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One veteran, three wars

 

David Swinford turns 90 this September, but he's already hit some big milestones.

Try two 30-year careers, including a stretch of military service that saw the Oklahoman serve in three wars.

Swinford, a Sequim resident, with wife Arlene, since 1974, is a member of the Association of Naval Aviators — Olympic Squadron.

Looking back on his extensive time with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, the retired colonel says he could have left the military long before his age-mandated retirement in 1974.

"I just liked the camaraderie of the people I was flying with," Swinford said. "'Esprit de corps' and all that."

Born Sept. 9, 1923, in Mill Creek, Okla., Swinford was an athlete and "teachable" youth who eventually enrolled at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) to study medicine, then switched to law.

In 1941, after two years at the school, Swinford got his notice from the draft board. He immediately hitchhiked back to Oklahoma City to a U.S. Navy recruiting station, where he passed a physical the same day and was well on his way to military flight training. 

Swinford studied naval history and warfare in Oklahoma, nearly froze his face in open-cockpit planes at a primary flight school in Indiana, learned instruments and navigation in Florida and eventually was stationed at Cherry Point, N.C.

Three wars

World War II saw Swinford stationed out of the Northern Solomon Islands. He flew in missions in New Guinea and the Philippines, piloting medium bombers. 

When the war ended, Swinford and company were in Malabang, the Philippines, preparing for an invasion of Japan.

 

"We all figured we had at least a 50-percent chance of being a casualty," Swinford recalls. After the news broke about the war's end, "We had a big party."

After the war, Swinford applied for a regular commission with the U.S. Marine Corps and got it.

"All the new aviators were reserves (and) all the old-timers were regulars," he said. "I wanted to be one of those."

He learned about the start of the Korean War while reading the Sunday newspaper under an oak tree in North Carolina.

"When am I coming back?" he asked the fellow soldier who came to give him the news.

"You may not be," was the reply.

Swinford flew with the VMF-212, one of the first squadrons sent to the Far East at the outbreak of the war. The outfit was making its first strikes on enemy forces by September 1950. VMF-212 aircraft flew air support missions supporting the 1st Marine Division as they fought their way out of encirclement during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

Swinford recalled supporting a large evacuation of refugees from North Korea across the border to South Korea.

"Every foot of every ship was covered with refugees," he recalled. "They blew up the docks. It was quite a show."

Swinford did two tours in Korea and was shot down twice. In one incident, his hydraulic radiator was damaged and he had to land in range of enemy gunfire.

"The Chinese were shooting at me but they weren't very good shots," Swinford said.

The second time he was downed, the shell came up through the plane's bottom and nearly killed him. A resulting spray of oil forced him to crane his neck out of the plane just to land it.

"I beat the Grim Reaper again," Swinford said.

Swinford went on to serve two tours in Vietnam, piloting "anything I could fly," he said, from bombers to beachcraft to helicopters, on his first tour. He worked on advanced research projects, modifying innocent-looking things such as fishing boats into military gunships.

On his second tour, he was put on the staff responsible for chaplains, an exchange, press services and more, trying to introduce the local citizenry to regional farming practices.

On to the peninsula

In 1969, Swinford was seeking a place to retire when friend Jack Westerman encouraged him to take a look at the Olympic Peninsula. 

He and Arlene bought property — "He thought it'd be a good investment," she said — and five years later they moved to Sequim. They had a trio of sons: David, who now works in Washington, D.C.; Willie, who lives in Denver; and Thomas, a Port Angeles resident.

"We're going to farm and teach those boys how to work," Arlene told friends.

Unable to retire completely, Swinford took classes at Peninsula College and started into real estate. He became a broker at Corral Realty, so beginning his second multi-decade career. 

In 1997, he was named Sequim Association Realtor of the Year, honoring his career and service as the association's state director.

Swinford gets together with other members of the Association of Naval Aviators — Olympic Squadron, who meet the third Tuesday of each month at the marina in Port Ludlow. It's a social group open to retired and active personnel.

Swinford says he's at home in Sequim. While Oklahoma is his birthplace, he says he'll only visit.

"Worst climate in the world," he said.

Reach Michael Dashiell at editor@sequimgazette.com.
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