Today’s post was written by Katherine Terry, archives technician at the National Archives at St. Louis
Keep your helmet, keep your life, son
Just a flesh wound, here’s your rifle
Crawling up the beaches now
“Sir, I think he’s bleeding out”
And some things you just can’t speak about
In the vast landscape of pop culture, few artists of the 21st century have left an indelible mark quite like Taylor Swift. Beyond her chart-topping hits (“Anti-Hero,” “Shake It Off,” and “Love Story,” to name a few) and record-breaking albums, Swift’s influence extends far beyond the realm of music. Often hailed as an unparalleled marketing genius and a savvy businesswoman, she has transformed her name into a powerful brand that permeates various aspects of society. Swift’s journey in the music industry has not only redefined the rules but has also challenged industry norms, setting a precedent for artists’ rights and leaving a lasting impact on the global economy.
Taylor Swift’s fame and commercial success are not the only noteworthy aspects of her story. Delving deeper into her history, you find a lesser-known aspect of Taylor Swift’s life: a deep connection to her grandfathers, who embarked on their own extraordinary journeys as military officers during World War II. These two men, Archie Dean Swift, Jr. and Robert Bruce Finlay, shaped the fabric of history through their service and would eventually find their lives entwined through the marriage of their respective son and daughter.
Through records in the National Archives’ holdings, we’ll explore the Marine Corp service of Lt. Col. Swift and Ensign Finlay’s Naval and Coast Guard service. By examining their military personnel records, we hope to shed light on the significant contributions they made during the war and gain insight into the lives they led. These records not only provide a glimpse into the reality of WWII, but also reveal their individual journeys, filled with sacrifice and bravery. Thankfully, both survived their time serving during one of the most tempestuous periods of human history, and would eventually become grandparents to one of today’s most influential musical artists.
“He never talked about [his service], not with his sons, not with his wife. Nobody got to hear about what happened there. So I tried to imagine what would happen in order to make you never be able to speak about something.”
– Taylor Swift, Folklore: The Long Pond Sessions
Archie Dean Swift, Jr. was born in Ridgeway, Pennsylvania on December 20, 1914, the third child of Archie D. Swift and Bernice M. Thompson. He graduated from The Haverford School, a private K-12 all-boys school, then attended Princeton University for 2 1/2 years before withdrawing in 1935 at 20 years old. He became employed with the Central Penn National Bank in June 1935, and married Barbara Godley before enlisting on May 3, 1938 with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
On May 3, 1938, as the world was teetering on the brink of another cataclysmic war, ‘Dean’ Swift enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He became a part of the 7th Battalion, Battery B, marking the official commencement of his military service. Dean’s record shows a swift rise (forgive the belabored and old pun) as his “smart military appearance” and “efficient, obedient” work ethic quickly earned him the rank of Corporal. This promotion came just four months after enlisting, and it was almost exactly one year prior to the fateful invasion of Poland by Germany that marked the beginning of World War II.
Dean’s journey through the military continued, and he was called to active duty on multiple occasions. The world was transforming rapidly, and Dean was not far behind. His dedication and ability shone through, leading to his promotion to the officer rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He was assigned to the 7th battalion.
The year 1941 signaled the start of a significant chapter in Dean’s military service. He was appointed as a Battery Reconnaissance Officer in March. His days were marked by temporary duties at various locations, including Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He joined the HQ and Service Battery of the 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force (FMF), and served in various temporary roles across locations like the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Dean’s versatile talents led to roles like Assistant Battalion Reconnaissance Officer, where he played a crucial part in gathering and analyzing intelligence.
The Fleet Marine Force was responsible for maintaining the readiness of Marine units for deployment in the Pacific theater of World War II. These units played crucial roles in various Pacific campaigns, including the island-hopping strategy employed by the U.S. military in the Pacific. They provided artillery support to Marines engaged in intense battles against Japanese forces.
