Peyton Swope didn’t know what she’d found at first. In 2017, she was walking along the beach of Drayton Harbor near her home when her dog Lexi grabbed something on the shore.
“I didn’t know what they were at first. I just thought, ‘These are weird,’” Swope remembers. “I took them back and showed them to my dad, and he told me that they were dog tags.”
It turned out these weren’t just any tags. Despite being in great shape, they belonged to a World War II veteran who had been dead for over 50 years. Swope and her dog had discovered a piece of Pacific Northwest history.
Private investigator Karl Swope, Peyton’s father, began searching for the owner of the dog tags, a soldier named Verne Swainson.
“I thought maybe it was someone local here who they belonged to,” Karl said.
After a database search provided a fruitless response, a Google search finally yielded an answer: Verne Swainson could be found buried beneath a headstone located at Greenacres Memorial Park in Ferndale. He had died in 1966.
A career Navy man
“I remember him as a little kid because the uniform was impressive,” said Marv Swainson, who recalls being four years old when his uncle Verne stopped by his home in Chicago while on leave.
According to Verne Swainson’s surviving relatives – a handful of nieces and nephews – he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at a young age to provide for his family during the Great Depression.
His older brother Norman had done the same thing a year and a half prior. Marv remembers his father Norman memorizing the smallest line of an eye chart and telling it to Verne, who had poor eyesight and wouldn’t have been able to enlist without knowing what the chart said.
According to public records requested from the National Archives, Verne Swainson’s place of entry was Indianapolis in 1933. Depending on the time of year, he would have been 18 or 19.
Verne attained the rank of chief petty officer, according to Marv. He was a war photographer, a profession listed on his marriage certificate, but Marv doesn’t remember his uncle ever carrying a camera around after WWII.
Military records indicate that Verne Swainson attended a 22-week class during his service at the Naval School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida.
According to the family, Verne flew on two bombers that were downed by enemy fire in the European and Pacific theaters of WWII. He evaded both capture and serious injury.
Another family story recalls him being in Pearl Harbor on several occasions. He was reportedly aboard a ship departing from Pearl Harbor the night before the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. His family didn’t hear from him for weeks and worried about his safety.
Many of these stories, coming directly from Swainson’s family, are unable to be corroborated with military records. “We can’t say if this stuff is true or not. It’s just family memories,” said Suzanne Rogers, Swainson’s niece.
Several muster rolls and public records obtained from the National Archives confirm Swainson’s status as being aboard a series of ships bound for different locations during WWII, but these do not indicate which battles or where exactly Swainson was during the war. Some of these ships include the U.S.S. Manley, the U.S.S. Argonne and the U.S.S. Brooklyn.
Swainson’s place of separation was the Photographic Squadron 61 in San Diego in 1954. His decorations and awards included the National Defense Service Medal, Navy Unit Commendation, Air Crew Insignia, World War II Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal and Good Conduct Medal.
Finding a home
Verne Swainson’s dog tags were sent to his niece Suzanne Rogers upon request of her brother, Jim Swainson, whom Karl Swope had located in Alaska as one of Verne’s surviving relatives.
Rogers, a board member of the local historical society in Ellensburg, was shocked to discover them in perfect condition. She’s grateful to Peyton Swope, who found her uncle’s dog tags.
“I don’t know whether she realizes it, but she did a lot,” Rogers said.
She decided to donate the dog tags to Kittitas County Historical Museum for safekeeping, hoping someday someone would be interested in learning about her preserved family history.
When she received them, Kittitas County Historical Museum director Sadie Thayer began looking for a connection to military or heritage museums. At a Washington Museum Association conference in Bellingham the previous summer, she had spoken with collections manager Fred Poyner IV of the National Nordic Museum in Seattle. Since Swainson hailed from a family of Icelandic immigrants, Thayer determined that it was appropriate for this museum to be chosen as the final resting place for his dog tags.
“Museums are really open to items, and all it takes is an ask,” Thayer said. “Most museums will help to find a home for an item.”
The dog tags will be on display at the National Nordic Museum from February 22 to April 12, 2020 as part of a New Featured Collections exhibition in their Fjord Hall gallery.
A retirement cut short
According to military records, Swainson was active in the Navy from 1933 to 1954. His service was reserve from 1954 to 1964, meaning he officially retired shortly before his death in 1966. He was stationed at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station from 1949 to 1951.
He then moved to Blaine where his parents lived, his nephew Marv said, and owned a bar on the wharf with his second wife, Marguerite.
Swainson’s estate paperwork indicates that he owned shares in the Harbor Café with his wife and sold them in December 1965 to three other couples: Eythor and Margaret Westman, Leif and Dena Andersen and Carl and Dorothy Berg.
The Harbor Café was a restaurant and bar located at Blaine Harbor. It closed permanently in the early 2000s.
Marv Swainson, a retired dentist now living in Yakima, remembers visiting Blaine three or four times as a teenager with his family and going fishing with his uncle Verne on the gillnet boat that Verne purchased in his retirement.
“I remember he spread the net out somewhere in the bay, and he fished all night,” Marv said. “That was his routine.”
On one of these nights, Verne dropped part of a coffee pot overboard, and they watched it sink into the depths.
“I have a feeling that’s probably what happened to his dog tags,” Marv said. “He probably dropped them out in the water there and they washed up on the shore at some point.”
While fishing commercially and working for a construction company in Alaska, Verne Swainson suffered his second heart attack and died at the age of 51. Marv remembers driving up for the funeral in Whatcom County and meeting several family members he had never seen before, “a bunch of Icelanders” from Winnipeg.
As a family, Marv said the Swainsons would often play bridge and chess when they visited Verne in Blaine. Marv remembers his uncle being a “happy-go-lucky kind of guy.” Rogers recalls that “he was a lot of fun, a great storyteller.”