Paul Schwimmer just got back from the South Pacific doing what he loves: locating the remains of U.S. servicemen who died in World War II.
It’s a passion he has had since 2008 and his work has led to the repatriation of the remains of more than 100 soldiers. He leads small teams to remote jungle cemeteries or to the bottom of the sea to find the remains, log their locations and send word back to the U.S. government who then have their teams exhume the remains, transport them to a military base to be identified and then shipped back to the states for burial with full military honors.
His most recent mission, which included 22-hour flights there and back, was to find the site of a crashed F6F Hellcat. There were six such planes lost and five had been found.
The aircraft was located in 2006 and 2008 feet in about 35 feet of water.
“We went down for 10 days,” Schwimmer said. “We found more wreckage and came up with what we thought was an impact site.
“Hopefully the government will come in and do an excavation.”
From what the team found; the debris field was extensive as the plane likely slammed into the water at 250-300 knots per hour. A wing was found as was the tail section, Schwimmer said
The team was guided by a member of the team onboard ship who watched the dive in real time via a camera mounted on a tripod which had a transducer.
The camera spun around and took a shot every 5 seconds. Visibility was poor and, in many images, it is difficult to make out the wreckage.
Anything the team found and brought to the surface, was taken back to ocean floor, Schwimmer said.
The team scanned the ocean floor. The team found pieces of the fighter, but it was a stainless-steel nut with F6F on it that sealed the deal.
One team member was on the ocean floor and while moving silt, came up against the dashboard of the cockpit. That’s where the search ended.
“Once they found that I said we’re done,” Schwimmer said. “This is beyond our expertise.”
Schwimmer will send his report to Missing Air Crews, which has been working the island for 13 years looking for MIAs.
Schwimmer wanted to also look for a missing B-24 bomber and its crew, but the location was too far away, and they would have needed a bigger boat. As it was the team rented a fishing trawler for the Hellcat mission.
Schwimmer went on 20 dives, his team was under the water for a combined 80 hours.
“Just about an hour a dive,” Schwimmer said. “Not bad for a 70-year old.”
Schwimmer has made less than 60 dives, while his most experienced diver’s total is in the thousands, he said.
The latest mission helped sate his passion for finding MIAs and the remains of POWs. He has gone on about 22 missions. So far this year he has gone to the Philippines and the South Pacific.
Other missions have taken him to Germany, Normandy in Europe and the island of Tarawa in the Pacific. According to Wikipedia, the latter was the site of the Battle of Tarawa that was fought Nov. 20-23, 1943 at the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, Nearly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans, and Americans died in the fighting, mostly on and around the small island of Betio, in the extreme southwest of Tarawa Atoll.
With a group called History Flights, the teams have found 100 complete American remains.
After the war, the government came to find remains and since American soldiers were buried in their ponchos, whatever was in the ponchos were collected. Those remains were put in formaldehyde, which killed the DNA, Schwimmer said,
“They took them to the Punchbowl, (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific) and buried them about 75 of them,” Schwimmer said. “We’re back in those same trenches and we found them, and we recovered everything.”
So, if his team found a broken leg, they can be matched to the remains exhumed from the Punchbowl. Based on the work in the lab there have been 50 new identifications, Schwimmer said.
“Which is incredible,” Schwimmer said.
He has recently been in the Philippines and plans to return to the South Pacific to find a B-24 bomber and crew.
In 2017, he found the remains of a pilot named Burleigh Curtis, a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, who crashed in 1944. Carter will be buried in Maine this summer and Schwimmer plans to be there.
In Normandy a team he was with was aided by some elderly French men who carried pails and brought water to be used for screens.
“Those people remember,” Schwimmer said.
While there he was playing with some boys with a hose to cool them off on a hot day, when one 12-year-old boy found a dog tag. Dog tags are the Holy Grail for Schwimmer and his teams.
The work is hard and rewarding, but it is expensive. The most recent expedition cost $25,000 which Schwimmer paid out his own pocket. Previous funding has come from the government and The A. Scott Foundation.
Schwimmer has set up a Go Fund Me account to raise money for future trips.
“Everybody loves what I do, but no one wants to pay for it,” Schwimmer said.
The Philippines has been a frequent stop for Schwimmer. There was a POW camp cemetery the Japanese constructed after the Bataan Death March.
“They (soldiers) were hastily buried,” Schwimmer said. “The government exhumed the bodies, but the numbers are still rising.”
The true scope of the situation has yet to be realized, he said.
The work took his teams to the rice paddies in the hills during the dry season.
Another POW camp on South Palauan Island had 150 soldiers buried. They died when the Japanese learned Douglas MacArthur had landed and sent all the prisoners to an underground air raid bunker. Then the Japanese poured gasoline down air tubes and set it on fire.
“They had machine guns fire on the survivors as they came out,” Schwimmer said.
But time takes it toll on people. Some of the older veterans cannot go back to places like Tarawa because of their health. The local environments wreak havoc with their immune systems, Schwimmer said.
But new blood is joining the effort, it’s a different breed of people.
One danger the teams face is that many troops were buried with their weapons. This means they died are but their weapons are still there and operational.
“One guy we turned over had five hand grenades,” Schwimmer said. “Oh, how I wish land mines had a shut off date.”
This means teams need to have someone disarm the remains. Schwimmer was trained ordinance removal while member of the Green Berets in the Army Reserve.
Schwimmer gained inspiration from the book “Bones of My Grandfather,” by Clay Evans which detailed the discovery of a Medal of Honor recipient on Tarawa.
“We brought him to Knoxville for a celebration of life.”