In the evolving landscape of military service, he became the Battery Executive Officer of Battery “K,” 11th Marines, 4th Battalion, 1st Marine Division, FMF. His role involved coordinating artillery support and managing the battery’s personnel. His commitment was unwavering as he played a crucial role in ensuring the readiness of the artillery unit and the preparedness of its crew.
December of 1941 was a trying time for Dean. While he continued to serve as Battery Executive Officer, he also faced illness, requiring treatment in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Marine Barracks, Parris Island, South Carolina. He also took some well-deserved leave during this period. It would be some of the only leave he would take during these wartime years.
Dean was involved in establishing a camp for the 4th Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division, FMF, and participating in amphibious force maneuvers. By March 1942, he was stationed at Marine Barracks, New River, North Carolina, and reassigned to Battery B. In his capacity as the Battalion Reconnaissance Officer, he was tasked with strategically gathering intelligence and ensuring the Marines were well-prepared for reconnaissance missions, a crucial function in the evolving world of water-based warfare. There was also a personal development in Dean’s life shown in his healthcare paperwork, in which he reported Rose D. Baldi as his new beneficiary. He had just recently wed Rose, his second wife, with whom he would eventually have three children: Archie III, Douglas, and Scott.
In April 1942, Dean embarked on a temporary promotion to Captain on May 8th. His journey continued into early 1943 with various roles in Carip Cable, Brisbane, and later at Victoria Park, Ballarat. In June 1943, he shifted to Headquarters & Service Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines. According to a document filed with his fitness reports, he “participated in landing operations and capture of Cape Gloucester Airdrome, New Britain Island, 26 December, 1943 [sic] until the area was secured.”
In January 1944, Dean found himself stationed at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, where he rejoined the combat group within the 1st Marine Division, FMF. This was a crucial period of time, as the Pacific theater of war was in full swing. Similar units were often involved in various operations to secure strategic locations.
February 1944 saw Dean continuing his assignment at Cape Gloucester, serving with the HQ and Service Battery. Given the tumultuous nature of the war in the Pacific, this was a time of intense activity and likely involved planning and executing operations against Japanese forces. By this point, the tide of the war had shifted in favor of the Allied forces, but intense combat still raged across the Pacific.
In July 1945, Dean joined the U.S. 8th 155mm Gun Battalion, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. These battalions were critical components of the Marine Corps’ artillery units during World War II. They were generally equipped with 155mm howitzers, which were powerful artillery pieces, similar to cannons, that were used for long-range bombardment. These howitzers could fire shells with a caliber of 155mm, which is approximately 6 inches. They were capable of both high-angle and low-angle fire, making them versatile in various combat situations.
After the Battle of Okinawa, which ended in June 1945, there was a need to secure and stabilize the island. Marine artillery units sometimes played a role in maintaining security and order during the initial stages of the occupation. There were many units involved in disarming and demilitarizing Japanese forces on the island, which was a standard procedure during the occupation of Japan’s former territories. There was significant damage to infrastructure on Okinawa, and some units assisted in reconstruction efforts. Other units in the region were on standby for any potential operations in the Pacific Theater, as the war with Japan was still ongoing until September 1945 when Japan officially surrendered.
In March of 1946, Dean was relieved from active duty. The responsibilities borne of World War II had dwindled. However, there were hints that this respite would not last. In a letter from a superior dated May 28, 1946, he is reminded that “your war-time training and experience, plus your civilian background, can be of great value to us, and we would like to feel free to call upon you for advice and assistance as the needs arise.” He would remain in the Inactive Reserve for only a year before those needs, in fact, arose.
On February 13, 1947, he was detached to Marine barracks at the Naval Base in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The plan was for him to serve as the Executive Officer over the HQ and Service Battery in the 1st 155 Howitzer Battalion. This type of unit generally handles administrative and logistical functions. Through the next few years and a promotion to Major in August 1947, he would exclusively perform administrative duties and active duty training. In other words, Dean imparted the knowledge and tools he’d learned during his own time to the new generation of soldiers. Come April 1950, he was once again assigned to inactive duty. He would remain on inactive duty this time until his retirement from the Marine Corps on July 1st, 1952.
