Wright S. Swanay was not one to call himself a hero. The longtime Elizabethton resident was more interested in helping others who had served their country as he had.
“For many years now, I have served as a veterans service officer at the local, state and national level — helping my comrades gain the benefits to which they were entitled,” Swanay, who died last weekend at the age of 91, wrote a few years ago. “This has brought me great satisfaction and reward.”
Himself an ex-POW, Swanay returned from World War II with a determination to lend a hand to others who had experienced similar horrors. For many years, Swanay was a volunteer at the same Veterans Affairs Hospital where he passed away Saturday. Swanay dedicated his life to helping other former prisoners of war, and was still serving as commander of the East Tennessee Ex-POW Chapter at the time of his death.
Swanay was frequently heard remarking that his own experiences were noting in comparison to the sacrifices made by others. Those who knew Swanay certainly knew better. Despite his modesty, Swanay was nonetheless a true hero. In December, he finally received the Purple Heart he had earned 66 years before when he injured his shoulder while bailing out of his damaged B-24 Liberator over Hungary.
It was July 2, 1944, and Swanay was a bombardier with the rank of second lieutenant when his crew was forced to parachute while on a bombing run over railroad yards near Budapest. Swanay evaded the enemy for three days before he was captured. He was nearly hung by angry civilians before guards transported him to German control in Budapest. He spent the next 302 days in prisoner of war camps.
He was finally liberated by Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army on April 29, 1945.
Swanay returned home where he began his decades of service to other veterans. But while he was able to help others, he continued to have problems getting the Purple Heart he deserved. That oversight was corrected, thanks to the help of Sara Sellers, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant who is a leader in the Tennessee Republican Party. Sellers worked with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office to have Swanay’s case reviewed. The military corrected Swanay’s records to reflect he was awarded the Purple Heart on Aug. 1, 1945.
Yes, the Purple Heart came 66 years late, but then again Swanay’s life was never about medals or personal glory.
His was a life of service to his country, to his family and to the thousands of veterans he helped. By any definition, that made Swanay a true hero.