One Thing or Another


"I always figured if you don't do what you like, you might as well not do it at all." Bill Swayne adjusts his cap, "I've always been interested in mechanics, one thing or another." The "one thing or another" excites my curiosity. Bill's the kind of fellow who takes life as it comes, lives it, enjoys it. He's a mechanic and a pilot; if it's mechanical he's probably fixed it. These days he repairs vacuum cleaners at Sweeps on Warren Street in Hudson. The day of our interview is Bill's birthday. "I'm thirty-nine, have been thirty-seven times," he jokes.

Bill was born in Sanford, Florida, Celery City he calls it. His family moved to North Carolina in a Model T Ford, took 'em three weeks. En route the Model T's wooden spoke wheels would dry up, "they'd start squawking and you knew it was time to stop and have a picnic." His father would literally drive the car into a creek and let the wheels soak for a while. Later, the family migrated to Long Island then Massachusetts; his father was in the service.

In his teens Bill went to trade school and learned mechanics. He also took flying lessons, training on a Sturman's Bi-plane.

"Why flying?"

"I really can't explain it," Bill shrugs, "it was just there and I enjoyed it,"

In 1942 Bill joined the service. He was sixteen. In 1943 he found himself in Alaska with the 11th Army Air Corp. He was co-pilot of a four engine B-24 patrolling the Aleutian Islands. "It was a real bad deal up there, the weather was against you it moved so fast." Bill tugs on the brim of his cap, eyes fixed on the table, "It would be clear in one spot, you'd leave and right away you'd be socked in, couldn't see anything and we didn't have radar at the time." One day on patrol they lost two engines at 500 feet and had to put down in Kings Bay. Seven days later a Navy ship picked them up. "The Navy wouldn't let us inside cause we were froze, so they tied us on the outside of the ship in big rubber bags," Bill chuckles at the notion, now. He spent two months in a hospital in Washington State.

Transferred to General Jimmy Doolittle's 12th Army Air Corp, Bill ferried B-24's to Brazil then French Morocco and finally Oran in North Africa. Doolittle preferred the lighter B-25 bomber to the heaver four engine B-24, so Bill and his B-24's were shipped on to Italy. General Claire Lee Chennault decided the B-24's would compliment his P-40 Flying Tigers so Bill headed off to Jing Jiang, China, sixty miles up river from Shanghai.

The planes delivered, Bill and his men, forty of them, were then squeezed into a C-47 transport that held twenty-six and shipped off to New Guinea. There they became part of the 13th Air Force, flying the B-25 bomber. They ran raids throughout Indonesia. "In the South Pacific I don't think we ever flew at an altitude over 1000 feet," he recalls.

The war was winding down in 1945 and Bill was running air/sea rescue missions. On the way back from a supply run to Guam his plane developed engine trouble. Bill found a tiny deserted island called Yap and put the plane down on the beach, "Cause I can't swim," he quips. Stranded, the crew lived on a few candy bars and cases of canned pumpkin, the plane's only edible cargo. Ten days later a Navy PBY seaplane rescued them. If you ever invite Bill over for Thanksgiving dinner don't bother to offer him pumpkin pie.

After the war, Bill found himself assigned to PT Boats for a while, light, fast and dangerous. They had three Packard V-12 engines and were made of plywood. If you hit a coconut log the boat could shatter, so Bill transferred to Inner Island Freight Transports, like the ship in "Mr. Roberts". In 1948 Lieutenant Bill Swayne, "felt I'd had enough and came home."

Bill worked with his father on the Massachusetts farm until the Korean War came along, "If you were an officer, you went." The Army and the Air Corp had split, so Bill wound up in research and development for the Army testing transportation equipment, "If it had wheels or floated, we checked it out." Bill grins, pulls at his cap brim and chuckles, "One time they sent a Nash Rambler for us to check against a Jeep to see which was better."

Bill returned home to find his father had moved to Clovis, New Mexico and was running a four hundred acre farm with three hundred Palomino horses. "So I became a rancher, but the Gods didn't smile on us cause it didn't rain down there for two years. No water." They had to truck water in daily from Texas. "So we found somebody from Long Island who wanted to buy a horse ranch and it was gone. That's when I broke loose and came to New York." Catskill became home to Bill Swayne in 1954 and has been ever since.

Bill still flies whenever possible and frequents air shows. He loves to talk flight, anything about flight; it's his passion. He tells me about the Luskum 8 and the Cesna 195, both treacherous to fly and tough to land, "Every time you walked away from one was grand," the look in his eyes tells me he'd jump at the chance to fly one again tomorrow. Life's fulfillment is in doing what you love.

"What's the best part of flying?" I ask.

"Relaxing, leaving all your troubles behind, just up there looking at the sky."

We'll talk next time, From the Road.

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