Wright Swanay, who died this past month at age 91, was a veteran, a POW, a veterans advocate and a friend to everyone who met him.
He was honored as such and more at the annual POW/MIA Recognition Ceremony Friday morning at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s Carnegie Library.
Donita Denton, ex-POW coordinator for the East Tennessee Chapter of American Prisoners of War, said Swanay was
recognized at Friday’s event by an empty chair placed at the front of the room with a POW flag draped over it.
“I think I am safe in saying that he was the backbone of this chapter, especially in the past few years, and was loved by all,” Denton said.
Swanay’s grandson Robert Swanay spoke about his grandfather.
“Wright Swanay was the kind of man who left his mark on all of us,” he said. “His friends and neighbors, his family, his fellow veterans and helpful staff and administrators at the VA.
“While I believe he would be pleased at the honor bestowed upon him today, I also believe he would want me to point out that all of his fellow ex-POWs are equal heroes.”
Robert Swanay said his grandfather knew that the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the event that fully plunged America into World War II, irrevocably changed his life.
Swanay immediately joined the U.S. Army Air Force and trained as a bombardier. His B-24 Liberator was shot down while Swanay was on his 39th mission over Budapest, Hungary, on July 2, 1944.
He spent 10 months in captivity before being liberated from stalag 7A in Moosburg, Germany, on April 29, 1945.
After returning home, Swanay, from Elizabethton, began decades of service to other veterans, helping them and their widows get the benefits they were entitled to and helping organize the local ex-POW chapter, which meets monthly at the Johnson City Ryan’s.
Swanay was the commander of the group.
Swanay also never turned down an opportunity to speak at area schools about WWII and his experience in that global conflict.
“I’ve heard from teachers from schools all over the Tri-Cities that were so impressed at his seemingly effortless ability to connect with these young students in telling his story,” Robert Swanay said. “I regret that future students will not have the opportunity to learn first-hand about World War II from Wright Swanay.”
George Hatcher was also a POW during WWII. He was a good friend of Swanay. He spoke Friday of the experiences of a POW.
“We were captured near towns we had just bombed,” Hatcher said. “The cities were still burning when we were captured. We could understand the people were so mad and wanted revenge. We were beaten, intimidated, threatened and starved. We had dogs set on us. We received no meal or news from anyone. We were deliberately infected with body lice and fleas.”
By the many comments made by those in attendance Friday, it seemed Swanay would be remembered for his friendship and community service as much as for his military service.
“He helped everyone get the benefits they deserved,” Hatcher said. “He lived by our motto: We exist to help those who cannot help themselves.”
Robert Swanay said his grandfather was a good example to everyone.
“His post-war experience also shows us that we all have responsibilities as American citizens to serve our country, to serve our fellow citizens and fellow man however we can, as best we can,” he said.