In 1981, Dean Swift requested his medals from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), and (it appears, as the carbon paper is quite faded) was provided with the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal. Finally, four years after Dean’s death in 2002, his son Scott requested his father’s records, which became part of the history of the record itself. At the end of his short note, he adds a heartbreaking, “I wish he were here.”
I should’ve asked you questions
I should’ve asked you how to be
Asked you to write it down for me
Robert Finlay was born on November 8, 1920 at St. Ann’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio to Lance G. Finlay and Eleanor A. Mayer. What follows are his own words regarding his early life, found in his Navy Officer file:
“I attended The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa. and graduated with a diploma in Science on June 24th, 1939. During my last year there, I received my varsity letters in football and track and was a member of the senior governing committee. I was managing editor of the newspaper and severed [sic] on other various committees.
I am now a senior at the University of Virginia and expect to receive my Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering by the end of February 1944. I received my varsity letter in football, participated on the track team and am a member of the Engineering Council and Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity.
From Jan 1940 to July 1940 I worked as an advertising assistant for the Jenkins Value Co. in New York City.”
While Dean Swift’s records are exhaustive, detailing a dizzying array of movement and promotions across the years, Robert’s records are comparatively slender. Handling a couple of them, it is also evident that they are in pristine condition–as if no one has touched them in the 70 years since his discharge from service.
Robert joined the Coast Guard first. The photograph that greets you upon opening that jacket shows a serious-looking man of just 20 years old, with light eyes set in a still-youthfully soft face, and carefully styled hair coming together at his forehead with a slight widow’s peak. (Robert has an unusual number of photographs included with his records compared to other veterans of these services and this era; five were found in all.) The back of the photo is dated 7-1-41, the same date he signed his temporary enlistment contract of two months. He was ordered to spend that time at Northport Station in New York, though the exact nature of his duties remains elusive. After the two months had passed, he returned to civilian life.
Elsewhere, World War II was heating up, and the United States would soon be pulled into the fray. On December 7, 1941, Japan staged a surprise attack on American military installations in the Pacific. After the “date which will live in infamy,” the world as Americans knew it irrevocably changed.
Revisions to the Selective Training and Service Act on December 20, 1941, extended the eligibility for military service to encompass all men aged 20 to 44. Moreover, it mandated that all men ranging from 18 to 64 years old must register for potential military service. After volunteers were inducted, a lottery system established the order by which means men would be called. There were three lotteries, after which order numbers were based on birth dates.
On February 16, 1942, Robert signed up for the draft. Having not been selected by lottery, Robert completed an application for enlistment into the U.S. Navy on December 23, 1943. He wrote that his reason for enlistment was “WANT TO FIGHT.” He was formally enlisted in March 1944 at the Navy Recruiting Station in Jacksonville, Florida, to the Volunteer Reserve as an Aviation Cadet, intending to take flight training. This would traditionally lead to naval aviator designations and commission. His career as an enlisted man took him all over the southern and midwestern United States, from Dallas, Texas to Kansas City, Missouri.
Surprisingly, there is almost more to be learned about Robert Finlay in his Naval Aviation Training Jacket than in his military personnel files. He is described by a superior as “cheerful, loyal, cooperative” and it is said that he “imparts a steadying influence on his flight.” He trained in flying throughout much of 1945, and the scores given to him by instructors indicated that he was a solid student, if not exceptional. His own notes indicate that he feels similarly about his performance.
Eventually, he completed his primary training and was released from his enlisted position to take an officer role as Ensign in March 1946. In April 1946, Robert went into inactive status with the awards “World War II Victory” and “American Theatre” listed on his DD-214, or separation document.
