Sunday, January 17, 2016

Stories of War: WWII veteran Gene Sweeney reflects on lessons learned as Navy pilot

Editor's Note
This story is a continuation of a Kokomo Tribune effort to record the memories of area veterans who served during World War II. Of the 16 million men and women who served during this time, fewer than 1 million remain living. The KT is also collecting documents, photographs, audio and video, letters and other memorabilia from each veteran we interview. If you would like to share your story of service, please contact City Editor Jill Bond at or by phone at 765-454-8578.

Veteran Gene Sweeney flew planes in the Navy during World War II. He's pictured here on Tuesday, January 12, 2016. 

Gene Sweeney was in naval aviation during World War II.

World War II veteran Gene Sweeney (right).

Gene Sweeney has tried to take advantage of the opportunities in front of him, and at the age of 19, that meant enlisting in the Navy’s aviation program, a venture that would take him around the country and put him in the pilot’s seat for the first time in his life.

Sweeney, 92, who retired to Kokomo in 2003, joined the Navy in 1943. He served for three years as World War II was winding down, completing training in five cities across the country. He was commissioned and received his pilot wings in 1945 in Corpus Christi, Texas, and then began training cadet pilots at the Naval Air Station in Glenview, Illinois, near where Sweeney is originally from. In 1946, he was placed on inactive reserve for three years and made the transition back to civilian life.

“Fortunately I spent most of my time in the continental United States. I got out and did a lot of flying along the Gulf of Mexico during the latter years,” he said, easily recalling dates and events that happened decades earlier. “I wasn’t commissioned until 1945 in June, so I kind of got in on the end of the war. Things were winding down.”

A sense of duty to serve his country prompted Sweeney to enlist in the Navy. At that time, people saw military service as a natural step for young men sorting out what to do with their lives.

“Those of us who served, I think we figured that we got in and did our time and got out and now we have to get back to normal life,” Sweeney said. “Maybe it was easier in my situation than it would have been for somebody who didn’t have it as good as I had it. I look at it as a training experience, an educational experience and I have no regrets about it. I was ready and willing to serve, and I did so.”

Learning to fly

In 1942, as a college student in Missouri, Sweeney knew his draft number was coming up, so he decided to apply for the Navy’s aviation program when he was home in the Chicago area for Thanksgiving break that year. He then enrolled at Western Michigan University for a semester to complete some “preflight” coursework. At that time, the aviation program required prospective pilots to have two years of college experience before enlisting, so Sweeney was deferred from being drafted until July 1943.

“I had wanted to fly and I guess fight for the country, so to speak, so that’s why I got into the aviation cadet program,” he said. “I didn’t have any flying experience before.”

Sweeney started his aviation cadet training at DePauw University in Greencastle, then headed out to Ogden, Utah, for more training at Webster State University and a War Training Service Center there.

That was the first time Sweeney flew a plane on his own, practicing in the Piper Cub aircraft that were popular in the military at that time. From Ogden, Utah, Sweeney and the other 12 to 15 aviation cadets in his “flight” moved on to St. Mary’s College of California and then the University of Oklahoma.

Sweeney says he developed close friendships with his fellow cadet pilots during the training, though they lost touch a few years after being discharged.

“You get into things like formation flying and gunnery runs and that sort of thing,” he said. “You kind of get to the point where you know what the other guy is going to be doing. If he’s flying on your wing and you’re going into some maneuvers, it’s good to know he also has had the training and is able to do the right things.”

Sweeney got in a car accident in Corpus Christi, Texas, that delayed his training, but finally he was commissioned in June 1945. He went through “pre-operational” training flying different types of aircraft, and his favorite plane to fly was the SBD dive bomber.

“We had regular flight duties, but they weren’t necessarily missions,” he explained. “We did a lot of surveillance work. The Nazis were bringing in German submarines and coming into the gulf in World War II and actually trying to disrupt shipping and attack the American ships. We didn’t have a lot of Naval ships in the gulf. There were a few, but the Nazis were always trying to make headlines and take advantage of that.”

