WWII Navy vets Charles Butler and Frank R. Swast reunite after more than 60 years.
By Sean Barron
Charlie Butler’s leadership abilities and character left an indelible mark on Frank Swast long after the two had served together in the Navy during World War II.
Both qualities also prompted in Swast a longtime desire to find his commanding officer and skipper, with whom he had served roughly two years near the Mariana Islands in the South Pacific.
Three children, eight grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and more than six decades later, Swast finally got his wish.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I’m happy and excited,” said Swast, 84, of Winston-Salem, N.C., referring to seeing Butler for the first time in about 64 years.
The two men, along with several family members of each, gathered for a reunion Wednesday at the Springfield Grille, 7413 Tiffany Blvd.
At first, Swast said, he didn’t recognize Butler. It wasn’t long, though, before good cheer surrounded their table, and the two got reacquainted, looked through old photographs and reminisced.
“He was trying to figure out who to sit next to,” Swast’s wife of 59 years, Doris, said with laughter.
Swast was a coxswain, an officer in charge of a deck crew in the Navy. Afterward, he worked in maintenance for the Freeport Brick Co. in Freeport, Pa., before moving to North Carolina six years ago.
After his military career, Butler, 90, of Liberty Township, played five years of professional basketball, then worked about 36 years as a salesman for the former Commercial Shearing & Stamping Co. of Youngstown.
“Frank was a strong person. He knew how to get along with people; he was a godsend” on the ship, said Butler, who has nine children, 27 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.
Butler recalled when Swast jumped from the ship into the water to rescue members of an Army band before the current took them out to sea. Butler was grateful for Swast’s courage but worried that he too might be swept away, he said, adding that Swast was one of 11 or 12 crew members.
Wednesday’s get- together likely wouldn’t have occurred if not for the efforts of Alan and Joe Swast, Frank Swast’s son and grandson, respectively.
About a year ago, Frank Swast was at his son’s Boardman home and expressed a desire to find Butler.
After that, Joe Swast, of Minerva, conducted an online search and came up with two results, the first of which was for The Vindicator, which had published a story July 4 about Butler’s basketball career, noting that Butler is believed to be the oldest living former professional basketball player.
Joe Swast hit the jackpot after giving his father the second result, which led Alan Swast directly to the former Navy crew leader. Father and son knew they had the right person because Butler provided information no one else would have known, Joe Swast noted.
From there, the plan was set for Wednesday’s gathering, to the surprise of Frank Swast, they said.
“I’m grateful Alan and Joe found my dad,” said Eileen Butler of Youngstown, one of Butler’s daughters.
Four of Eileen Butler’s five children enlisted in the Navy, having been influenced largely by Charlie Butler, she added.
Calling him “the eighth wonder of the world,” Alan Swast praised his father for stressing the values of forgiveness, faithfulness, having a strong work ethic and being slow to anger.
“[Frank’s] done so much for us, and we wanted to do something very special for him,” added Alan’s wife, Barb.
“He’s the best grandpa I could ever have,” Joe Swast said.
Frank Swast continues to perform volunteer work and looks for opportunities to help others, his wife said, adding that February will mark the couple’s 60th anniversary.