Bill Swift Jr. shared a daily ritual with his father, William Sr. Each night after dinner, they watched “Victory at Sea,” a documentary series broadcast in the 1950s depicting the history of World War II. The flash of gunfire radiated hues of black and white on the walls of their Glenwood Landing living room as the accompanying musical score swelled. Swift still has a vinyl copy of the album.
“When the troops were doing great, he’d be laughing, but when they were getting killed, he’d be crying,” Swift recalled of his father, who died last June. “One night he got really excited because he saw his ship on that TV series. As he was watching it, he yelled, ‘There’s my ship!’”
William Sr. quit high school to join the U.S. Navy in the 1940s. After completing boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois, he was assigned to the USS Tuscaloosa. The heavy cruiser saw action all over the world, his son said. “There was a saying that went around, ‘Join the Navy, see the world,’ and my father did.”
During his service, William Sr. saw Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Africa. On June 6, 1944, he saw the coast of Normandy, France.
Memories of D-Day
Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, also known as D-Day. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history at the time, and is considered the turning point of World War II.
The destroyers USS Corry and USS Fitch were the first to arrive for the invasion. At around 5:30 a.m., the ships opened fire off Utah Beach. Philip J. Como served aboard the USS Fitch. His son, Phil Como, of Sea Cliff, recalled the events that his father witnessed that day.
“The Corry was [hit] by German gunfire, struck a mine and sunk,” Como said, “and the Fitch picked up survivors.” Two hundred sixty-five survivors recovered from the Corry, according to the elder Como’s diary entry that day. It also indicated that the Corry split in two after hitting the mine, and that gunfire hitting the Fitch “shook the whole ship.”
Another relative of Como’s fought the enemy from the skies. His uncle Thomas Guzzardi was a flight engineer and a gunner on a B-24 aircraft in the European theater. He completed 50 missions with the U.S. Army Air Corps during the war, including the Allied invasion of Normandy. Today he is 94.
Como said he didn’t know much about his father’s service until the book “The Longest Day,” by Cornelius Ryan, was published in 1959. “His ship was mentioned in one of the first few pages of the book,” Como said, “which was an enormous best-seller.”
From there, Como shared with his son mementos from the war: the diary he kept, his tailor-made dress uniform, the discharge letter he received from the secretary of the Navy and an ashtray he had fashioned out of a five-inch, .38 caliber shell casing. It is inscribed with the names of each of the campaigns Como took part in during his service.
“My father served in the Navy from 1943 until 1945,” Como said. “His service, as he said, was the high point of his life.” His father died in 1988.
Remembering the fallen
As the needle of a record player traced the groove of his “Victory at Sea” album, Bill Swift Jr. recalled what he learned from his father about service and sacrifice. “My father taught me the purpose of remembering what the poppy stood for and what it did for our people,” he said. The poppy has been used since 1921 to commemorate military personnel who have died in war. “It made me a very staunch American,” Swift added.
World War II veterans are a part of the “greatest generation,” and Phil Como said he believed that sentiment to be true. He noted that his uncle, Guzzardi, endured the Great Depression, the loss of his father as a teenager and serving in the military, all before his 21st birthday.
Como also noted the growing appreciation for these veterans, who did whatever they could for their country. “People are understanding the warriors are not the wars,” he said. “It’s gratifying to me.”