Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Betty Vanderwielen

Learning About China via the U.S. Army


November 9, 2017

Photo provided

Jerry Swanson, U.S. Army Specialist 4, Chinese Translator/Interpreter.

OVANDO – When Ovando resident Jerry Swanson talks about his years serving in the United States Army, he starts with flunking out of college and ends with a career as a college professor.

As Swanson tells the story, he spent two years at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) serving in the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC) while pursuing a degree in commerce. Finding the course work less and less interesting, he stopped going to classes, with the inevitable result he flunked out. It was then, in 1958, that he joined the U.S. Army.

After military basic training he took the standard Officer Candidate School test. He scored high and was slotted for training to become an officer. But Swanson said he had absolutely no interest in an officer path, so he was assigned to Army Language School instead.

Swanson said, "They told me if you accept this school you're never really out [of the Army]. We can call you back at any time for the rest of your life because we've invested a fortune in your education. We won't bother you until we really need it. But if we do need it, you're on the hook." Swanson added, "And of course, I was 19 so I said, 'sure.'"

Since the new session of language courses didn't start for 30 days, Swanson initially was sent to a holding company where he pulled kitchen patrol (KP) duty every other day.

"That was exhausting," he said. "But I knew it would pay off eventually."

Once he arrived at Language School, he was given the choice of learning Russian or Chinese. Swanson chose Chinese and spent the next 52 weeks studying the language. After graduation he received the official military designation Chinese Translator/Interpreter, and was sent to Okinawa, Japan, and later to Taiwan.

Swanson said, "I can't really talk about the mission. It was 'top secret cryptologic,' which at the time was the highest top-secret designation. But they were interested in the Chinese radar systems along the coast. And so we were involved in listening to that chatter."

As a by-product of his language training, Swanson developed a genuine interest in the Chinese people and their culture and began to study more extensively on his own. In addition to conversations with Chinese workers at the base where he was stationed and trips into Taipei during off-duty hours, Swanson also became friends with a First Lieutenant in the Chinese Air Force who wanted to improve his English. He and Swanson met at least once a week to help educate each other on the English/Chinese language and culture. The son of a Chinese General, the man was extremely well educated and had traveled all over China, learning all 35 dialects.

Explaining about dialects, Swanson said, "Somebody from Beijing can't understand someone from Hong Kong at all. So they communicate with Chinese characters. They'll write the character in the other person's hand."

After his discharge in 1962, Swanson returned to UIUC. He said he was surprised but pleased the university credited his education and experiences in the military as replacements for the two-year language requirement and several Liberal Arts electives. That expedited getting his Bachelor Degree in Philosophy.

The following year he was recalled by the Army and assigned to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md. His assignment was to translate radio intercepts from China during their 1962 war against India. To counteract pilfering of supplies, the Chinese sent, via short wave radio, manifests detailing the contents of each truck that was sent to the troop staging area.

Swanson said, "We knew how many chopsticks and the total level of supplies – everything from food to clothing to ammunitions to guns – everything. So we knew without question [the Chinese] had the resources to drive the Indians out of Tibet."

In August 1964, when he was no longer needed on that assignment, Swanson was discharged from the Army for the second time with the rank of Specialist 5. He again returned to the UIUC and got a Master Degree in Philosophy. After that, he went to the University of Washington where he earned a PhD in Chinese Language and Literature, majoring in the ancient period and the Chinese classics. The University of Vermont hired him to teach Chinese Philosophy. Later he took a position at the University of Montana where he taught courses in Buddhism and Chinese Thought.

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Jerry Swanson at his home in Ovando.

Thinking back over his journey from failed student to PhD professor, Swanson said, "My story is a little different in that I brought home something I could use. Many [military veterans] didn't."

He said, "Joining the Army and going to Language School was one of the better things I've done in my life – apart from marrying Martha."

Summing up his associations with the Chinese people, Swanson said, "The Chinese are very generous. They are very self-assured in their culture. They have a great poetic tradition and a great written tradition. When an American – especially an American – took an interest in their culture, they just fell over backwards because they knew their culture was deep and when they saw someone wanting to study it, they were really very generous with their time. They liked Americans. They thought we were generous. They also thought we were naïve – 'young-souled.'"


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