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99-year-old first-generation American served in every U.S.-involved conflict from WWII through Vietnam

The Betsy Ross Flag. (Makaristos, Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Fred Swiderski is still smiling, and the banners and balloons are still up, from his birthday celebration last month.

On Aug. 16, the Tahlequah resident and military veteran turned 99.

Swiderski, a first-generation American, was born Aug. 16, 1921, in Bradford, Connecticut. Coming through Ellis Island, his parents immigrated from Poland to escape being in the Russian military. He was one of six children, and is the last one living. One sister was 104 years old when she died last year.

His daughter, Christina Uribe, said keys to the family’s long lifespans include eating seasonal, fresh foods, and not using ice in drinks.

“He is still perky,” said Uribe. “Dad still has fire in him.”

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Swiderski joined the Connecticut National Guard at age 18. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Swiderski and the rest of the 42nd Infantry Division – known as the Rainbow Division – were sent to the Pacific to fight.

Uribe said her father, an expert marksman, had eagle eyes and was a very good shot.

When he returned to the U.S., Swiderski was stationed at Camp Gruber in Braggs, Oklahoma. For a year and a half, he was tasked with training troops who would be heading to fight in the European Conflict, according to Uribe.

Camp Gruber was booming at the time, and housed German prisoners of war, a majority of whom Swiderski said were “nice enough.” According to Uribe, Swiderski had a German “man servant” who would assist with his uniform and other tasks.

Swiderski was then stationed in Paris, and while there, he met “the most beautiful girl in Paris.” He and Gilda were married at her home parish in 1947. Their only child, Christina, was born in Paris.

“He met many movie stars and celebrities who were passing through with USO [United Service Organization] shows,” sad Uribe.

The military moved Swiderski to Germany and back to the U.S. He was then stationed in Germany again for a couple of years.

“It was nice for my mom because she was homesick. She could take an overnight train ride to Paris,” said Uribe.

In the Korean War, Swiderski was in charge of plans and operations. He saw combat there, as well.

“He has fond memories of Korea,” said Uribe.

Although he didn’t finish high school, Swiderski earned college credits while in the military.

After 20 years in the Army, Swiderski retired as a major. His major pin is the one he is most proud of.

He was hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development and worked in Asia. Swiderski lived in Korea for about four years, and helped build the area’s first fertilizer plant and opened a car manufacturing plant. He also lived in Taiwan and Bangkok.

He was requested by a former employer to assist in Vietnam. His family was not allowed in the country, so they lived in the Philippines. While in Vietnam, Swiderski worked closely with the military on civil operations and rural development. He said he built his own port because the military kept kicking him off theirs when he was expecting deliveries.

Swiderski was forced to flee the country when his life was threatened.

“They killed his chief officer, left a bullet on his desk, and said the next one was for him. He went to Taiwan, still trying to get his people out of Vietnam,” said Uribe. “He always told me he was a blessed man. He should have been dead three times.”

Swiderski retired after 17 years with USAID.

“He met a lot of famous military people and powerful people. He was an avid hunter and fisher; he hunted with the mayor of Paris,” said Uribe. “He’s led an interesting life.”

After retirement, the Swiderskis lived in Napa, California.

“He was still pretty young, so he worked. Then, they traveled and had a ‘summer home’ in Florida,” said Uribe. “They loved the beach.”

In 2003, the Swiderskis moved to Tahlequah.

“He never dreamed he would be living back in Oklahoma. It’s my fault because I moved here,” said Uribe. “He loved Oklahoma when he first moved here. He said the people were so nice.”

Uribe has two sons, and Swiderski used to take them fishing, and taught them how to shoot a bow and BB guns.

“He encouraged them to be physically active,” sad Uribe. “It must have stayed with them because they are both still active.”

After 73 years, Swiderski and his bride are still married. Gilda, 93, is bedridden most days.

“He is so attentive to my mom. He’s always checking on her,” said Uribe. “They hold hands still.”

Off and on for the past few years, Swiderski has been on hospice.

“Being on hospice doesn’t mean you’re dying. It’s a great service. He does physical therapy and loves it. He does some things we didn’t even know he could do anymore,” said Uribe. “He just stopped driving last year.”

He and Gilda currently receive 24-hour, in-home assistance. Their home health services were cut back when the coronavirus hit the area.

“He is one of the most thankful men. He’s so appreciative of everything,” said Lori Dyer, caregiver. “He’s a proud soldier.”

Swiderski used to enjoy watching TV, but he now has hearing issues. Reading and opening mail are also pastimes. He especially enjoys receiving letters from his grandsons and other family.

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© 2020 the Tahlequah Daily Press