No happy ever after
There was no happy ever after for Jim and Alice Muri, and for Hank and Edna Swartz. The whims of war saw to that.
On April 6, 1942, Hank, now a second lieutenant who flew out of Port Moresby in New Guinea, got orders for his first combat mission. He and his gunner, Sgt. John J. Stephenson, another Montanan, took off in their Army A-24 dive bomber. Their plane and three other A-24s, escorted by six P-40E Kitty Hawks from the Royal Australian Air Force, attacked the Japanese stronghold of Lae on the opposite side of New Guinea.
It was Swartz’ and Stephenson’s last mission. They were seen diving towards an anti-aircraft gun position. No one saw the dive bomber go down or crash. Japanese Zeros probably intercepted and shot down their plane.
The Montanans were declared missing on April 7, 1942, but it was wasn’t until months after the war ended that their agonized families in Montana and California got the official word. Stephenson was declared killed in action on November 19, 1945, and Swartz’ KIA declaration came a month later. Neither man’s body was ever found. They are memorialized along with other Allied casualties of the war in the Pacific in Manilla.
The news was devastating to Jim and Alice. Jim held hope for a while that Hank had gone down safely in the jungle and would walk out. Jim briefly clung to the idea that if the Army kept him flying in the Pacific, he might get a chance to search for his friend.
It was not to be. After Jim recovered from his harrowing Midway flight, for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army assigned him to Eglin Field in Florida. He spent about 1-1/2 years there as commander of the torpedo training school. He finishing the war as base commander in Watertown, S.D.
And Edna Swartz? She was pregnant when her husband was sent to the Philippines. In 1942, she gave birth to their son, also named Henry and nicknamed “Little Hank” by the two families.
Edna remarried and, according to Craig’s brother, Leonard Swartz, moved with her second husband to Nebraska. Leonard said he last saw his cousin, adopted by his stepfather and now named Henry Robertson, sometime around 1990 when he, Leonard, was in the Army and came through Omaha on official basis.
Meanwhile, when I began researching Jim Muri’s life story, I posted a request to milescity.com, a site devoted to Miles City topics. I asked if anyone had any stories about Hank Swartz to share. That’s how I met Craig. Keenly interested in his Eastern Montana roots, Craig regularly visited the site. He saw my post and replied.
We talked several times on the phone and struck up a friendship. On one of Craig’s trucking runs to Bozeman a couple years ago, my wife and I caught up with him in the parking lot of his company. He got out of his truck with a box containing photos, newspaper clips and other material related to the uncle, Hank Swartz, he never net.
The collection contained a real gem, Hank’s wartime diary, starting in early spring 1942. The last entry was Easter Monday, April 6, 1942. Hank died the next day.
Leonard said he and his brothers were proud of Craig, who they called their baby brother, for how he overcame obstacles in his life. Craig was a high school dropout, but he later earned a GED, which Leonard said involved more rigor because of mandatory tests than what many traditional graduates display.
“He had a lot of street smarts. It was remarkable what real world intelligence he had,” Leonard said.
Craig worked in the wood products industry in more for three decades, holding down one of the best-paying jobs with generous health care benefits to be found in the area. When those plants shut down, Craig was forced to make a career change and ended up driving Montana and Idaho roads to deliver building materials.
Now I have a complimentary copy of “Midway Bravery,” intended for Craig and signed for him, that must find a new recipient. Leonard and I will work out details for getting that book to a new “home.”
RIP, Craig. If I didn’t say it adequately when you were alive, thank you for your invaluable help. May you find peace knowing that when you took care to preserve artifacts of your uncle’s life, that helped me make a new generation of readers aware of his sacrifice.