swindle feature

This Day in History – February 5 – Hijinx, Humor, and Insight

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NewsWhistle is pleased to feature Gary Jenneke’s “This Day In History” column.

You can read the original at Gary’s THIS DAY IN HISTORY blog — or scroll down to enjoy Gary’s unique look at life’s comings and goings.

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THIS DAY IN HISTORY… FEBRUARY 5

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1964 – Unsolved murders.

From Walt Gray, San Francisco Independent, February 1964 — SAN DIEGO (AP) — “A newlywed couple’s stroll along a picturesque stretch of beach ended in horror when a sniper’s bullets cut them down from behind. Then they were shot in the head, close up, execution style.

Police say it may have been the act of a thrill-killer.

The gunman perched Wednesday night on a ledge on a craggy cliff overlooking the Pacific. He took advantage if moonless gloom to conceal himself. The roar of the surf muffled his shots.

Slain were Navy Radioman 3C Johnny Ray Swindle, 19, and Joyce Swindle, 19, both of Jasper, Ala.”

A year and a half earlier I was fresh out of radioman school and assigned to the Holiday Beach Communication Station on Kodiak Island, Alaska. My first night on watch, nervous and unsure of myself, another radioman befriended me. His nickname was Twidge because of the way he operated the CW key. First his arm would jerk, then his shoulder, and finally his leg, all in time to his hand tapping out Morse code. His name was Johnny Swindle.

Twidge was from a small town in Alabama and I from a small town in Minnesota. Six-foot tall, dark wavy hair, handsome, Twidge was quiet to the point of not being noticed. If he got harassed about his herky-jerky sending style he’d respond with an “aw shucks” grin. Our complement was forty sailors, many of them loud, boisterous characters and Twidge did not stand out. He was just a quiet, nice guy. I was 18, he was 19 when one evening, off duty, standing on a cliff looking out at the gray expanse of the northern Pacific, he told me about his girlfriend, Joyce, back home, whom he intended to marry.

We served together for only four months before Twidge was reassigned and we lost touch. A year later I stationed aboard the USS Jason in San Diego. We were in port and had telephone lines hooked up to the outside world. I was on duty in the radio shack when the phone rang. Somebody answered and shouted that it was for me. A telephone call from the outside for me? That was unusual. The voice on the other end identified himself as Bump. Bump was a lifer and he had been my, and Twidge’s, watch supervisor up at Holiday Beach. I was immediately wary for Bump was more than a little off center, which is why I’m using a made-up nickname rather than his real name. He asked if I had read the paper today. There was one on the desk and I picked it up. The headline read: “US Sailor and his bride murdered.” That’s Twidge, Bump informed me.

Shocking headlines in the newspaper had always been abstract. Heinous crimes that took place in a parallel world. Until now. As I scanned the paper, verifying that it was my old friend Johnny Swindle…Twidge, Bump was talking rapidly.

Bump had driven me to distraction at Holiday Beach. While he was an adequate watch supervisor, he had some, well, peculiarities. Bump was short, wiry with sharp features that were mostly pinched in a frown of perpetual worry. He was concerned our unit had been infiltrated by communist spies and was also certain a Russian submarine was lurking in the bay just off our coast. This was the height of the Cold War and we were in an isolated location. Our barracks was a couple of miles from the radio station. A rough, narrow, gravel road ran between the two buildings. Part of the road was on a bluff that ran alongside the ocean.

We had a pickup with a canopy on the back that was used to transport the watch sections back and forth. Most of the watch section sat in back under the canopy, on side benches, while Bump drove. There was a little window that allowed us to see into the cab. One night, early in my tour, as we were heading up for midwatch, I looked through the window and saw that Bump was driving without the headlights on. The night was dark, the road narrow, and on our left there was a deep ravine. I voiced my alarm.

Twidge laughed and said Bump never used headlights. He didn’t want to give our position away to the Russian submarine. I made a joke about a torpedo taking out a pickup. Twidge said that was Bump’s concern.

So now Twidge was dead and Bump was the one telling me. He said there were a half dozen or more of the old Holiday Beach crew now in San Diego on various ships. He wanted to form a vigilante posse to find Twidge’s killer. I didn’t answer, not seeing how that would work. He said we’d hang out in bars, go to places cops couldn’t go, and maybe overhear something.

I remembered Bump being worried over a Russian submarine torpedoing our pickup and decided that looking for a murderer with this guy might not be a good idea. I didn’t have to concoct an excuse. I just pointed out that I was still too young to be allowed into a bar. But I promised I would call if I heard anything. That was the last I ever talked to Bump.

Neither Bump, nor the police, ever tracked down the killer. The murder case remains unsolved to this day. In research for this column I’ve read speculation that the Swindles were possibly the first victims of the infamous Zodiac killer. A number of books have been written about the search for that killer and there are numerous websites devoted to the topic. I’ve tried to contact various authors to inquire about possible connections between the Zodiac killer and the Swindle murders but did not receive any response. There was even a wild theory connecting Charlie Manson to Zodiac and the Swindles.

In trying to track down information what did become apparent to me is that a whole cottage industry has sprung up over the Zodiac killer. Acrimony and conflicting information flow more readily than anything I found helpful. I even found one website claiming the ghost of Joyce Swindle haunts the apartment building where she died. Joyce died at the scene, Twidge was still alive and didn’t die until later at the hospital. Ghost experts theorize that because they didn’t die together, they are separated in death and thus the haunting.

I wrote about this because it’s history and I was peripherally connected. Now I’m somewhat sorry I did. Decades removed from the event, I was detached as I began writing. However the details and memories uncovered left me troubled. After so many years it still remains an unsolved crime. I dug up the past and it had nothing to tell me. I’m left with no conclusions here, no summation, nothing other than…If I didn’t say it at the time, I offer it now: R.I.P. Twidge.

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ABOUT GARY JENNEKE

At various junctures of his life, Gary has been an indifferent grade school student, poor high school student, good Navy radioman, one-time hippie, passable college student, inveterate traveler, dedicated writer, miscast accountant (except for one interesting stint at a Communist café), part-time screenwriting teacher, semi-proud veteran, unsuccessful retiree and new blogger.

You can reach him at gary@newswhistle.com.

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CREDITS

The above information was sourced from the following sites and newspapers:

RedditZodiacKiller.com; San Francisco Independent, February, 1964; Oakland Tribune/East Bay Times, February 7, 1964; the Associated Press; and the San Diego Union Tribune.

We’d also thank to the following photographers and videographers for the use of their images:

* Lead-In Image (Newspaper Clipping) – ZodiacKillerSite.com

* Outro (Man-In-Museum Cartoon) – SkyPics Studio / Shutterstock.com

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OTHER DAYS IN HISTORIES…

* December 18 

* December 28

* January 3

* January 7

* January 11

* January 14

* January 19

* January 24

* January 27

* February 1

* Stay tuned for more!

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