(Incidentally, during this time in the Naval Reserve, Robert also served as assistant superintendent/superintendent with the Raymond Concrete Pile Company. He oversaw the construction of the “Chain of Rocks” Locks and Dam #27 in St. Louis, Missouri, which is located only a 16 minute drive from the National Archives facility where his military records are now permanently housed.)
Eventually, he and his family moved to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Because of limitations imposed on him by the needs of his work, he found it infeasible to continue flight training. He remained on inactive duty until his resignation on February 27, 1956. By this time, he was 35 years old and had been married for four years to Marjorie Moehlenkamp. Within the next two years, he would become father to daughters Alison and Andrea. Robert wrote in his resignation letter that he would ask to be released due to his “age, business, and family responsibilities.”
Only 20 minutes to sleep
But you dream of some epiphany
Just one single glimpse of relief
To make some sense of what you’ve seen
Archie Dean Swift’s military journey began in 1938 when he enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps. Meanwhile, Robert Bruce Finlay’s journey led him to the Coast Guard before he transitioned to the Navy Reserve. Dean’s meteoric rise through the ranks led him all over the world, seeing and experiencing the war from a front-row perspective few of us could imagine. Details about Robert’s service are comparatively limited, but his records remain a testament to his commitment to our country. Remarkably, their paths eventually converged through the marriage of their children.
Both men played integral roles in Taylor Swift’s life as her grandfathers, and their military service had a lasting impact on her. The title of this blog post is not fully accurate, as their stories resonate through her music and her deep appreciation for their sacrifice and dedication, particularly on the song “epiphany” from her 2020 album Folklore. She says in an interview with Entertainment Weekly,
“I wanted to write about [Dean] for a while. He died when I was very young, but my dad would always tell this story that the only thing that his dad would ever say about the war was when somebody would ask him, ‘Why do you have such a positive outlook on life?’ My grandfather would reply, ‘Well, I’m not supposed to be here. I shouldn’t be here.’”
Through military records and family stories, we gain insight not only into the legacy they left for future generations, but how these stories are reshaped and lived again in our own time. The existence of these military records is a remarkable stroke of historical fortune. The reality is that a cataclysmic fire at the NPRC had the potential to erase these invaluable glimpses into the past. The fire consumed a staggering 80% of Army records and 75% of Air Force records, effectively vanishing countless stories of commitments, tribulations, and sacrifices.
In a twist of fate, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps records narrowly evaded this blaze. The result: the rich and detailed accounts of Archie D. Swift, Robert B. Finlay, and countless others survived, bridging the chasm of time and offering an opportunity to understand their journeys through the annals of military history. These documents allow us to peer into the past, and they serve as a reminder that history’s footsteps are often perilously close to oblivion. Had the flames been even more indiscriminate, or either of these men served in the Army or Air Force, these vital narratives might have been lost.
The intertwining stories of Dean Swift and Robert Finlay shed light on these lesser-known aspects of Taylor Swift’s family history, underscoring that even well-known figures have untold narratives that contribute to a more complete understanding of their lives. It’s through stories like these, often hidden in dusty records and fading photographs, that we gain a richer understanding of the past. Institutions like the National Archives and Records Administration play a vital role in safeguarding said records and photographs for future generations, ensuring that the threads of our collective past remain unbroken and accessible. As we unravel the tales of our forebears, we uncover not only our shared past but also the secrets to our own journeys.
The records used in this blog are in the following series:
- Official Military Personnel Files, 1905-1998 (NAID 299715), RG 127: Records of the US Marine Corps
- Official Military Personnel Files, 1898-2004 (NAID 597218), RG 26: Records of the US Coast Guard
- Official Military Personnel Files, 1885-1998 (NAID 299693), RG 24: Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel
- Naval Aviation Training Jackets, 1914-1946 (NAID 38983110), RG 38: Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations
Special thanks to Sarah Law and Corey Stewart for lending their proofreading skills. If you would like to purchase digital copies of any of the records mentioned in this post, please email the National Archives at St. Louis at firstname.lastname@example.org. NARA’s most updated list of reproduction fees can be found here.