Making history: Swanson taught — and played role in — world eventsWORTHINGTON — Alan Swanson lived history as a member of Darby’s Rangers in World War II. He taught history for 25 years at Worthington High School. He’s helped to preserve history through the Nobles County Historical Society and Worthington’s Pioneer Village.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”
— Robert Penn Warren
WORTHINGTON — Alan Swanson lived history as a member of Darby’s Rangers in World War II. He taught history for 25 years at Worthington High School. He’s helped to preserve history through the Nobles County Historical Society and Worthington’s Pioneer Village.
Al’s own history begins in Minneapolis, where he grew up and graduated from West High School.
“Our family had no money,” he recalled. “But I made good money by myself, mowing grass in the summer and shoveling snow in the winter.”
At age 19, Al joined the Minnesota National Guard.
“It was just after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and Hitler was raising Cain all over,” he noted. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I had to do something, so I joined the National Guard of Minnesota, 34th Division. Then they federalized the National Guard, and before I knew it, we were formed into a full division and were playing soldier at Camp Claiborne, La.”
The “playing” turned serious when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The soldiers were dispatched to Fort Dix, N.J. — the embarkation point for the war in Europe.
“We went to Northern Ireland. There was no war in Northern Ireland. Drinking beer in a pub wasn’t my idea of serving my country. There was a notice on the bulletin board for this,” he explained, pointing to the Rangers emblem on his T-shirt. “If you got into this outfit, they were very choosy, but there was training in Northern Ireland, and from there you went to Scotland.”
The Rangers was an elite fighting unit, commanded by William Darby, who had been sent with the first troops to Ireland and became interested in the British Commandos. He was assigned to direct the Ranger organization and training, and the outfit quickly became known as Darby’s Rangers.
“At that time, I think he was still Major Darby,” recalled Al about his commanding officer, who was quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel. “We were ready for something. ‘Where we going?’ — that always the question. The answer always was, ‘You don’t have to know.’ I was in C Company, a line company. I think I made PFC (private first class).”
Following training with their British counterparts in Scotland, the Rangers were sent to North Africa — Arzew, Algeria.
“We ran into a force and got attacked,” said Al, who was called “Swannee” by his fellow soldiers — everyone had a nickname. “Three guys got wounded, one was me. Who shot me? The Italians? No. Hitler had the French Foreign Legion there under his control. We easily took the thing — they came and offered to surrender to us — but it could have been a hell of a battle, because they were fighters.”
Al was wounded by a shell in his left thigh. Medical supplies were scarce, and he lay in a field for more than a day, giving gangrene time to set in. When he was finally transported to a hospital, the doctor was able to scrape out the infection and save the leg. He spent his 21st birthday in the hospital and celebrated with two bottles of wine smuggled in by a nurse.
When he returned to his unit, however, the leg injury slowed Al down, so he was sent to the motor pool.
“My first assignment was to drive Captain Anderson,” Al remembered. “After about 10 or 15 miles, he said, ‘Pull over. Have you ever driven a car in your life?’ I couldn’t lie. I said, ‘No, sir.’ ‘Then why the hell were you assigned to me?’
“The rest of the way, he was showing me how to drive, but when we got closer to the town, he made me move over and got behind the wheel himself. He said, ‘I think you’re making progress, but if you think I’m going to let you drive me into Algiers, you’re crazy!’”
Al’s driving must have improved, because he was later assigned to drive Darby when the Rangers were sent to Sicily. Darby was usually at the front of the action, noted Al, so his driver was in the thick of things, too.
“I guess I was an adequate driver,” Al said. “I practiced a lot. I drove Darby all the way across Sicily. I got a lot of shrapnel in my head.”
Following the Sicily campaign, the Rangers were reorganized and there was talk of sending them to the Pacific to battle the Japanese. But the Rangers had sustained so many injuries and were so “beat up” that most of the men weren’t able to pass a new physical. Instead, they were assigned to guard POWs for the duration of their service. Their leader, Darby, was killed by a shell April 30, 1945, in Italy.
Al was discharged and returned to Minnesota, where he “goofed around” without any plan for the future. But a young woman changed that. Al met his bride-to-be, Dorothy, through her father, and they had their first date on New Year’s Eve.
“Not quite six weeks later, I gave her this,” said Al, pulling a ring off his pinky finger. “She took it.”
Dorothy insisted that Al use the G.I Bill to further his education, so he enrolled at Macalester College. They were married in 1946, and he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1949.
“I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a great lawyer. But I just didn’t like it.”
Instead, Al chose to be a teacher, and his first job was in Sturgis, S.D. After one year, he and Dorothy moved to Milbank, S.D., where he stayed for 12 years. Since it was closer to the Twin Cities, Al accepted a teaching post at Worthington High School in 1962. By that time, the Swansons had two children, Reid and Paula.
“I was going to stay here for two years, then I was going back to Minneapolis, where I belonged,” he recalled. “So I taught two years here, and by that time I fell in love with this place.”
At WHS, Al taught a variety of classes in the social studies realm — history, economics, sociology — and coached debate and directed plays. He developed a course in Minnesota and local history that most students took during their sophomore year at WHS.
“In 1987, they told me I had to retire. That was the rule,” said Al, shaking his head in annoyance.
Al admits he was bitter about the forced retirement, but he found a new focus for his energies. He was already serving on the Nobles County Historical Society board and began to volunteer more time at Pioneer Village, a pioneer-era living exhibit located adjacent to the Nobles County Fairgrounds in Worthington. He worked closely with the facility’s caretaker, Roy Reimer, and helped to develop school tours and annual events such as Sunday’s Fourth of July at Pioneer Village.
“If I had to feel I had any great accomplishment, it would be Pioneer Village,” reflected Al, who is still an honorary member of NCHS.
But ventures out to Pioneer Village are less frequent these days. At age 88 — he’ll be 89 in November — Al now resides at The Meadows senior living facility in Worthington and uses a walker to get around.
Al’s daughter and son-in-law Paula and Scott Steve, live in Worthington and keep an eye on him; son and daughter-in-law Reid and Jane Swanson reside in Los Angeles. Al has three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
While his legs are his biggest physical issue, Al’s main complaint is a broken heart. His love of more than 60 years, Dorothy, died in February.
“I had a marriage of 63 years, nine months and five days, if you think it isn’t on my mind,” his voice trailing off as he remembered their years together and rubbed both the wedding rings that now grace his left hand.
The Pioneer Village Old-Fashioned Independence Day Celebration, featuring three melodrama performances, heritage displays and demonstrations, will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The Prairie Reapers Power Reunion will be both Saturday and Sunday at Pioneer Village.