Norman Swift was a student at the University of Kentucky, and just 20 years old, when he was sent to basic naval training and assigned to the USS Baatan, an aircraft carrier based in the Pacific.
It was 1951, and the United States, South Korea and allied nations were fighting both North Korean and Chinese forces in a bloody conflict across the Korean peninsula that had already seen intense reversals on both sides. The war would continue for another two years, and Swift serving in hostile waters while the Baatan launched ground combat support missions for U.S. and United Nations forces.
When Swift’s term of service ended in October 1954, receiving the medals he had earned as a signalman on the Baatan during the conflict was the last thing on his mind. Swift didn’t think about the medals he’d never collected for decades.
“I never thought about my service,” Swift said Saturday. “I just wanted to go home.”
Saturday morning, members of the McLean County VFW Post 5415 presented Swift, 90, with six medals he earned for his service in Korea. The VFW members were able to obtain Swift’s medals using Swift’s discharge record, which listed his commendations.
Swift received the medals at the flag pole of One Park Place in Owensboro, surrounded by family members. Swift received the China Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation, the Navy Good Conduct Medal, the Korean Services Medal, the United Nations Service Medal and the National Defense Medal.
The fighting in Korea officially ended in an armistice, with North and South Korea still divided. Today, South Korea is a modern, thriving democracy, while North Korea is tightly controlled, secretive communist country.
Richard Crabtree, commander for Post 5415, said Saturday’s medal ceremony was to honor Swift’s service to his country, and to “let the world know there are a few people left who appreciate what these men did, in days gone by.”
Swift said he volunteered to become a signalman when he learned the ship was looking for more people to do the job. Swift used flags and semaphores to communicate with other ships in the carrier group.
“We used flags for close formation, like when to turn,” Swift said.
“I was in the service for four years, and went over (to Korea) for four different trips,” Swift said. Some of the men Swift served with became his lifelong friends.
“I missed the friends I made there. In fact, I’m still in contact with some,” he said. Swift said he doesn’t think of the service he performed during the conflict as exceptional.
“I can’t think I’m a hero, but I did my job,” Swift said.
Crabtree, who served in Vietnam, said Swift’s wanting to put his service behind him when he was discharged in 1954 is common.
“When we come home, we don’t want anything to do with it for a good long while,” Crabtree said. But veterans know their service was important, Crabtree said.
“We are quite proud of our service to our country,” Crabtree said. Veterans who served in combat believed their service was the right thing to do, “and we still think we did the right thing,” he said.
“We took what God gave us and made this country what it is today,” Crabtree said. When veterans honor a fellow veteran, as with Saturday’s ceremony, “it means so much,” he said.
Swift never returned to UK after leaving the Navy. Instead, Swift had a career that varied from mortgage broker and realtor to cattle rancher, both in Kentucky and Florida. Swift now lives in Owensboro at One Park Place.
Swift said, “I’m just real blessed with what I’ve done in my life. I’m happy in this place.”
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse