Navy Lieutenant William E. Swanson was properly laid to rest on June 11 at Fort Snelling National Cemetary, 47 years after he was killed in action during the Vietnam War.
On April 11, 1965 the 27-year-old Brooklyn Center resident led a mission over the jungle of Ho Chi Minh Trail near Boualapha, Khammouan Province, Laos, searching for enemy targets.
William’s brother, Bob Swanson of Crystal, who was 14 at the time of his brother’s death, said that fateful mission was one that extended two weeks. His brother’s ship, the USS Ranger, was due to return back to Pearl Harbor. When they got back, it would have been William’s last mission, but it was extended into Laos and ultimately cost his brother his life.
“They were on an armed reconnaissance mission after the extension when it happened,” Bob said.
As a lieutenant, William normally didn’t fly the lead in his A-1H Skyraider Aircraft, he normally flew as the wingman. But the commander was new to the area so his brother took the lead, Bob said
“They flew over the target area and he was making a pass and an anti-aircraft gun fired and the initial rounds hit the plane in the cockpit and he started trailing smoke,” Bob said.
The commander followed William all the way down into the jungle and watched as the aircraft made a turn and crashed. The Skyraider’s returned to the Ranger to refuel and went in search of William’s plane.
“They went back searching for the crash site but were unable to locate it because it was a dense jungle, and that was that,” Bob said.
Back in the United States the family of Navy Lieutenant William E. Swanson was told that he was missing in action and presumed dead.
William had graduated pre-med at the University of Minnesota and had joined the U.S. Navy because he heard from a friend he would soon be receiving a draft notice.
The family held a memorial service, and in April 1965, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey awarded William numerous medals, including a Purple Heart and a Gold Star for his second Distinguished Flying Cross for his final mission. He was also awarded two air medals and the Navy commendation medal with valor.
“I was in shock,” Bob said about his brother’s death. “At 14, I guess I was just starting to realize some of the ramifications of death. It was hard because my mother had died when I was 10, and my brother’s death hit my dad really hard. It was tough. There were tough years.”
In 2000, Bob received a phone from Joint Personnel Accountability Command, an organization that works to return and every soldier home.
While the organization was interviewing a village elder in Laos about another downed aircraft, they were directed to a crash site in the mountains north of Boualapha. Through records they found the area might have been William’s crash site.
For the next nine years, the organization with the approval of the Laotian government performed a preliminarily excavation operation on the crash site in which they found wreckage that matched that of William’s plane.
In 2010, a full excavation was undertaken, and the organization uncovered parts of a plane, watch and osseous (bone and tissue) remains. The evidence was sent to an identification lab in Hawaii for further testing
“In February I got a call from the Navy that finished the report and that without a doubt the remains were my brother’s,” Bob said.
Originally, the family didn’t think William would be recovered.
“Even in 2010, I was fairly certain it was his crash site,” he said. “When I got the call … it really did happen. It’s pretty cool. For 47 years he was missing. It’s overwhelming.”
The Navy told Bob and his sisters that they could choose any national cemetery for William’s burial. And though Bob said Arlington National Cemetery would have been cool, they decided on Fort Snelling.
He was honored with full military honors on June 11 in front of friends, family, classmates and veterans. There was an F-18 flyover, patriot guard and a 21-gun salute to help properly thank William for his dedication to his country.
On June 12, Gov. Mark Dayton ordered all U.S. and Minnesota flags be flown at half-staff at all state and federal buildings from sunrise to sunset.
“It was just awesome, the recognition and the support. Not just for me and my family, but for all of the veterans,” Bob said on the memorial. “There’s some sort of closure that we never expected that he would be brought home.”