Being a Navy pilot

Navy pilots would try to locate and track the Nazi submarines to make sure they weren’t actively attacking.

“We dropped a few depth charges (bombs set to go off under the surface) and so on to get after them,” Sweeney said. “I don’t think we ever really destroyed anything, but we did get them out of the gulf area.”

He recalls one time he noticed the wake caused by a submarine’s periscope above the surface of the water and following the submarine. He didn’t have any weapons on his plane at that time, so he tracked the submarine and called for back-up.

“I fortunately didn’t really see any combat. It was getting near the end of the war and things were winding down. Those who did stay on – there were a few – they wound up getting into the Korean War if they stayed long enough,” Sweeney said. “We got a good idea about what was going on and the fact that we were losing men. We knew we needed to get out of there. Our biggest opponent was the Japanese. In the years I was going through the training, the Japanese became known for their kamikaze, flying their own aircraft right into our ships to try to sink them that way.”

Sweeney was selected for basic flight training to become a cadet instructor and spent six weeks at the Naval Air Station in New Orleans. His cross-country travels came full circle at that point when he was stationed back in the Chicago area at Glenview Naval Air Station to lead cadets. Safety was the focus of that stage of their training, as they practiced the three-point landings they would have to do on Navy aircraft carriers.

“All the procedures and everything we were teaching had to do with safety in one way or another,” he said. “With flying in the Navy, for the single engine that we were, it was boarding carriers, landing on carriers and taking off of carriers. There were all these situations there that as a pilot you had to become aware of.”

Sweeney got the chance to leave active duty in the fall of 1946 and took it. With World War II ending, the Navy suddenly had more pilots than it could use, so Sweeney headed back to civilian life.

“Finally the war did get over and a lot of people had to pick up the pieces when they came home,” he said.

Returning to civilian life

The reception for veterans returning from World War II was warm, Sweeney felt, but he saw that change as the Vietnam War waged on from the ‘50s to ‘70s.

“The general public didn’t take too kindly to the [Vietnam] War,” he said. “There was a different attitude [during World War II]. I don’t think there was a lack of respect on my part and the people I associated with. I don’t think we liked the idea of a war over there, but at least we could accept it for what it was. … When we were coming back from the World War II service, there was a greater effect of patriotism. As a veteran coming back, I think we were more honored than some of the ones coming back from Vietnam.”

By the time he got out of the Navy, Sweeney’s family had moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, so he went to live with his parents there while getting re-acclimated after his service. He ended up enrolling at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and lived in a private residence set aside for himself and five other veterans. Sweeney found out a girl from his hometown, Anita, also was attending Lawrence University, so they reconnected and ended up getting married in 1947.

After another year at Lawrence University, the newlyweds moved back to the Chicago area. Sweeney finally completed his degree in business and industrial management at what was then known as Aurora College in Chicago. He started working as a mechanical engineer, which brought his family – including his four children at that point – to Kokomo in 1967. They moved away to Cincinnati, Ohio, and Indianapolis before returning to Kokomo in 2003 when Sweeney retired; his daughter and her husband have taught in Kokomo for decades. Anita passed away in 2006 after 59 years of marriage to Gene.

Now, Sweeney spends nearly every morning getting coffee with a group of five or six veterans at McDonald’s. They talk about changes over the years in the various requirements to enlist in different branches of the military, what the training is like and what kind of educational opportunities servicemen and woman receive.

Sweeney’s home in the Westbrook neighborhood just south of Kokomo High School is full of family photos, and he has well-kept scrapbooks documenting his time in the military as well as every phase of his life.

“I have no regrets of course at this late stage in my life,” he said. “I look back and think [the Navy] was a very good experience. The training was good, and I appreciated the opportunity. It worked out well for me.”

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