49-year fight wins back his Navy Cross

November 04, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- Alonzo Swann of Gary, Ind., proudly pushed back his shoulders and occasionally glanced down at his chest as the admiral pinned the Navy's most prestigious medal to his brown suit yesterday.

Mr. Swann, 68, a World War II Navy gunner, had finally won his toughest battle -- he received the Navy Cross that he earned 49 years and five days ago.

"It's a fight coming to an end," said Mr. Swann, who long fought the Navy to get the medal. "Nobody likes a loser. I've been losing for 48 years. It's been a long fight and a bitter fight, [but] I was stubborn. I knew I was right."

In an elaborate ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid -- a floating museum on the Hudson River -- hundreds of Navy officials, family members and World War II soldiers honored Mr. Swann and other African-American combatants, many of whom died in the Oct. 29, 1944, battle on the ship.

It was on that date that Mr. Swann, a 19-year-old petty officer, and the 21-member all-black crew of Gun Tub 10 aboard the carrier downed a Japanese kamikaze plane, saving the Intrepid and its crew. Nine of the tub's crew members died, and several, including Mr. Swann, were seriously injured.

Although the courage was marked at that time by presentations of the Navy Cross, the medal was later taken back without explanation and downgraded to a Bronze Star. Mr. Swann said it was because the crew was black.

After nearly 50 years and a federal court victory, the Navy relented earlier this year.

"I'm glad it's culminated," said Mr. Swann, who noted that many blacks, although unrecognized, played significant roles in World War II.

"I'm not sure that it's over yet. We're going to have to get the history books straight."

Mr. Swann, a retired Health Department employee, was anything but bitter yesterday. With the U.S. flag as a backdrop and in front of a painting of the Oct. 29 event, the Navy Cross was pinned to his chest.

"It is truly remarkable that here, 49 years later, Mr. Swann can return to his ship to receive a well-deserved honor," said Adm. Stanley Arthur, who presented the medal. "Our shipmates of yesteryear were true heroes in every respect."

Mr. Swann, a pudgy man with wavy black hair peppered with gray, called his Navy buddy James Dockery of Stamford, Conn., the only other survivor of Tub 10, to join him at the podium. He also asked for a moment of silence for those who died.

"I feel partially vindicated because I've proved my point," Mr. Swann said later as he headed out to a concert at Carnegie Hall in his honor.

The ceremony aboard the Intrepid served as a symbol of Mr. Swann's victory. "It was the ship he saved," said the spokesman for the carrier. "If he hadn't done that, we would not have the Intrepid today."

Bill White of the Intrepid Museum Society coordinated the ceremony. "This man deserves proper recognition. They were going to give him the medal in Gary, Ind., and send him home.

"This is the ship he served on. . . . We should celebrate. It just fits well."

For hours, spectators in Navy uniforms and others in sequined dresses milled around the museum filled with Navy memorabilia, including an exhibit honoring African-Americans. They talked about the heroics and persistence of folks like Mr. Swann.

The Intrepid Museum Society highlighted Mr. Swann's courage in a brief black-and-white video of the Oct. 29 battle.

"He's been talking Navy Cross ever since I met him," said Debbie Swann, Mr. Swann's daughter-in-law, of Landover, Md. "I just hope that it's all he hopes for. I hope he can be at peace."

"It's his dream," said Mr. Swann's sister, Geraldine Mack, 63, of Steelton, Pa. "I'm glad he's lived to see it."

For years Mr. Swann was obsessed with his pursuit of the Navy Cross, family members said. He spent hours in Washington searching the Navy and National Archives for documents to prove his case.

"It was a hassle because of what it was doing to him," said his wife, Gussie, of Gary. "It was just something that was stuck in his heart. He said it was his, they took it from him, he was going to get it back."

By the end of the day, Mr. Swann, dressed in a three-piece suit with matching tie and handkerchief, had become a star. He spent the early part of the evening talking to Newsday, the New York Daily News and a New York radio station.

He even talked with Cable News Network on top of the Intrepid and pointed to where the deadly attack took place.

Minutes later, Mr. Swann was rushed to a heliport, where he joined Navy officials and black businessmen on a flight back to the deck of the Intrepid.

"The world owes nobody nothing," Mr. Swann said from behind the podium. "If you think you're right, fight your heart out."

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