Faithful to a proud heritage

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jodi Riley
  • 71st Force Support Squadron commander
"We are a nation at war." In 2007, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, then chief of staff of the Air Force, used those six simple but strong words to begin his letter to Airmen that accompanied the new Airman's Creed.

Moseley had a bold vision for the Airman's Creed. In his letter, he said it was all about our warrior ethos, character, spirit and pride in our heritage. He said our nation depends on us to dominate air, space and cyberspace. He highlighted our willing acceptance of those immense responsibilities. He said we are duty-bound to imbue these warrior virtues throughout every Airman's career, and that the Airman's Creed would replace all existing Air Force-related creeds.

Many were skeptical; however, seven years later, the Airman's Creed, despite its relative youth, has not only persisted, but assumed a prominent position in Air Force ceremonies.

Why is that? My theory is that there is something in the Airman's Creed that speaks to the heart of every Airman. It could be a sentence, a turn of a phrase, or even a single word.

For me, I find several touch points in the Airman's Creed. They tell the story of my father and his three brothers and uncles I never met. All four served their country. One defended it with his life.

"I have answered my Nation's call"
In World War II, all four sons of Mr. and Mrs. Roland L. Sweeny of Council Bluffs, Iowa, answered their nation's call.

By 1944, their oldest, Curtis, was a first lieutenant in the Army Quartermaster Corps, serving in England. The next oldest, Gerald, was a radio technician second class, in the Coast Guard. Their third son, Duane, was finishing up B-17 Flying Fortress combat-crew training in Sioux City, Iowa. Their youngest son, Rolland, was an Army Air Corps Reserve cadet captain at Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In late July, Curtis was starting his second year overseas in England, but Gerald, Duane and Rolland enjoyed a reunion at home. It was the first time Gerald and Duane had seen each other since November 1942.

"My mission is to Fly, Fight, and Win"

In October 1944, Duane, a second lieutenant, completed training and headed overseas, where he joined the 568th Bomb Squadron, 390th Bomb Group (Heavy), RAF Framlingham, United Kingdom. Sometime shortly after Duane's arrival, he and Curtis were reunited, an event documented in a photograph for the hometown newspaper. It was the first time Curtis and Duane had seen each other in two years. Within weeks, Duane would be flying combat sorties over Nazi Germany.

The 390th Bomb Group Museum's records show that Duane piloted his first combat mission into enemy territory Nov. 16, 1944, in a B-17G nicknamed "Maidens Prayer/I'll Be Around."

After this initial mission, he flew all the rest of his missions in another B-17G nicknamed "'Tis A Mystery." From Nov. 16 to Dec. 30, Duane flew missions over Duren, Hamm, Merseburg, Koblenz, Darmstadt, and the Marscheid Rail Bridge. The official Air Force mission narratives describe enormous waves of B-17s -- sometimes numbering more than 500 -- sent to hit a single target. He flew on missions to strike marshalling yards, oil plants and transportation targets.

"I defend my country with my life"

On Dec. 30, 1944, Duane took off en route to Kassel, Germany, his 10th mission, to attack marshalling yards. His aircraft did not return, and Duane and his crew were declared missing. The Army Air Corps subsequently concluded that Duane's aircraft iced up en route to its target and crashed in the North Sea. Missing Air Crew Report #11247, dated Jan. 1, 1945, contained few details.

"A/C 026, flying #3 position of lead Squadron took off as briefed at 0834 hours climbing in pattern and disappeared into the clouds over the base which were from 3,000 ft. up to 9,500 ft. with moderate to severe icing conditions reported at about 7,000 ft. A/C 026 was not seen nor heard from after entering clouds."

Duane and his crewmen were officially declared dead a few weeks later.

Duane was posthumously promoted to first lieutenant. Among his decorations are the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. He was 20 years old.

"A proud heritage, a tradition of honor, and a legacy of valor"

You may have the impression that Duane's story has been handed down through our family like a proud heirloom. However, until I wrote this commentary, Duane's story has remained inexplicably dormant in my family for 70 years.

Growing up, no one in my family ever talked about the war. My father kept a picture of Duane and the Purple Heart hidden in the back of an unimportant drawer somewhere he thought no one would ever look. He never talked about Duane, or even his own time in the service.

We never met our two uncles who might have told us about Duane.
Duane left a legacy of valor. His story should have been passed down through our family with honor, dignity and pride.

Growing up in a house where any artifacts of military service were hidden, I had no idea I belonged to a family with a tradition of military service.

While growing up, being in the military never crossed my mind. Yet, in my final year of college, when Desert Shield was escalating quickly into Desert Storm, I felt the undeniable pull to service.

I did something my family found completely incomprehensible: I joined the armed forces. On Jan. 27, 1991, as the air war raged over Baghdad, I reported to basic training. A few years later, my sister joined the Navy. Although our enlistments did not break the family silence, we in fact had continued tradition.

Hidden from my brother, sister and me for decades, Duane's story, and with it the records of his brothers' service, revealed itself to us last year.

We're very grateful to the war archivists, genealogists, history buffs, museum curators, and others who made their records and photos available online, which revealed our family's military service and allowed us to piece together the story of Duane's combat flying hours and final flight. For us, it's provided closure and a great sense of pride.

For many years, heritage was a warm but abstract concept in my life. Recounted on national holidays, lyricized in martial music, prominently featured in formal ceremonies, I was proud to honor and respect it, but I had no personal connection.

This summer's revelations changed all that. My dad and his brothers answered our nation's call in a time of war. They served their country honorably.

Duane defended his country with his life.