Buried in Time

If you could have just five more minutes with someone, who would you spend them with? Do you have a family member you miss who you wish could tell you one more fascinating story about their life? Whether you have had the privilege of knowing family members from previous generations or not, they have likely built and left a unique legacy and history in you. Do you ever wonder how much your personality is like your great great-grandfather’s? Or maybe if you look like your great-aunt?

Tracie Reveal Shipman, who many Frisco residents recognize as a former mayor pro-tem and current Visit Frisco board member, recently received some amazing news about her late uncle, Russell Dale Swaim, a World War II medic. He passed in 2005, but sometime after that, a boy found Mr. Swaim’s dog tag, frozen in time, buried beneath dirt and foliage in the jungles of Saipan, Northern Marina Islands. When the tag was found, it was just barely exposed on the jungle floor in an area where the Army had set up field facilities following the capture of Mount Tapochau. The site is in a valley between the Purple Heart Ridge and Death Valley, both of which were points of heavy fighting during the war. However, at the time the boy discovered the historical artifact, his family did not know how to track down the owner or the owner’s surviving family members.

Mr. Swaim was a medic in the Army, but, Ms. Shipman says, “He never talked about it to us. This was not a story he would tell. He was reserved that way. He only opened up about it to my son for a school project. It was then that he first talked about being shipped to Saipan for the war. Even though the medics had someone with them who was armed for protection, he said that it was still terrifying. Dale would triage the wounded on site and out on the lines, treating the soldiers as they were taking on direct fire.”

When Mr. Swaim returned from the war, he married Ms. Shipman’s aunt, Jeanie, and they raised one son, Terry, who served in Vietnam. While there, the Swaims’ son was struck with Agent Orange (an herbicide and defoliant chemical known for its use by the U.S. Military as part of its herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War) and suffered the rest of his life before dying young. 

Once back in Frankton, Mr. Swaim started working for the town’s water department. “He was a civil servant and his service influenced me,” Ms. Shipman shares. He also ran his own plumbing business and Mrs. Swaim was the bookkeeper.

“Growing up, my aunt and uncle were a big part of our lives. We were with them every holiday, nearly every weekend,” Ms. Shipman remembers. “Some of my favorite memories of him happened when we would play Old Maid cards together. I would set him up in the kitchen next to the window so I could see the reflection of his cards in the window. I realized later he knew I could see his cards. He did not care. He wanted me to win. It was one of the best parts of my childhood.”

When Mrs. Swaim developed Alzheimer’s, Mr. Swaim took care of her until the day he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 82. He lived for a month in the hospital before passing away. Mrs. Swaim, who had been moved to an assisted living facility near the hospital, passed away less than 60 days later. “This partnership and relationship that had lasted so long, to go so quickly together, says a lot about kind of man he was,” Ms. Shipman shares.

After the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Saipan, Tyrell Pauling, an employee of the Hyatt Regency Saipan, had a conversation with his co-worker who revealed her son had found a dog tag several years before and had not had any luck finding its owner. He knew of a group that helps connect people with artifacts and offered to assist in searching for its rightful owner. This is when Mr. Swaim’s tag came into his possession. Mr. Pauling contacted Francesca Cumero of the Angelo’s Angels WWII Dog Tag Return Project. Ms. Cumero assisted by sending genealogical and grave information beginning on June 18, 2014. Mr. Pauling followed up as best as possible on several leads over the course of the next 19 months. 

The most promising lead connected Mr. Swaim’s address in Frankton to a potential relative, Connie Cook, who had moved into his home in 2005. Ms. Shipman’s parents had inherited the home and her sister, Ms. Cook, lived there for a year before her accidental death in 2006. After Ms. Shipman’s father died in March 2007, her mom sold the Frankton house. Sadly, the lead grew cold once records showed that Mr. Swaim’s last known relative, Ms. Shipman’s mom, Margo, had died in 2009.

Undeterred, a woman from the Dog Tag Return Project tracked down Ms. Cook’s children, who had moved in with their paternal grandparents after their mother’s death. The children were sent a letter about the discovery, containing a pencil rubbing of the tag, confirming it was his. Their grandfather texted Ms. Shipman to tell her someone found her uncle’s tags in Saipan. She contacted Mr. Pauling via email and said she was the niece of Mr. Swaim. She provided him with a picture of her uncle and more information.

What makes this impossible tale of discovery even more interesting? When Mr. Swaim’s dog tag was typed, his name was spelled incorrectly, making it even more farfetched that his family was notified of the discovery, thousands of miles away, with different last names.

Sometimes, there is a lot of effort required to honor someone’s history. Ms. Shipman says, “Once they found us, they could have packaged up the dog tag and sent it to us, but, in Saipan, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is grateful to those who saved their island. They made the effort to create a special medallion for those who served.” After tracking the family down, Mr. Pauling informed her there would likely be a special ceremony. He contacted their local judge and arranged that the group would have a ceremony over Skype. The judge would then show them the tag and special medallion and the artifacts would be mailed over. Unfortunately, due to a series of events, this window of opportunity was lost, but left room for an even more special celebration to be held in Frisco months later.

On September 13, the much-anticipated ceremony was held at the Veterans Memorial at Frisco Commons Park. Ms. Shipman met with Ed Tudor, the commander of the Saipan VFW, after he offered to personally deliver the dog tag and medallion while visiting the U.S. Ms. Shipman was also touched that friends, community members and local media showed up to witness this amazing moment in history for themselves. She brought a picture of her uncle in his Army uniform, a flag from his funeral and his Bible that contained family information. It was truly a day no one will soon forget.

After the amazing discovery was made, Ms. Shipman shares that it was “sweet, but bittersweet. I would have loved for my parents to be the ones to get the letter. I wish the tags had been found before Dale passed in 2005. I get to be the lucky one who gets the tags and I am so thankful someone took the time to find us.” She adds, “Take advantage of asking people about their stories while they are still here. When Uncle Dale was in his seventies, he would jump online and want to have a conversation with me while I was working. We would have 15 minutes back and forth and I would have to go. Now, I would give anything to have a 15-minute conversation with him again. Hear people’s stories and make them a priority. When they are gone, they are gone.” 

Through the amazing discovery of this family heirloom, a reconciliation has occurred between Ms. Shipman and her dad’s youngest brother — her only living relative from that generation. After being estranged for some time, she says she realized this was her last family member. “I reached out and reconnected with them. This discovery was the catalyst for that. It caused me to realize I would do anything to have a conversation with all the people I have lost and I have an uncle who is alive who I can be talking to. I got to see them this past May, and it has reinforced that you only get your family for so long,” she shares.

Through the use of social media and technology, unbelievable connections can be made and seemingly unsolvable mysteries can be solved … even when it comes to history! Who would have thought that a rare discovery, deep in the jungle of Saipan, would eventually make its way back to Frisco?