Dowagiac Navy veteran reunites with friend after 58 years

DOWAGIAC — Dowagiac resident Walter Swann has accomplished much during his 79 years of life. A Navy veteran and a retired professional boxer, Swann has traveled the world and experienced many things, but the whereabouts of his old Navy friend Francis Demaio eluded his grasp. Until now.

After 58 years of searching for each other, Swann and Demaio were finally able to reunite over the phone this past spring.

“It was a long time coming,” Swann said.

Swann and Demaio met as recruits in the U.S. Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois in August 1962. Swann, from North Carolina, and Demaio, from New York, became fast friends.

“He was working out one day, and he could stand up on his hands,” Swann said. “I thought that was amazing, so I started working out, too. We teamed up as buddies to do our studies and get through boot camp.”

“We just hit it off,” Demaio said. “We became good friends, and that was it. We spent a lot of time together.”

On the night of their boot camp graduation in October 1962, Swann went to Chicago on liberty, an authorized absence for short periods that gives sailors a break from their normal duties. While Swann was on liberty, U.S. president John F. Kennedy made an announcement that marked the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“I volunteered not knowing where I was going,” Demaio said. “By the time I got back to the barracks, my bag was packed.”

Swann and Demaio had already decided that they wanted to keep in touch with each other after graduation. Before leaving for the Caribbean Sea, Demaio wrote down his name and his mother’s address, and asked a sailor to give it to Swann upon his return from liberty.

Swann never received that message. After completing his training, Swann was assigned to USS Tom Green County, which was stationed at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, Japan for two years.

“I didn’t know what happened,” Demaio said. “I didn’t know how to get in touch with him.”

Swann left the Navy in 1966. After his military service, Swann moved to Long Beach, California, where he went to work at the naval shipyard there. In 1996, Swann retired from the shipyard and moved to Dowagiac with his wife, Alice, in order to help take care of her mother. A former professional boxer, Swann has given boxing lessons at Southwestern Michigan College and the Cass County Council on Aging Front Street Crossing facility in downtown Dowagiac.

After being discharged from the Navy in 1966, Demaio held down several jobs before working for Amtrak from 1978 until his retirement in 2005. He currently lives in Orange City, Florida with his wife, Karen.

According to the two friends, it was their wives who made the reunion possible.

“My wife bought me an iPad, and I was still getting used to it,” Swann said. “My wife knew about Demaio because I would talk about him all the time. She was looking at it one day and noticed that his wife had messaged me on Facebook.”

“About four years ago, my wife sent out a message for Walter,” Demaio said. “Apparently, he got the message, but it was lost all this time. I’m so glad they found it.”

The fact that Demaio never stopped looking for Swann meant a lot to him.

“It just let me know that he’s a real brother,” Swann said. “He’s a true brother. We have a special bond.”

After speaking to each other earlier this year, Swann and Demaio were preparing to arrange a face-to-face reunion, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic halted those plans.

After 58 years apart, the two friends do not plan on letting a virus stand in the way of their face-to-face reunion. They hope to schedule a reunion soon.

“I’ve been praying about it,” Swann said. “I hope nothing happens that we don’t get to see each other, because it’s important to him, and it’s important to me. Just to be able to see each other again on this side of heaven would mean a lot, and hopefully on the other side, too.”

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