“As you ramble on through life, brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, but never on the hole.”
This quote was a favorite of Harold Schwerdt’s, according to his family.
“It applied to his entire life,” his granddaughter, Kaitlin Oster, 29, said.
Mr. Schwerdt died Jan. 9 at the East End Hospice Kanas Center for Hospice Care in Quogue. He was 98. He was a World War II veteran who spent two years in a German prisoner of war camp before it was liberated.
Mr. Schwerdt grew up in Jamaica, Queens, the son of John Schwerdt and Mary Stossel. According to a June 18, 1945, article in the Long Island Daily Press, he graduated from Public School 117 and Jamaica High School.
The veteran lived in Southold for 52 years before moving to Laurel six years ago to live with his daughter, Marianne Sawicki. Ms. Oster said some of her fondest memories are about the time spent in her grandfather’s house near Goose Creek in Southold.
“It’s weird trying to explain to my friends that one of my best friends was 70 years older than me,” she said.
He married his wife, Loretta, on June 1, 1943. In 2007, Mr. Schwerdt became her primary caregiver. She died of cancer later that year.
He entered the Air Force at the age of 22 and served as a technical sergeant during the war. He was a gunner on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a four-engine bomber aircraft, that was shot down over Cassel, Germany, July 30, 1943. Just four months later, he lost his identical twin brother, Arthur, who served in the Navy.
Mr. Schwerdt was a prisoner of war in a German camp for two years. He told his granddaughter that he completed 10 bombing missions in the B-17 aircraft before being shot down.
“You could see him disappear while he spoke, because he went back to it,” she said.
During his time as a POW, Ms. Oster said, Mr. Schwerdt was held in Stalag Luft 17-B, a prison camp outside of Krems, Austria. As the Russians were closing in on the country, the Germans forced about 1,000 soldiers, including Mr. Schwerdt, to walk 200 miles to Berlin, Germany. Mr. Schwerdt told his granddaughter he remembered trading a needle for an uncooked egg with a German-speaking Polish girl along the route.
“He split that egg with the two other men in his group, and he said that was one of the best things he had eaten in over two years,” she said. Ms. Oster told the story for his eulogy because she felt it reflected his mantra — enjoying the smallest victory.
He was awarded two Purple Hearts after the war, granted to members of the armed forces who were wounded in war. He was released by the Germans May 5, 1945. Mr. Schwerdt and his wife had two daughters, Patricia Oster, who died in 2011, and Marianne Sawicki of Riverhead.
Ms. Oster said her grandfather is her favorite person to talk about — so much so that she aims to write and publish a book about him. The Holtsville resident applied for a fellowship through the New York Public Library to work in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, which she said is known for its war and state archives.
“They give you the opportunity to write a book using their resources, their archives,” she said. “I have history, historical papers and other essays from my grandfather, and stories that he’s told me …. And I was like, this is perfect to do it.”
Ms. Oster said she’ll find out in March if she was awarded the fellowship.
Mr. Schwerdt worked as a building consultant for over 40 years. Ms. Oster said he helped construct the World Trade Center.
Every Sunday he attended services in Southold at St. Patrick’s Church. When he couldn’t make it to church, Ms. Oster said, he had communion brought to his home.
Earl Brock, an American Legion member for 16 years, said he met Mr. Schwerdt when he was 54.
“When I met Harold, he was 80 — but his 80 was equal to most people’s 60,” he said. “He was instrumental in every part of the legion.”
The pair bonded by planning monthly socials, events, and weekly bingo games.
Ms. Oster said she’s grateful for all that her grandfather taught her and she plans to write a book about him.
Mr. Brock said he is honored to have known his friend.
“Harold was the guy that all of us would say that’s the man we want to be like,” he said. “I just can’t think of a person that cared more, was more dedicated, had an exceptionally high level of morality and ethics — and today, that’s unheard of.