The unconscious body of Harry Swift ’50 plummeted through the open sky, 30,000 feet above the earth. Two years earlier, before the start of World War II, his father had enlisted him in the National Guard to “straighten him up,” but he probably never imagined his son in this unlucky position.
Swift’s run of bad luck had begun when he was called up to report to Tennessee headquarters. Originally, he was with a crew of fairly well-trained soldiers, he says, but soon he was restationed with a group of new, untrained soldiers like himself. Only 19, Swift was shocked when he was assigned as copilot for his first mission.
In June 1943, he and his crew deployed to Europe for that first mission. Good news seemed to come his way when he learned that his fleet would consist of new B-17 Straggler bomber planes. Unfortunately, his crew’s new plane was being repaired, so they were forced to leave for their mission in an older plane that severely lagged behind the rest of the fleet.
After successfully completing their mission by bombing a German power plant, the planes headed back to home base in England. However, due to mechanical problems, his crew was unable to fire on the German planes chasing them. Still trailing behind the rest of the group, his plane became an easy target for German militia. Just over enemy lines in Holland, Swift’s plane was hit by enemy fire.
While the pilot tried to control the disabled plane, Swift went to check on his 10-man crew. He found that two had been killed, and a fire had broken out. He knew he had to jump to survive, but as copilot, he felt a responsibility to stay and help straighten the plane. However, before that could happen, he passed out from lack of oxygen at the high altitude.
When Swift awoke from unconsciousness, he was falling through the sky, parachute unopened. He quickly pulled his rip cord and landed hanging from electrical lines in Holland. He carefully maneuvered himself out of the lines and dropped into a ditch below. More bad luck followed his good luck in surviving the plane crash, however, when he was immediately arrested and sent to Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp, where he stayed for almost two years until the end of the war in 1945.
Despite Swift’s streak of wartime bad luck, he was fortunate to live past 19. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, out of more than 16 million individuals who served in World War II, 130,201 were POWs. Of that number, 116,129 POWs returned alive to the U.S. There are no statistics, however, on National Guardsmen who free-fell thousands of feet through enemy airspace, landed in electrical lines and still lived to tell the tale.
Soon after being released, Swift returned to America and married his wife, Betty, in 1945. The next year he enrolled in classes at Millikin. The couple and their newborn baby lived for two years in on-campus trailers used to house married couples and veterans. After finishing his degree at the University of Illinois, he worked as an insurance adjuster in Arizona. Eventually, though, after having enough of the Southwest heat, and missing the Midwestern values of his home state, he and Betty returned to the Champaign area, where they live today among memorabilia of Swift’s war experiences.