Taylor Swift honors grandfather’s WWII service with song ‘epiphany’

Tessa Robinson
Dec 19, 2023 3:51 PM PST
8 minute read
A photo of Taylor Swift performing and a photo of Marines storming a beach during WWII

LEFT: Taylor Swift performs onstage during “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” at Estadio Olimpico Nilton Santos on November 17, 2023 in Rio de Janeiro (Photo by Buda Mendes/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management ). RIGHT: August 1942: American marines coming ashore from landing craft at Guadalcanal. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

SUMMARY

Taylor Swift’s grandfather didn’t like to talk about his service, which she attributed to the atrocities he’d seen. She found the words he didn’t have.

They say if you can find a way to do what you love and get paid doing it, you'll never work a day in your life. There are few things I love more than We Are The Mighty and Taylor Swift (I have a tween daughter, after all). Consequently, I constantly find myself looking for ways to justify all the reading I do about her and one of my favorite Chiefs' players, Travis Kelce (I mean, I am from Kansas City... this tracks). We recently brought you this excellent piece about Kelce's grandfather being shot down three times during WWII.

Today, while road-tripping for the holidays, my kids and I were listening to TayTay's album, Folklore, when the 13th song, "epiphany," (stylized in all lowercase) came on. It's a gorgeous, lyrical story about going to war and wanting a reprieve when it's over. Written during the height of the pandemic in 2020, the song pays homage to Swift's grandfather's WWII service and to the frontline workers of COVID-19.

Swift discusses her grandfather's service

In a December 2020 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Swift talked about the song and about her paternal grandfather, Archie "Dean" Swift. When asked what his story meant to her personally, Swift responded, "I wanted to write about him for awhile. 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.'

"My dad and his brothers always kind of imagined that what he had experienced was really awful and traumatic and that he'd seen a lot of terrible things. So when they did research, they learned that he had fought at the Battles of Guadalcanal, at Cape Gloucester, at Talasea, at Okinawa. He had seen a lot of heavy fire and casualties—all of the things that nightmares are made of. He was one of the first people to sign up for the war. But you know, these are things that you can only imagine that a lot of people in that generation didn't speak about because, a) they didn't want people that they came home to to worry about them, and b) it just was so bad that it was the actual definition of unspeakable."

Archie Swift/public domain

Swift felt a strong tie-in between her grandfather's service and the pandemic's frontline workers. She told EW, "I mean, you just immediately think of the health workers who are putting their lives on the line—and oftentimes losing their lives. If they make it out of this, if they see the other side of it, there's going to be a lot of trauma that comes with that; there's going to be things that they witnessed that they will never be able to un-see. And that was the connection that I drew. I did a lot of research on my grandfather in the beginning of quarantine, and it hit me very quickly that we've got a version of that trauma happening right now in our hospitals."

The lyrics to "epiphany" are haunting:

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

With you, I serve
With you, I fall down, down
Watch you breathe in
Watch you breathing out, out

Something med school did not cover
Someone's daughter, someone's mother
Holds your hand through plastic now
"Doc, I think she's crashing out"
And some things you just can't speak about

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

With you, I serve
With you, I fall down, down (down)
Watch you breathe in
Watch you breathing out, out

With you, I serve
With you, I fall down (down), down (down)
Watch you breathe in
Watch you breathing out (out), out

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

The connection Swift makes is apparent. It's such a beautiful, sad juxtaposition of what it means to serve and the trauma that comes with it. It's about not really knowing what you're getting into and how to process what you've seen. Clearly, no amount of training can adequately prepare you for what it will be like on the front lines of any war - whether that's watching a battle buddy or a patient take their last breath.

United States Marines land in shallow coastal waters at Tulagi Island. This was on the first day of the Battle of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 7th August 1942. (Photo by U.S. Navy/Getty Images)

Archie "Dean" Swift's military service:

Both of Swift's grandfathers served. The National Archives recently documented their military service in their blog, the Text Message. Katherine Terry, archives technician at the National Archives at St. Louis, wrote a meticulously and exhaustively researched piece. In it, she writes about Dean:

On May 3, 1938, as the world was teetering on the brink of another cataclysmic war, [Archie] ‘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. 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. 

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.

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.”

Cape Gloucester airdrome during pre-invasion bombing. Public Domain.

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.

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.

Contemporary map showing the final actions of the Battle of Guadalcanal, 22 January to 10 February 1943. US NAVY/Public Domain

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, 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.

A 155mm Howitzer M1 of the 5th Marine Division, V Amphibious Corps, United States Marine Corps, fires. During the Battle of Iwo Jima on 24th February 1945 on the island of Iwo Jima, Japan. (Photo by INP/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

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 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.

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.”

Correspondingly, the National Archives' Terry also profiles Swift's other grandfather, Robert Bruce Finlay. Please visit the Text Message to read both profiles in their entirety.

The Battle of Guadalcanal

Undoubtedly, Guadalcanal was a pivotal battle in the war, and certainly full of brutality. In this great piece, WATM's Logan Nye writes: "During the seven months of the Guadalcanal campaign, 60,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers killed about 20,000 of the 31,000 Japanese troops on the island. The main objective of the fighting was a tiny airstrip the Japanese were building at the western end of Guadalcanal. The airstrip, later named Henderson Field, would become an important launching point for Allied air attacks during the Pacific island-hopping campaign. Scholars and history enthusiasts can tell you why troops fought there. However, only someone who was actually there can truly describe what it was like to storm the island. Hear, first-hand, a Marine's experience at Guadalcanal:"

To learn more about the Battle of Guadalcanal, visit: Why the Battle of Guadalcanal was a turning point in WWII.

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