By Don Bradley
When Gary Swanson retired at age 67, he knew he didn’t want to just sit around.
Wear out not rust out, he was one of those guys.
So a friend suggested he interview World War II veterans as part of a Library of Congress project.
Sounded good. So he interviewed a vet. Then another. And another and another. Over the next 10 years, starting in 2000, Swanson interviewed 1,076 veterans. All branches, Pearl Harbor to D-Day to the end, Atlantic and Pacific, even a few nurses.
Not everyone was anxious to go back to those memories.
“I told them I’m not doing this for you,” Swanson said. “ ‘This is for your kids and their kids and on down. They need to know what you did.’
“Turned out leaving something for their family, that was the big deal.”
Turned out also to be just in time.
“Maybe 10 or so are still alive,” said Swanson, 89, of Leawood.
He’s been told that the Kansas City area has more veteran interviews on the Veterans History Project than any other city. Swanson also provided each vet with a video of the interview.
The vets told him of beach landings, bombing runs and death camp liberations. One was the only one of his unit to come out of Iwo Jima. They told of being scared and losing buddies. Some cried.
A retirement hobby that turned into a mission caught the eye of the National Daughters of the American Revolution and it will soon present Swanson with its Medal of Honor, its highest award.
“Gary bought a camera and a tripod and taught himself to use it, all on his dime,” said Jackie Aaron, regent of the Leawood DAR. “He’d go to their house, put them in their favorite chair and they’d tell him stories they hadn’t told anybody else.
“And he was good at it. You don’t get that many people responding if he wasn’t good at it. He wanted their families to have this.”
She also credited Swanson for helping arrange honor flights for vets. Swanson also gave presentations about the project at the Trailside Center at 99th and Holmes Road.
Many of Swanson’s Veterans History Project videos can be viewed on the Library of Congress website. Robert Adams, who lived in Independence all his life, tells about getting shot down over Germany on his second bombing run.
He was a ball turret gunner on a B-17. After dropping its bombs on Berlin, the plane was hit by flak and then attacked by German fighters. One engine was on fire and another fell completely off. The pilot was dead.
Adams scrambled from the belly of the place and frantically hurried to put on his parachute. There was yelling and fire and rushing air.
“Then it felt like a ball bat hit me square in the back,” Adams said. “It was flak and knocked me down. I got up and got out the door and pulled the ripcord and it came off in my hand. I tried to put it back in. I didn’t know it was supposed to do that.
“They don’t teach you a hell of a lot about parachutin’.”
He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. He died in 2010.
Not all stories are of combat.
Mike Katzman, 102 of Leawood, talked about spending the war at an air base in Texas. He was a boxer and the base put on fights to entertain troops training for overseas.
“I was base champ,” he said. “I liked it. I fought some officers and I was a street kid.”
Robert Laskey tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor but they didn’t take him until they learned he played the saxophone. He found himself on a Navy band on a destroyer in the Pacific.
“We played for Halsey once when he came aboard,” Laskey remembered of the famous admiral.
Laskey is now 99.
“I don’t play anymore but sometimes if I hear Benny Goodman, I’ll feel my hand move.”
Laskey went on one of Swanson’s honor flights.
“He is really a go-getter,” he said of Swanson. “He really stirred the pot.”
Swanson was in elementary school during the war. Old enough to pay attention. He knew about duty and service. That’s why when after retiring from IBM he jumped at the veterans project.
He started with a POW group at the Kansas City VA. Each vet he interviewed he asked them for the name of someone else. And so on and so on for more than a thousand times over 10 years.
He got Harold Cullum to tell him about how on his first day on the front line in France he saw a dead German soldier lying on a road.
“Nice looking young man,” Cullum remembered. “Then a bulldozer came along and pushed him out of the way. I knew then a life wasn’t worth much.
“That was my first experience in combat. We were on the attack for the next 81 days.”
Cullum died in 2008.
Swanson began interviews by asking vets about growing up, about their parents, did they live on a farm, what their dad did for a living. That brought most of them around to opening up.
And when one balked, Swanson compared their grandchildren someday hearing the interview with them hearing their own mother’s voice.
“Turned out they wanted to hear their mother’s voice.”