonia six months and went to the Philippines to an island that had fighting there. My job was as a guard guarding rooms and I drove a truck. We guarded an area in a coconut grove with coconuts falling everywhere. I got so tired of coconuts: we drank the milk and ate it. I drank so much of it that I got tired of it. I had to guard a gate in the coconut grove and once two white guys came and wanted to come in. I told them no, I had a 45, but I really carried a carbine. I grabbed the carbine and the guys took off. I had no more problems with anyone after that.
I was not a drinker and they used to issue us two beers every night and I’d give mine to my buddy in the tent. Finally, I tried it and drank it from then on. When we went to town we drank rum. I didn’t know we had to cut this stuff and woke up two days later tied to the bunk because I was rolling off. That experience caused me not to drink now.
We left there after a year. One night there wasn’t too many of us, 10-15 guys not a whole platoon, the island was secure, but we were sitting there talking and way up on the mountain there was a flashlight moving. I knew it was the Japanese. We walked all night, shot at it, but couldn’t get it. We walked all the night after that and we fought a battle when we caught up with them. They would hide in caves on the islands and we used flamethrowers to get them. That was the way we fought during that time, knock everything down and burn it up-that’s the only way you were going to win. We tore everything down and secured it, and then walked over the whole island and secured it. When we got to Okinawa, we had to dig foxholes. We made a great big foxhole for everyone in case they couldn’t make it to their foxhole. The sirens would come on and we’d run to the big foxhole and get in. Many times I dove in foxholes praying I had made it fast enough.
We finally got the call the war was over. That was in October 1945 and there was joy everywhere that the war was over and we were going home. We boarded an aircraft carrier that was so big you couldn’t see a guy at other end or he’d just be a dot. We got home in nineteen days. We came through Pearl Harbor and came on in under the Golden Gate, got on smaller ship and went back to Oakland, then back to North Carolina in five days to get discharged.
We came back through St. Louis where our records got lost. We would have been home for Christmas of 1945 but ate Christmas dinner North Carolina. I was discharged on the 4th of January. The captain came by and asked if we wanted to rejoin and I told him I’d let him know.
Every payday I’d take out 10 or 20 dollars but there was nothin’ to spend it but on candy or toothpaste and I didn’t need the rest of the money. Sixty six dollars a month was a big deal! I came home with a lump of money I had saved. I didn’t want anyone to steal it so I put it in my sock and brought it home. I bought a car-1941 Chevy-and a fabricated house my daddy and I would put together.
After the war I went to Michigan and worked in the car industry. They had me down in foundry room-dust and smoke with nothing over the nose. It was good money-double that of the military but I couldn’t take the dust and worked there two weeks. I was a janitor mostly and I kept machinery working by adding oil. If I didn’t see anything to do, I didn’t do anything and they said I was lazy. I went over to Chevrolet and worked 1 year and 8 months then I came home and got married
I went back and worked with Chrysler but it was the worst job I had-Chrysler laid us off every year if they’d see we had a couple dollars in the bank. After thirty years and seven months in Detroit I came back to Greenville in 1994. We had some real cold days in Detroit, but in the Pacific, we never had a cold day.
Military food wasn’t good. We had Spam. “What do we have tonight? Spam. What do we have today? Spam.” I said I would never eat Spam again. Everybody got excited when we got real eggs ’cause they’d use powdered eggs.
I earned one stripe in the Marines then I got another. I made it to the marksman level with rifle training. I could shoot pretty good –I used the M1 rifle, had a .45 and a carbine. We turned in our weapons when we left the military. I was given the World War II Victory Medal, the Marksmanship Medal, and the Pacific Medal.
I was in some really rough spots; I was lucky to make it out alive. Recently I thought about fighting the Japanese and I was so loud in my sleep my wife woke me up. Those people were farmers and sometimes we made camp and used their gardens eating their potatoes and greens, but I didn’t eat any of it.
I couldn’t believe I was coming from Georgia way over to California and then seeing the world. I didn’t think anything about it then as it was a job. But now I think and wish I had put more into it.
Posted by Sally Neal at 9:02 AM