The following article appeared in The Napa Register on November 9, 2002. It is republished here through the gracious consent of the author, Jane Daye.
By JANE DAYE
After seeing the carnage at Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal and other battles, George 'Bud' Swars, a longtime American Canyon resident, says that "nobody wins a war except the politicians. They are the ones that say 'we won,' but we actually lose so many, that nobody really wins."
Swars, 83, served on the heavy cruiser, the USS Portland, and experienced military action from the battles of Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal to the assault and occupation of Okinawa
He survived the heat of battle and has 16 Bronze Stars to prove it.
Swars is quick to point out, however, there are no individual awards for fighting on a ship. "It takes a whole ship to fight a battle. Every single man is important."
Swars says, in any situation "when fat hits the fire, don't fool around. You could get hurt." He survived a direct hit to the USS Portland, in 1943, and says that under wartime conditions, "you have to keep going, no matter how scared you may be."
Rising through the ranks
Swars, who began his military service as an enlisted sailor, retired in 1970 as Chief Warrant Officer, after 10 years of active service and 28 years in the reserves. He was 60 years old.
"You don't have to be big or tough. Just shoot better, stand up and do your job better than anyone else," says Swars. Between his active duty in the Navy and the Naval reserves, during the Korean War, Swars served four years in the California National Guard, just to substantiate his stalwartness.
"I wanted to prove to an ex-soldier that a Navy man could cut it. I had to out hike them, out shoot them and know more about weapons than any of them. I could out drink them, too," he chuckled.
Raised in Vallejo, the oldest of seven children, Swars quit high school to enlist in the Navy. He was only 17.
As a young boy, Swars remembers watching the ships come in, when "Vallejo was a Navy town." His grandmother tutored English to a Swedish sailor whenever his ship would dock nearby. Swars could not wait until he graduated to join in the high-seas adventures.
He enlisted in the Navy in 1936 and was sent to San Diego for training. He put in for duty on a destroyer. Swars wanted a ship that would dock near Vallejo so he could see his family more often.
His first assignment was on the USS Preble, as a seaman in the engine room. He remembers how he went from sailor to cook.
When both cooks on the Preble became ill, the chief boatswain's mate, called all men to 'fall into quarters.' After looking them all over, he said, "Swars, you look like you love to eat and you are the healthiest looking one. Get your a** to the galley." For the next nine months, he says that he cooked whatever was on the menu.
His next assignment was on the USS Portland, nicknamed "Sweet Pea," from 1940 to 1945. Swars was on the ship's goodwill tour to Sydney, Australia, in March, 1941. It was the first American ship to visit in many years.
Action in World War II
When the attack on Pearl Harbor came on Dec. 7, 1941, Swars says the Portland had already been out to sea for two days.
"We came back in about a week later - the harbor was in absolute chaos. The Oklahoma was upside down. The battleships hadn't been raised yet. Two destroyers and the battleship Maryland were in dry dock."
He says that every once in a while a human body would be recovered. "You don't want to know what they look like," says Swars. Through the remainder of December and until May 1942, the Portland operated between the west coast, Hawaii and Fiji.
Swars' first taste of combat was the Battle of Coral Sea in May 1942. It was during this battle that the carrier Lexington was "hit and sunk."
The Portland had to wait to pick up survivors. Swars says in the middle of this battle, or in fact, any battle, it is impossible to stop to rescue anyone until the fighting has ceased. He says the battle is over when the enemy "stops coming."
The Portland took on hundreds of men who were brought in by a destroyer. The rescued men had no clothes and no money. Swars remembers befriending one.
"I took him down to my locker, gave him clothes and anything he wanted." The survivors would sometimes have to fight against the enemy immediately after being rescued.
In Swars' memory, the Battle of Midway (June 1942) stands out, not only because it was "where the Yorktown was hit," but also because of the ingenuity that was involved in the transfer of sailors from ship to ship. More than 700 survivors were rescued and given haven aboard the Portland.
After the battle, the wounded were transferred from the Portland to another ship, the Fulton. Wire baskets or canvas bags, hung on six highlines, were passed between the moving ships. Due to wartime conditions, because enemy submarines were in the area, the ships had to maintain speeds of 20 knots (approximately 23 mph) during this operation.
On Nov. 13, 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Portland was hit by a torpedo from a Japanese destroyer, the Yudachi. It also sustained damage from shells from a Japanese battleship. "This was the same night that Admiral Callaghan from Vallejo was killed," says Swars.
Swars was in the No. 4 fire room, checking the level of water of the boiler. He remembers being thrown against the steam lines. "We got thrown around pretty badly - but no broken bones." According to Ken Joy, a fellow shipmate and keeper of the ship's logs, says that, "eight men were killed, 10 were missing and there were a lot of wounded."
Swars says that all sailors had to stay at their posts until they were pulled off, so for approximately 12 hours they did not know exactly what had happened.
He remembers losing his friend, Dr. R.H. Williams, "one of the finest medical doctors I've ever met." In addition, Swars says that a sailor, whom he had played poker with the previous night, was also killed. "This really made me appreciate how fragile life is."
When asked how he felt after the ship was hit, he said, "We were scared, but we did what we had to do. We had to keep going."
After the war
Although Swars loved the sea, in 1946, he gave up active duty to marry his other love, De, a talented painter. They met at a party while Swars was on leave trying to decide whether to re-enlist or not.
De, 85, says that she and Swars, "got along kind of good," and in a short period of time, they both knew that this relationship would last a lifetime. Swars decided that he didn't want to be shipped off "as a married man" and so chose to end that chapter of his naval career. They have been married for nearly 56 years.
Swars became a machinist on Mare Island. He retired after being in a car accident in 1963.
The last USS Portland reunion will be held in Branson, Mo., in May, 2003. Swars will be unable to go.
"Look at our ages and our medical conditions. Nowadays we can't fly and it is too far to drive. It grounds a lot of us guys. Some of our old shipmates just write to keep in touch."
Although he doesn't have any regrets, Swars wishes that he could be 30 years old again, "to go fishing and hunting. Now all I do is go over to the clubhouse and 'B.S.' with the old guys."