Robert Schwartz; Defense Official Was Hostage in Hijacking

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

Robert Norman Schwartz, 84, a Defense Department official who was held hostage in Jordan for more than three weeks after a 1970 hijacking, died of congestive heart failure June 12 at his home in Columbia. He later was vice president of research for Catholic University and a local real estate agent.

In 1970, Dr. Schwartz was director of research for the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency in Bangkok and was headed back to the United States to report some of his findings to Congress. Flying on military aircraft, he landed in Germany, then boarded a commercial TWA flight to New York on Sept. 6. It was one of three planes hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. A fourth airliner was hijacked days later.

At the time, hijackings had become a serious problem around the world. Within days, President Richard M. Nixon announced a comprehensive anti-hijacking program that included a federal marshal program.

Dr. Schwartz was traveling with another ARPA scientist, and a State Department employee was also aboard the flight. As soon as the hijacking was announced, a stewardess spotted two unidentified men destroying papers and flushing them down a toilet on the airliner. Dr. Schwartz later told his family that he was one of those men; he also said he chewed up and swallowed as many official papers as he could.

Diverted to a desert airstrip in Jordan, the passengers were taken off and the planes blown up. Most of the passengers were soon released, but Dr. Schwartz and five others were held in Irbid, Jordan, until Israel, Switzerland, Great Britain and West Germany agreed to release 19 Arabs who were being held on a variety of terrorism charges.

When interviewed after his release, Dr. Schwartz said the last six hostages, including two rabbis, were held because of where they had sat on the plane and because half of them had carried U.S. government passports. The commandos "were not interested in us as persons who had any special jobs," he told The New York Times. The guerrillas did not threaten them, but the civil war raging did because the Jordanian army "shelled and strafed the town without any particular care," Dr. Schwartz said.

He was born Sept. 11, 1922, in Chelsea, Mass., the son of a Jewish naval employee and a non-practicing Catholic mother. He was a child when his family moved to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and then to Washington. He converted to Catholicism at 15 and made his first confession, received his first Communion and served his first Mass as an altar boy on the same day. He graduated from St. John's College High School in 1939 and from Georgetown University in 1943, while also working for the old Bureau of Standards.

He enlisted in the Navy and served on a minesweeper out of New York. He did graduate work at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, obtaining a master's degree in physics from Rensselaer in 1946. When his enlistment was up, he moved to Washington, where he worked at the Naval Gun Factory and then followed the Naval Ordnance Lab to White Oak.

He attended Catholic University at night and received a doctorate in physics under Karl Herzfeld in 1953. Dr. Schwartz then taught at Georgetown University for two years while editing an aeronautics handbook for John Hopkins University. He returned to work at the Naval Ordnance Lab and later worked for ITT Systems, the RandCorp. and the Institute for Defense Analyses.

A consultant to the 7th Air Force during the Vietnam War, he designed a project for the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and served as a civilian several times in Vietnam. In 1968, he was decorated for exceptional civilian service.

His ARPA job in Bangkok had just begun when he was hijacked, but he returned to what then was Siam and worked there until 1973. The King of Siam honored him as a member of the royal household, a position that allowed him a burial spot in Thailand. One of his daughters said because that would have involved having his remains separated and stuffed into a large jar, he respectfully declined the offer.

Dr. Schwartz continued as an adviser to the Air Force until he retired from government work in 1981. He then became vice president of research for Catholic University until 1991. To the astonishment of his family, he then worked as a real estate agent with the Weichert Co. and then Long & Foster until 2005.

"My dad was many things, but he was not a salesman," said one of his daughters, Theresa Schwartz of Silver Spring. "But he turned out to be a very successful Realtor. . . . He could do anything. He could throw a boomerang and make it come back. Not only that, but he could shave down a piece of wood and make a boomerang. He built a tree fort in the back yard with no nails or concrete. That tree fort stood for [years]. He taught us the physics of wind and sailing. He taught us to ride horses, paddle canoes and camp. We could strike a campsite in 10 minutes. . . . We had it down to a science."

Dr. Schwartz, a longtime Washington resident, moved to Columbia in 2006.

He and his wife were co-directors of Cana for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington from 1954 to 1955. His was one of the founding families of St. John the Baptist Catholic Community in Silver Spring, and at the time of his death, he was a member of Resurrection parish in Burtonsville.

Dr. Schwartz, a lifetime member of the scientific research society Sigma Xi, also enjoyed writing, music, sailing, traveling and painting.

A son, Robert Michael Schwartz, died in 2001.

In addition to his daughter Theresa, survivors include his wife of 64 years, Mary Catherine Callahan Schwartz of Columbia; five other children, Patrick Christopher Schwartz of Beltsville, John Stephen Schwartz of Miami, Philip Gregory Schwartz of Laurel, Martin Theodore Schwartz of Libertyville, Ill., and Maria Elizabeth Schwartz of Silver Spring; 24 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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