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What’s in a Photo?: Remembering the Life and Career of Maj Gen Leroy “Swede” Svendsen

  • Published
  • By Dr. Stephen Arionus, AFPC/HO
  • AFPC Public Affairs

Photographs of former AFPC senior leaders adorn the hallway outside the commander’s front office.[1] Among them is Maj Gen “Swede” Svendsen, commander of AFMPC from July 1977 – June 1980.[2] On February 14, 2022, he passed away at the age of 93.

During his 37-year career in the military, he served in three wars. A year after Pearl Harbor, a young Svendsen tried to enlist in the Marines but was turned away because he had not received his parents’ permission. Undeterred, he waited a year and enlisted in the Navy.[3] He would have to wait until the Korean War before seeing combat where he flew 114 bombing missions and served as a forward air controller.[4] However, it is his time in Vietnam for which he is most remembered. Svendsen served two tours (1963, 1965-66) with the 1st Air Commando Wing (precursor to AFSOC) where he flew over 100 strike missions. For his actions, he earned an election into the Air Commando Hall of Fame in 1966.[5] He later returned to Vietnam for his third tour as an assistant defense attaché and was one of the last Americans to leave Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975.[6]   

After another stint as defense attaché in Cairo, Maj Gen Svendsen assumed command of AFMPC in July 1977. During his tenure, he oversaw many important changes to the personnel world. Perhaps the most visible was his role in managing the changes to the Officer Effectiveness Reports (OER). In 1974, the Air Force switched to an officer promotion system that graded all officers on a scale from one to three. There were hard caps of 22% and 28% for the first two categories—known as controlled OERs.[7] In practice this meant, “promotion boards didn’t promote people with 3s,” said Maj Gen Svendsen.[8] He recalled, “a lot of people got out of the Air Force [during this period] and the OER was a major reason.”[9] The near universal disapproval of this system led the Air Staff to decontrol OERs by 1978. This change lead to more officers receives ones on their OERs. To combat rating inflation, raters’ rank and relative importance began to take on greater significance vis á vis officers’ evaluations.[10] Reflecting on this system, Maj Gen Svendsen understood the newer system had its faults but he believed it was a degree fairer than the one it replaced.[11]

Another delicate issue that Maj Gen Svendsen faced during his tenure at AFMPC had to do with POW/MIA (Prisoners of War/Missing in Action) Airmen from the Vietnam War. After the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, the US and the government in North Vietnam agreed to, among other things, a prisoner exchange. Between 12 February and 4 April 1973, the Air Force conducted dozens of flights repatriating 591 America POWs from Hanoi during Operation Homecoming. Many Americans believed that number was small given that the Nixon administration estimated there were at least 1,300 or 1,400 POW/MIA. The administration’s handling of the POW/MIA issue created confusion in the minds of family members hopeful to see their loved ones again and drew doubt in a public increasingly skeptical of pronouncements from Washington.[12] The acrimonious debate engendered over POW/MIA let behind in Vietnam continued for decades. Nevertheless, a 1993 Senate Select Committee concluded that, “there is, at this time, no compelling evidences that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.”[13]

It was within this context, that Gen Svendsen and Col Archie Gratch from AFMPC casualty oversaw the re-categorization of some Airmen from MIA to KIA status. Col Archie Gratch maintained the “corporate memory on every prisoner of war that we had in Vietnam” and “he re-categorized all those folks,” according to the AFMPC commander. Indeed, from Maj Gen Svendsen’s perspective, that was the easy part because AFMPC, then as now, executes its mission as objectively as possible. Moreover, according to Maj Gen Svendsen, Col Gratch could conduct his mission because “there was not, is not, a shred of evidence that any of those people are alive.”[14] The harder part was the emotional anguish with which the families faced amid the uncertainty of their loved ones fate. US statute governed the review process that provided the service secretaries the authority to determine a member’s status after a specified period. Normally, they delegated this authority to their respective Service Status Review Board. The board then reviewed each individual case and, unless contradictory evidence presented itself, declared the member deceased under Title 37, Section 555 (Presumptive Finding of Death) or Section 556 (Finding of Death). According to Ms. Sandra Kolb, Chief, Missing Person’s Branch, the vast majority of the Airmen in Vietnam fell under the former category.

