Watch linked to 1952 spy-plane crash no longer tells time. But it tells quite a story.

  • 0
  • 5 min to read

GREENSBORO — After nearly 67 years, Uncle Norm's watch has come home to his family.

Red rust stains cloud the inside of the crystal on the stainless steel Rolex Oyster Datejust timepiece.

Erik Kirzinger receives his uncle's watch 67 years later

Erik Kirzinger wears the watch believed to belong to his uncle, Norman Schwartz, in Greensboro on Wednesday. Norman Schwartz was a CIA contract pilot killed during a 1952 mission over Manchuria.

Its original leather wristband is gone, though band pins remained in place.

The watch no longer tells time. But it tells quite a story.

From 1952 to 2004, it had been buried in China where the plane flown by Norman A. Schwartz, a CIA contract pilot, and copilot Robert Snoddy was shot down during a 1952 mission. Schwartz and Snoddy were killed.

This month, the watch finally arrived via FedEx at the Rockingham County home of Schwartz's nephew, Erik Kirzinger.  

"A part of him has come home," said Kirzinger's sister, Tana Wirtz of Greensboro.

As he held it for the first time, Kirzinger thought of his late mother, Betty, and aunt, Katherine Gordon, two of Norman's six siblings.  

"It was too bad that my mother and my aunt, who idolized Norman, weren’t there," he said.

Since its discovery at the crash site in 2004, the watch had been stored in the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. There, scientists tried to determine whether Schwartz or Snoddy had owned it.

Last month, they finally sent the watch to Kirzinger. 

Clues point to Schwartz as the watch's owner. "But in truth, there is no proof of ownership and doubtful there ever will be," Kirzinger said. 

He said he would give it up if evidence later surfaces proving that the watch belonged to Snoddy instead.

Kirzinger wears it with a new leather band.

For Kirzinger, 67, the watch symbolizes his personal quest to learn what happened to his uncle.

That led to a broader mission: ensuring that families of CIA Cold War contractors killed in action received recognition and closure for their lost loved one.

In years past, Kirzinger fought fires for the U.S. Forest Service and worked as a logger in the Pacific Northwest and on a cattle ranch in Montana.

After returning to the Triad, he started a sports marketing business and helped to develop a Chinese restaurant home-delivery franchise.

He took care of his elderly parents, Betty and George Kirzinger of Madison, until their deaths in the last decade.

Since 1981, Kirzinger has spent thousands of volunteer hours on research, calls and meetings with government officials for the United States and foreign countries, pursuing his passion to help honor CIA operatives of yesteryear and their families.

His uncle was among them.

20170205g_lif_CIA_man (copy)

Erik Kirzinger’s uncle, Norman A. Schwartz, was a CIA contract pilot killed during a 1952 mission. Schwartz’s family was told that the men had crashed into the Sea of Japan on a routine flight from Tokyo to Seoul.

A dashing and adventurous pilot from Louisville, Ky., Norman A. Schwartz flew for the Marine Corps during World War II.

He then flew for an airline called Civil Air Transport, later bought secretly by the Central Intelligence Agency. Schwartz became a civilian contractor for the CIA. 

When Kirzinger was just a year old, his mother received word that her brother was missing. 

They didn't know that he was flying for the CIA. 

To keep secret the CIA's clandestine actions in China during the Korean War, the families of Schwartz and Snoddy were told that the men had crashed into the Sea of Japan on a routine flight from Tokyo to Seoul.

"The loss had devastating effects on my grandparents, who went to their graves thinking that the cover story that his plane crashed into the sea of Japan was true," Kirzinger said.

Betty Kirzinger spent years writing to presidents, former POWs, foreign leaders and the International Red Cross to learn more.

It would be 20 years before the government acknowledged the truth to Schwartz's family.

On Nov. 29, 1952, Schwartz and Snoddy were flying a C-47 to Manchuria in northeast China to extract a spy. Two CIA intelligence officers on board, Richard Fecteau and Jack Downey, were there to orchestrate the maneuver.

Chinese soldiers on the ground opened fire with a .50-caliber machine gun. The plane crash-landed. Fire consumed its cockpit and main body.

