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The Journal Gazette

  • As a Marine stationed in Guam in 1943, J. Robert Shimer came upon a downed Japanese Zero. After climbing into the fighter plane, Shimer retrieved its clock, which he's now decided to donate to the Smithsonian Institution. Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, May 09, 2017 1:00 am

Smithsonian taking time off man's hands

FRANK GRAY | The Journal Gazette

J. Robert Shimer took his first airplane flight as a child, and ever since, he wanted to fly.

When World War II broke out, he passed all the written and physical tests to become a pilot, but when he went to Indianapolis to sign up, he was headed off by a Marine Corps recruiter.

At age 19, Shimer found himself as a private first class in the Marines, and was shortly stationed in Guam.

But it wasn't all bad – at least Shimer, who is almost 93 now, doesn't offer any complaints about ending up as a Marine instead of a pilot.

But he has one interesting story to tell. He'd only been in Guam for two or three days, he recalls. It was 1943, he believes. He was out walking around and discovered a Japanese Zero fighter plane that had crashed just a couple of days before in a swampy area.

It was just sitting there, Shimer said. So he looked in the cockpit, noticed a clock on the instrument panel, pulled a dime from his pocket, got upside down in the cockpit and unscrewed the single screw that held the clock in place from the back of the dash.

For nearly 75 years now that clock, a Seiko, has been floating around among Shimer's possessions. 

A little more than a year ago, though, Shimer took the clock to a local clock shop to get it fixed. That operator gave it to another clock shop to fix. For months Shimer tried to get the watch back, but he was told the second repairman wouldn't give it back.

Finally, Shimer said, he talked to a police officer, and in nothing flat he got a letter saying the clock would be brought over.

So Shimer has his clock back.

But it still doesn't work. He said he contacted Seiko to ask if they could fix it, but no one ever responded.

Finally, he decided to contact the Smithsonian Institution. The museum is large and has all kinds of airplanes and other memorabilia.

Would the Smithsonian like the clock? They're scarce. The clocks are always what people took out of crashed Zeros. What's a Marine need with an altimeter or manifold pressure gauge, anyway?

Finally, the Smithsonian responded to Shimer's emails. Whether the museum wanted the piece was up to the director of acquisitions.

Eventually Shimer got some more encouraging replies. The clock would be a nice acquisition to the collection. Would he like to donate it?

Shimer said yes, he'd donate it to the museum, along with a piece of cloth with numbers on it that he cut off the rudder of the crashed Zero. In an email, the Smithsonian said it would send him shipping instructions in a few days and a donor receipt to sign.

After all the hassle Shimer went through to get his clock back, why give it away?

“It's no use to me,” he says. Besides, it doesn't work.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others' experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.