After decades, lost Silver Star is returned to family
By STEPHANIE BUTZER | The High Point Enterprise, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 12, 2017
HIGH POINT — Less than a month after a North Carolina soldier saved his infantry from enemy attack, he was bleeding on the ground with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his back.
The heroic action had earned Pvt. 1st Class Grady C. Swaim a Silver Star, but the 21-year-old wouldn’t know that until months later. What he did know was that he was somewhere in World War II France, very far from home, and he needed medical attention.
Grady was rushed to a field hospital and within a few days, was evacuated to a hospital in England for his serious injuries. It was September 1944.
Just a few weeks prior, the young man had disabled a tank and armored vehicle threatening his infantry. For his actions, he was awarded the Silver Star, one of the highest military awards exclusively given for valor in combat, though he wouldn’t receive the star and its official papers until December of that year.
Sometime within the past few decades, the Silver Star presented to Grady while he was still recovering in a hospital bed ended up in New York, where Donna Coates and her husband, an avid collector of all things military, found it while cleaning their home this past September. She decided she would try to track down who it belonged to, and return it.
As she, a family friend and an Enterprise reporter started digging for answers, parts of Grady’s life after his injury began unfolding.
The fragment that had pierced Grady’s spine was described in an April, 23 1950, local newspaper article as not “big enough to amount to much in the steel business, but it tangled with some of the Guilford boy’s highly essential anatomy and apparently put him a wheelchair for life.”
Apparently, it did.
After leaving the battlefields of France, Grady spent 20 months in hospitals, said John Swaim Jr., the soldier's nephew. Grady worked with Army doctors who specialized in paraplegics until he was released in June 1946. At the age of 23, he was paralyzed in both legs.
While he told just a few people about what exactly had caused his injury, paperwork and local newspaper articles fill in the blanks.
The incident happened on Sept. 9, 1944, exactly three weeks after earning the star.
“A Nazi .88 shell fell in Grady’s company’s lines outside Metz (France) and a piece of shrapnel lodged in his shoulder,” according to a Feb. 23, 1947, High Point Enterprise clipping. “The tiny pieces of shrapnel, no bigger than the end of his finger, chipped a vertebrae and lodged in his spine leaving him paralyzed from the hips down.”
LIFE AFTER THE ARMY
When Grady left the hospital, doctors didn’t expect him to live beyond 10 years, John said. But he defied those odds, living 25 years beyond that prediction. And he didn’t settle for a quiet, family-focused life after the military. Instead of marrying or raising children, he turned his focus to running a dairy farm with his brother.
That brother, John Swaim Sr., served much more time in the military and returned home uninjured. An April 23, 1950, newspaper article wrote that he “spent 41 months convincing the Japanese that their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was a serious mistake.”
In 1948, when the brothers were both home, they pooled their money together to buy acreage for a 132-acre dairy farm on the land of the High Point Speedway, which closed in the early 1940s. Grady would do the paperwork and John would do the legwork to build a barn and care for about a dozen cows. The men signed up for GI vocational training to learn the skills they’d need.
“Henceforth, cows will graze over the banked curves at the turns and hay will grow inside the loop,” the 1950 article read.
Think it was odd for a wheelchair-bound man to help run a dairy farm? In the same article, Grady was quoted saying, “If Franklin Roosevelt could run the United States from a wheelchair, I can run a dairy the same way.”
Grady and his brother both lived in homes built at grade level so Grady, nicknamed “Shorty,” could easily enter and exit the houses, John said. And there were many visits.
“Shorty could afford to have a (High Point Enterprise) newspaper, so after he read it, he would come up here in the afternoon and give it to my father and then my father would read it,” John said.
He also noted that he’s not sure when the family started calling Grady “Shorty,” but assumed it was before he left for the war.
“If somebody started calling him that after he was in a wheelchair, that would be pretty cruel,” John said.
Despite the hardship he faced without the use of his legs, Grady received unwavering support from his family and community. The Swaim family always celebrated his birthday together — “that was the one the whole family went to,” John said — and Grady’s sister-in-law always cut his hair.
On one Friday afternoon, Grady went to downtown High Point to accept a gift from Uncle Sam — a “shiny, new, specially-equipped Chevrolet sedan,” according to a Feb. 23, 1947, High Point Enterprise clipping titled “Vet, A Paraplegic, First To Receive Special Auto Free.”
Lyles Chevrolet in High Point presented Grady, who was described in the article as “a nice-looking fellow,” with the keys to the car, which was made for paraplegics and completely operated by hand.
“The specially-equipped automobile delivered to Grady was the first such car delivered to a local man under the act of Congress which authorizes new automobiles free to every veteran who lost a leg or became totally disabled during the war, according to the local VA office,” the article reads.
Grady and his brother wasted no time getting behind the wheel.
“As he and his brother drove out of the garage, he was still wearing a great big smile, which might serve as an example for those who think they have nothing to smile about,” the article reads. “Grady’s brother, who accompanies him almost constantly, firmly contends that Grady can drive better than a lot of the drivers on highways.”
When Grady died March 27, 1990, after declining health, his obituary listed out his military honors beyond the Silver Star — Purple Heart, E.A.M.E. Theater Medal, two Bronze Battle Stars, Combat Infantryman Badge, Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Medal and a Victory Medal.
Those pieces were scattered to various family members after his death. John said one cousin in the family moved to New York, and perhaps that’s how the Silver Star made its way to that part of the country.
Grady was buried at Spring Hill United Methodist Church Cemetery in Davidson County, a short walk from the High Point city line. Several graves in the cemetery, as well as a few nearby streets, bear the Swaim name.
Grady’s was one of just two headstones at the church that had a bronze plaque on it. While it reads what you’d usually see on a grave — name, date of birth and death and that he was in the war — the footstone reads how his family knew him best in one word.
On an afternoon in September of this year, Donna Coates crossed her fingers as she called a 92-year-old woman living in High Point. In several local newspaper articles, the woman had been named as Grady’s younger sister. All other attempts to track down his other siblings to return the Silver Star to his family hadn’t been successful.
The High Point woman, Aileen Elder, said she was not only Grady’s sister, but was the executor of his will. She is the last survivor of the family’s nine siblings.
“She doesn’t remember where the medals went (after Grady died),” Donna Coates said. “They went to brothers and sisters who obviously are all gone now, so they probably ended up in the hands of nieces and nephews.”
The Swaim family decided Grady’s Silver Star should go to Elder, and she could decide what to do with it. Donna Coates took a picture of the Silver Star and its documents as a keepsake before mailing the items to North Carolina.
“I am so happy with Donna Coates that she went through all this trouble to try to get it back to us,” John said. “I think that just says an awful lot about her.”
When the medal arrived at Elder’s home on Sept. 14, she invited her son to take it to his home and put it in his safe. That’s where it remains today, along with one of Grady’s Bronze Battle Stars and his dog tags.
John said the family is going to try to gather all of Grady’s medals and other memorabilia to honor his term serving in the Army. He said he’d love to see all of the various pieces of his military accomplishments and sacrifices in one place — a full picture of his uncle.
©2017 The High Point Enterprise (High Point, N.C.)
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