THE ARMY SAID HE WAS DEAD IN WWI by Mary Swanson Poore & Bruce Swanson

Our father, Swantie E. Swanson, was born in 1895 in a log house on the family homestead north of McCook. This was in Frontier County, at the site of what is now Hugh Butler Lake, and the address was Quick, NE. His parents had emigrated separately from Sweden a few years earlier had met through mutual friends and married in 1892.


Dad was drafted into the Army in 1917 when he was about 21 years old. World War I had been raging in Europe since 1914, but it was not until 1917 that our country declared war against Germany. After basic training at Camp Funston, Dad was sent by troop ship to France where the worst fighting was then going on. He had been trained as a machine gunner, and was assigned to Company B, 129th Machine Gun Battalion. Our mother and father had met by this time and were corresponding, very platonically with the letters signed, I remain, your friend, Pvt. Swantie Swanson.” In a letter to her he described his progress from the first campaign at Alsace, on to Toul, next was Metz and finally the battle of the Meuse-Argonne which began on September 26th, 1918.


It was on November 1, 1918 that a Western Union telegram was sent from Washington D.C. to Dad’s parents: “We deeply regret to inform you that your son was reported killed in action on September 29th”. This was followed by a letter from the Secretary of the Interior urging the family “to rejoice because your son had so glorious an ending. For what can be finer than to die in an effort to save the lives and make happier the lot of others?”


In the meantime, Dad and the rest of Company B had begun their push up the valley toward the Meuse-Argonne forest. They were under constant bombardment, both from German planes and machine gun fire, and in three days, half of the men had been killed or wounded. One bullet whizzed so closely by Dads nose that he felt the vibration, and reached up to feel if his nose was still there. At one point they passed a white mule that was dead and still standing in its tracks, held up by the staves of the vehicle it was pulling. At various times they captured German prisoners and released the French soldiers being held by the Germans. A Company officer was killed while talking to Dad. Much of their progress was made by jumping from one shell hole to another, advancing to barbed wire entanglements, then passing through a few at a time.


Dad was wounded at 10 A.M. on September 29th, when he was hit by four shrapnel fragments and a machine gun bullet. At the time, he was carrying his machine gun, doing double time, with his buddy Pvt. Snodgrass following behind him carrying the tripod. Pvt. Snodgrass was killed by the concussion of the shell that hit Dad. He crawled to an abandoned trench nearby and lay there from 10 a.m. until dark. All day, while lying on his back in the trench, he watched the German planes above – he counted 27 – as they “laid eggs on us and the men who had gained the woods edge.”


At about 4:30 p.m. a Red Cross man appeared and gave him a drink of brandy to ease the pain. This medic said he would return at dark, which he did, and then took Dad and several others to a nearby brick building. But this building soon came under enemy fire, and the wounded were told to get out on the road and walk. Later that day they were picked up in carts, and about this time a friend and medic, Paul Beatty from Oxford, came by and recognized Dad. He cried when he saw how badly he was wounded. They were on the road for 2 days with no food but one cup of hot chocolate, before they came to a tent, which was the Evacuation Hospital. There, he lay on the floor for “a long time before one night when they started to operate on me at 2 a.m.”. More operations followed, including one on November 11th, the day the Armistice was signed. At that time they removed part of his O. D. uniform from a wound. The pieces of shrapnel had been given to Dad to keep as souvenirs. He kept them under his hospital pillow, but threw them away one night when he was delirious.


Back in the States, Dads parents and also my Mother had received letters from him in the Hospital near Nevers. They knew for sure that he was still alive, and after four months in the Hospital, he was sent home to America.


But these violent events stayed with him until his death in 1986 at age 91. He had recurring nightmares, fighting “the enemy”, just as the Veterans of more recent wars have.


(The following article on McCook resident, Swantie Swansom, published in the McCook Daily Gazette November, 11, 1982 was written by Ted Truby.)


The Army death certificate and a document signed by John J. Pershing say the soldier died in action Sept. 29,1918.


But, despite those documents and a telegram informing his family of his death. Swantie E. Swanson was not killed that day. And, on this Veterans Day 64 years after the armistice was signed, the McCookite remembers vividly where he was the day World War I ended.


“I was on an operating table in a field hospital (near Nevers, France) just coming out of the ether when I heard someone say, Well, it was signed this morning.” I shouted: “Who said that?” and was informed the captain was speaking, Swanson recalled in a 1937 interview with the McCook Daily Gazette.


Wednesday the 87-year-old veteran confirmed that, on that day as he came out of the ether after an operation for wounds received the previous September, the doctor informed him that the armistice was signed at 11 am, that day – Nov. 11, 1918. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.


”That’s a good question.” Swanson says when people ask him why the documents were sent. It was, he said, apparently just a mix-up on the part of the Army.


Family members were not too upset about the death notices, however, because they had received a letter from Swanson that was dated after Sept. 29, 1818 before they received the telegram saying he died on that date.


The death certificate read: “This is to certify that Swantie E. Swanson Private 1st Class, Company B, 129th Machine Gun Battalion, died with honor in the service of his country on the twenty-ninth day of September, 1918.” It was signed by then Adjutant General A. W. Robertson.


The certificate signed by Pershing, then commander-in-chief, said that on Sept. 19, 1918, Swanson ”bravely laid down his life for the cause of his country.”


In addition to those two documents and the telegram, Swanson also has the purple heart he received and other memorabilia of the war, including his first dog tags, government issue razor and the Bible he carried. He also has a plaque signed by President Woodrow Wilson stating he was wounded in action.


Swanson, as a member of the 129th Machine Gun Battalion, 35th Division, saw duty with the British at Flanders Fields and went on to the Voges Sector and then the Mouse Argonne Sector before he was wounded.


“Funny things happen,” he said in recalling that if a captain had not ordered double time just before he was shot, he wou1d have been where the man following him with a tripod for a machine gun was at. “We left him in France,” commented Swanson who was struck by four pieces of shrapnel.


The shrapnel did not kill Swanson, who was carrying a machine gun in front of the man who was killed, but he required two operations and four months to recover. The worst wound was in the fleshy part of his back.


When he returned to the United States from his $33-a-month tour of duty, Swanson did not immediately apply for compensation, but after a couple of years he did and a doctor determined that he had suffered a 60 percent disability.


That did not stop him from farming near the present location on Hugh Butler Lake, nor from working for the Agriculture and Stabilization Conservation Service for 30 years.


Swanson, who is commander of World War I Barracks 365 of the VFW, and is a past commander of the VFW’s District 2, moved to McCook from the farm in 1948, but the Swanson family still has the farm north of Town.