Lost Purple Heart returns, along with story

The late Robert L. Swinson's Purple Heart is to be given to niece Joan Bilsbeck of Summerville. Swinson, an Army infantryman who served in World War II, died in 1985.

Robert Swinson was long, lanky - and very quiet. Joan Bilsbeck never knew much about her favorite uncle. In fact, no one in the family did.

World War II changed him, other family members told her. He just didn't talk much anymore.

Now, more than a half century later, long after Swinson's death and as Bilsbeck tries to sort out her life after the long, painful death of her husband, her uncle just might have reached out.

Soon, Bilsbeck, of Summerville, will be presented a lost and recovered Purple Heart that was awarded to Swinson for his service in the Pacific. "It's almost as if it were meant to be," she said, as she stared at a photograph of her uncle in uniform.

She didn't know he had been awarded the medal, which is given when a service member is wounded or killed in action. Nobody in the large extended family did.

He never talked about the war. One time, when a relative found a box of medals among Swinson's belongings, her uncle quickly took it back and said it didn't concern the relative.

Bilsbeck was a young girl after the war. At 9 or 10 years old, she spent a summer with her uncles at the family orange groves in Brevard County, Fla. Quietly, Uncle Robert took her under his wing. He taught her how to graft orange seedlings to produce more trees, stirring a lifelong love for the science of the environment.

He never talked much, but "he paid attention to a little girl, and he shared what he knew. That was the most important thing to me," Bilsbeck said. "I could graft them now, if I have to."

She seldom saw her uncle after that. Swinson spent the rest of his life in the groves and died in 1985.

Bilsbeck lived in a number of Southeastern towns while growing up, married a Navy veteran of World War II and raised two children. She worked as a waitress and eventually owned and ran a catering business. She moved to Summerville in the mid-1990s.

Her husband, William Peter Bilsbeck, died not long ago. Since then, she has been trying to learn more about the history of an extended family she wasn't able to be closer to as a child.

The medal apparently was found on a necklace on the grounds of a nondescript College Park, Ga., apartment complex across the street from a church cemetery. It was turned in to Fulton County police, who contacted Purple Hearts Reunited, a nonprofit that works to return the recovered medals.

How it got to the apartment complex is a mystery, like Swinson's service itself. Likely, a sister who was close to him retrieved it among his other belongings after his death. After her death, her home outside Atlanta was sold complete with belongings. Her place was little more than 20 miles from where the medal was found.

The rest of the box has disappeared. But a recent records search for Swinson uncovered that he also was awarded the Bronze Star, a high honor bestowed for heroism in battle. An Army infantryman, he also awarded a marksman badge and service stars for fighting in the Philippines liberation and across the Pacific war theater.

Quiet Uncle Robert was a war hero.

"He was one of the first soldiers into the Philippines, which was brutal fighting. We lost 7,000 Americans in New Guinea alone," said Zachariah Fike, of Purple Hearts Reunited, who found the medal's record. "He saw plenty of action, and I'm sure he felt blessed to come home alive and in one piece."

A Vermont National Guard chaplain, Fike has researched veteran histories, located families and returned medals along with the stories behind them since 2010. He pored over records trying to learn more about how and where Swinson earned the Purple Heart, but the records he needs likely were lost in a fire years ago that destroyed any number of veterans' records.

"I can't find anything," he said.

There is one thing Fike knows. He has reunited more than 60 families with lost Purple Hearts. In World War II, possessions often couldn't be returned to families when soldiers died in the field, he said.

"For a lot of the families, the Purple Heart was the last tangible item ever received from the loved one. In essence, it became the veteran," he said. "Each one of these medal recoveries has something about it that can't be explained. Who knows why it's returned to these people at this time of their lives?"

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The presentation ceremony that had been scheduled for tonight in Summerville has been postponed. Check with Purple Hearts United for information.