40 years haven't dulled this most painful of losses

John Steadman

October 14, 1991|By John Steadman

Standing there in the middle of the living room, with portable typewriter in one hand and suitcase in the other, it became a homecoming that will never be forgotten. The mood, instead of light and joyous, was sober and somber. Something had to be wrong. It was.

What followed became fatal and penetrating. Usually, the greeting, upon returning from a trip, was, "Did you have a nice time?" and then a review, or questions about some of the stories you had been writing from the road and were printed in the newspaper. But this time it was different.

Mothers do have a way of offering comforting words, of cushioning the blow, under the toughest of circumstances, but not then. No doubt, she had given long thought to how the news would be broken. "Sit down," she said, "there's something I must tell you." A pause and then the devastating message: "Your best friend, Bill Sweiger, was killed in Korea."

It happened about this time in a long-ago October, as a boy reporter arrived from an exhibition basketball trip through New England, as the Baltimore Bullets toured with the Boston Celtics. The leaves of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine were in glorious fall color, work of the Majestic Painter, and the tiny towns that dotted the landscape were the kind of settings that are duplicated on insurance company calendars.

There would be so much to talk about to mother, sister and brother. A travelogue of sorts. But Bill Sweiger dead on a battlefield in Korea? It didn't seem plausible. Ninety-feet separated the houses. Mr. and Mrs. Sweiger were home, with their other children, Tom and Jean, and that's where their son's pal knew he had to go. It wouldn't be easy for anyone.

Bill had been signed as a pitcher by the Pittsburgh Pirates and his friend, two years younger, by the same organization. He was a catcher and they dreamed, as kids do, of being in a someday World Series as batterymates from the same neighborhood. But it wasn't to be.

First Lt. Carroll William Sweiger, just plain Bill, seemed so indestructible. Six-foot-four, 198 pounds. Although his formal education ended with graduation from Towson Catholic High School and a post-graduate course at City College, he was endowed with the intelligence and leadership to be lifted out of an infantry division during World War II and sent to officer's candidate school to be commissioned at the age of 19.

He had been in the minor leagues only briefly and then during the early occupation of Japan pitched on a service team with major leaguers Damon "Dee" Phillips, Hal Wagner and Milo Candini. He came back, after discharge, to be a winner at such divergent places as York, Pa., Yakima, Wash., Portland, Ore., Richmond, Va., and Christobal in the Panama Canal Zone.

But then came the recall to fight in Korea. It was there on Oct. 4, 1951, when his unit was pinned to the ground with machine gun fire, that he charged an enemy position at the cost of his life. The deed enabled the platoon he was leading to better its position and thus minimize the casualties it was taking.

In his last letter home, he expressed joy over the promised chance to hear the World Series on short-wave radio. But, instead of baseball, the involvement that day was in a fight to live. And he lost -- as happened to so many others in Korea and other wars gone by.

The pity of it all, as related to all our fallen heroes of the battlefield, is that testing their potential was instantly denied. Terminated. Bill Sweiger never had the chance the rest of us have been given. Why? And there is no answer.

In grim reality, life was cut short so abruptly. Cheated from ever being with family and friends. A wartime statistic listed in a column of names. That's always painful.

Some of his former teammates, including Lou Sleater, Bill Stetka, Lou Grasmick, Tommy Lasorda, Al Kubski, Johnny Dinunzio and Don "Tex" Warfield, mourned the loss. They never knew if he would have made the major leagues because back then there were only 16 clubs and baseball was at its all-time competitive best.

It wasn't surprising that 1st Lt. Sweiger would receive, posthumously, the Silver Star for heroism. The documented words that accompanied the award were a testimonial to his bravery. He's buried in New Cathedral Cemetery, where a bronze plate in the ground identifies the infantry regiment he fought for . . . and marks his final resting place.

On Oct. 4, 1951, Bill Sweiger became a fallen hero for the ages. This year, through arrangements with the office of U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, a flag was hoisted over the nation's capital and flown there to commemorate his memory. Friends have not forgotten and that, in itself, seems more personally important than a medal or a citation.

Requiescat In Pace.

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