During his time as commander, AFMPC also played a tertiary part in the ill-fated attempt to rescue the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran after the overthrow of the Shah (Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi) during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Presented with an array of options, President Jimmy Carter chose an ambitious, joint rescue operation named Operation Eagle Claw.  Maj Gen Svendsen argued that AFMPC’s advanced computer technology and the Air Force’s centralized assignment process allowed assignment teams to quickly find and deploy suitable personnel for the operation.[15] The mission entailed landing an Army Special Forces assault team 200 miles southeast of Tehran. From there they would board awaiting Navy RH-53D Sea Stallions, launched from the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf, to effect an assault of the US Embassy and other areas where the Iranians held the Americans hostage. An overly complex mission, lack of inter-service communication and coordination, sand storms, and bad luck ultimately led to the failure of Operation Eagle Claw. Only six of the eight Sea Stallions made it to the rendezvous point. Another went down to due to mechanical issues. This left five helicopters for the assault, one short of what on-the-ground commander, Col. Charles Beckwith, believed they needed. He recommended they abort the mission, which the White House approved a few hours later. While maneuvering for their egress, a helicopter blade clipped a fuel-laden EC-130 causing both aircraft to explode, killing five Airmen and three Marines. The commander then made the call to ditch the rest of the helicopters, pack everyone aboard the remaining C-130s, and fly back to Masirah Island.[16] Iran would later return the remains of the eight service members left behind. Although Operation Eagle Claw had been a disaster, it spurred the creation of US Special Operations Command in 1987.

In 1980, Maj Gen Svendsen became the first AFPC commander inducted into the Order of the Sword—an honor for which he was immensely proud.[17] He likely would not have received recognition from AFPC’s senior enlisted leaders had he not garnered the respect of the enlisted personnel under his command.

As we celebrate the life and career of a former commander—and get ready to say farewell to another who is set to retire—let’s take a moment to reflect on why we hang those pictures up in the commander’s hallway in the first place. In a recent interview I did with the Maj Gen Craige, he emphatically expressed to me the belief that any of the successes he may have had as AFPC’s commander were due in no small part to the teams of individuals he has had the good fortune to lead during his tenure.[18]

The photographs of former AFPC senior leaders are not only there to remember commanders from time past. They are a visual representation of AFPC’s distinguished history—a lineage that nearly dates back to the founding of the Air Force itself. That lineage is comprised of not only commanders who have led the organization over the years, but of the thousands of women and men who worked together toward a common purpose and, collectively, made AFPC what it is today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Special thanks to Ms. Sandra Kolb from AFPC Casualty whose expertise helped inform my understanding of the POW/MIA designation/identification process.

[2] Air Force Military Personnel Center.

[3] Sig Christensen, “’No Fear’ – Legendary Air Force commando Leroy ‘Swede’ Svendsen Thrived in the Presence of Danger,” San Antonio Express News, 7 April 2022.

[4] Maj Gen Leroy W. Svendsen, interview with Col David Scheiding, Air Force Historical Research Agency, 9-10 December 1985.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kyle Byard, Ben Malisow, Martin France, “Toward a Superior Promotion System,” Air & Space Power Journal, July-August 2012, pp. 24-43.

[8] Maj Gen Leroy W. Svendsen, interview with Col David Scheiding, Air Force Historical Research Agency, 9-10 December 1985.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kyle Byard, Ben Malisow, Martin France, “Toward a Superior Promotion System,” Air & Space Power Journal, July-August 2012, pp. 24-43.

[11] Maj Gen Leroy W. Svendsen, interview with Col David Scheiding, Air Force Historical Research Agency, 9-10 December 1985.

[12] Rick Perlstein, “The Enduring Cult of the Vietnam ‘Missing in Action,” The Nation, 3 December 2013.

[13] US Senate, “Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs,” 13 January 1993.

[14] Maj Gen Leroy W. Svendsen, interview with Col David Scheiding, Air Force Historical Research Agency, 9-10 December 1985.

[15] Maj Gen Leroy W. Svendsen, interview with Col David Scheiding, Air Force Historical Research Agency, 9-10 December 1985.

[16] Gregory Ball, “1980 – Operation Eagle Claw,” Air Force Historical Support Division, https://www.afhistory.af.mil/FAQs/Fact-Sheets/Article/458949/1980-operation-eagle-claw/ (accessed 28 April 2022).

[17] Maj Gen Leroy W. Svendsen, interview with Col David Scheiding, Air Force Historical Research Agency, 9-10 December 1985.

[18] Maj Gen Christopher Craige, interview with Stephen Arionus, AFPC/HO, 17 March 2022.