The pilots were killed. Downey and Fecteau were captured, tried and imprisoned for 21 years and 19 years, respectively.

In 1998, Erik Kirzinger took up his family's quest for more information.

His mother asked him to try to have his uncle's remains repatriated from China and buried next to their parents in Louisville, Ky.

He wrote to then-CIA Director George Tenet.

Kirzinger's letters and efforts set wheels in motion. In 1999, Tenet honored Schwartz and Snoddy with memorial stars at CIA headquarters in northern Virginia and with the agency's Distinguished Intelligence Cross, its highest medal for valor.

It would be another year before their mission was declassified and their names added to the CIA's Book of Honor at a 2000 ceremony.

At that ceremony, vivid images filled Erik Kirzinger's mind as Tenet described how covert operatives had sacrificed their lives for the country.

Kirzinger pictured each scene.

"The idea came to me that they should have an art collection of the milestone events in the CIA's past," Kirzinger said.

He set in motion a project to commission paintings for the CIA Museum.

They would depict missions dating from World War II, through the Cold War, to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan — missions declassified after decades of secrecy.

Kirzinger recruited donors who would commission artists. He led the research to ensure accurate depictions of each scene.

In 2017, Kirzinger spread those images into public view.

He published a 2017 combination wall calendar and art book that reproduced 12 of the paintings and told the gripping stories behind them.

"Ambush in Manchuria" on November's page shows the downing of Schwartz's plane.

20170205g_lif_CIA_man (copy)

“Ambush in Manchuria,” by Dru Blair, is the March image. The painting shows Chinese Communist gunfire downing a Civil Air Transport C-47 on Nov. 29, 1952. The crew were unaware that their exfiltration mission had been compromised.

In 2018, he published two more calendars and a day planner, illustrated with more of the paintings.

"It's just mind-boggling what he has been able to achieve from Rockingham County," Kirzinger's proud sister said.

• • •

Wirtz doesn't recall having met her Uncle Norman. Like her brother, she was just a tot when he died.

The Chinese government initially denied knowing about Schwartz's final flight.

But in 2002, it agreed to let members of the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory dig up wreckage believed to be Schwartz's plane.

An elderly villager led searchers to a site where he said he buried the two Americans.

Scientists found a few teeth and bone fragments, but determined through DNA that they belonged to Snoddy.

They didn't know until years later that the bodies had been moved to another burial site, 500 yards north. 

In 2004, searchers also unearthed the Rolex watch. 

Watch story crash site

The site in China where the plane piloted by Norman A. Schwartz was shot down on Nov. 29, 1952 during the Korean War.

They delivered it to the Central Identification Laboratory.

There it stayed for 15 years.

The lab tried to determine whether the watch belonged to Schwartz or Snoddy. Both wore a Rolex Oyster Datejust.

Watch story

The watch worn by Norman A. Schwartz resembles the Rolex Oyster Datejust that was later found where his plane was shot down in China during the Korean War.

Kirzinger shows a photo in which his uncle wears a watch with a leather band and gold rim, resembling the one unearthed at the crash site.

The found watch didn't have a band attached, although band pins had remained in place. Kirzinger believes that it had a leather band that burned in the fiery crash.

Another photo showed Snoddy wearing a Rolex with a stainless steel band — which would not have disintegrated underground, Kirzinger said. A later book by a friend of Snoddy's indicated that Snoddy had given it to his wife for safekeeping. 

Schwartz's brother, Gene, recalled seeing Schwartz's Rolex watch when Schwartz was home on leave. He described scratches and a tiny dent on the back. Those remain.

Kirzinger wants to learn more.

The serial number indicates that it was made in 1948.

He wonders what time it stopped working.

A former Christie's Auction House watch specialist suggested that the top Rolex expert examine it. The Rolex expert could decide whether the case can be opened.

But before Kirzinger takes further steps, he plans to attend the CIA's annual memorial ceremony on May 21 at its headquarters. 

He will wear the watch. And he'll think of his mother, who died in 2014.

"It's just too bad mother isn't around to be reconnected with her brother," he said.

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.

Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.

Recommended for you

Load comments

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News