Wednesday, February 5, 1964. Johnny Ray Swindle, a Navy radio-man third class, and his newlywed wife Joyce, were murdered as they walked along the Ocean Beach Boardwalk. Swindle had married his childhood sweetheart on January 18, 1964 and they lived in a three room cottage nine blocks from where they would be violently killed. According to the San Diego Union Newspaper, five shots were fired from a sniper position above. Police said two more were fired at close range. The last two were coup de grâce into their heads at close range.
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 Hump. Hump was a lifer and he had been my, and Twidge’s, watch supervisor up at Holiday Beach. I was immediately wary for Hump 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, Hump 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, Hump was talking rapidly.
Hump had driven me to distraction at Holiday Beach. While he was an adequate watch supervisor, he had some, well, peculiarities. Hump 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 Hump 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 Hump 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 Hump 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. They said that was Hump’s concern.
We had four dogs at Holiday Beach, Spud, Lady, Magnolia Blossom and Dits. It helped with our morale. Magnolia Blossom, A.K.A. Skank, was not well loved. When left outside she howled and whined until she was let in, and when inside she had a habit of passing gas. We all expressed displeasure with her, which was at least a break in our isolated boredom.
Then Magnolia Blossom was gone, she just disappeared. We thought maybe a Kodiak bear had gotten her. Shortly before he was re-assigned, Hump revealed he had taken action and relieved us of the problem. He had dispatched Skank to the big dog pound in the sky, via strangulation. He strangled a dog! At least that was the scuttlebutt. Hump was gone so I was not able to attest to the story’s veracity personally. But that so many of the crew were ready to believe it says something about him.
So now Twidge was dead and Hump 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.
Young and not wise to the ways of the world, I nevertheless was wise enough to realize that looking for a murderer with a guy who may have strangled a dog was not a good idea. Not to mention his fear of the Russians torpedoing our pickup. 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 Hump.
Neither Hump, 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 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 was detached as I began writing this piece. 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 that. . .If I didn’t say it at the time, I offer it now: R.I.P. Twidge.