Spooner shares WWII memories

Published 9:11 am Tuesday, July 17, 2012


News Writer

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Roger Spooner, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy, spoke to a group of 30 people at the Decatur County Historical and Genealogical Society’s monthly meeting Saturday, July 14, at the LDS Church in Bainbridge.

Spooner, who is from Iron City, Ga., recounted his experiences of enlisting at age 18 in October 1941  — before Pearl Harbor — because he was looking for “something better than working on the farm in Seminole County.”

He finished boot camp and was scheduled for his first leave home on Dec. 14. Instead, the invasion of Pearl Harbor happened, and on Dec. 14, he found himself on the U.S.S. Yorktown, an aircraft carrier, sailing for Pearl Harbor. He arrived there in February, and said he could still see the oil and smoke from the burning ships.

His ship saw action in May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea, where the Yorktown was hit and damaged. He said 61 men died in the blast.

Spooner told a lighthearted tale of the ship as it was headed back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. They put in at an island off Australia, but none of the men on board were allowed to go ashore until the native women were moved and secured in the mountains.

Once the ship was repaired they were headed out to sea again. Spooner stressed how little communication there was to the men on board. In his own words, “No one ever told us where we were going. But one of the crew finally told us that we had broke the code of the Japanese.” (This was regarding the place and dates the Japanese planned to lure U.S. aircraft carriers into a trap.)

As it turned out, they were headed to Midway Island. The Battle of Midway was fought in June 1942, and is considered as the most important naval battle of the Pacific campaign.

Spooner continued his memories, “It was quite a battle. They knocked us around pretty good and we caught fire. Our planes were hitting them. There were three of us aircraft carriers out there and we sunk four of their carriers before they sunk us.”

Spooner showed old photos of the Yorktown on fire before it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. That finished it off and the crew was ordered by Capt. Elliott Buckmaster to abandon ship.

“There are no words to express what you felt abandoning ship into that deep, dark ocean covered with oil. I floated around out there in the pitch dark all night, not knowing what else was in the water,” he said. “I was scared.”

The USS Yorktown

He began to feel a vibration and realized it was a cruiser that had come up the side of him. He was afraid he would be drowned by the wake, or run over by the ship. The side of the boat began to bump him and he felt along the side until he felt a line. He grabbed it and tried to hold on tight, but it was so oily he had to loop it around his thigh. After a long time he felt someone shake the line.

“They pulled me up, and I was covered with oil,” he recalled, then added, “I tried to take a saltwater shower to wash it off, but couldn’t. It had to wear off.”

He was transferred to a tender ship by riding in a mail bag across the water, from one ship to the other. He was then taken to an island camp for two months. Again, he stressed the lack of communications.

“I couldn’t write home,” he said. “The U.S.S. Lexington had sunk when we got hit the first time, but they hadn’t announced it … My folks got a report I was gone.”

On the island, he became a driver for the commodore.

“I told him I had to go home, that I had been in the service two years and never been home,” Spooner said.

Arrangements were made for him to get survivor leave. The next morning he left for San Francisco, Calif., and then home to Georgia.

“It took me six days to get from San Francisco to Iron City,” he said, with a chuckle.

After his leave he reported to New London, Conn., to submarine school, and then was sent back to the Pacific on the U.S.S. Jack as a machinist in the engine room.

“We were submerged during the day and emerged only at night. We didn’t see daylight for anywhere from 60-80 days,” he said.

Spooner told of sneaking into Tokyo Harbor at night, and being able to see the lights on the Japanese trains. On one reconnaissance mission, he said they sunk five Japanese ships.

At one point, Spooner and his fellow navalmen were on an island near Okinawa for rest and rehabilitation, and he said the Japanese kept trying to steal into their mess hall at night.

One particular night, they heard ships suddenly firing off rounds and planes flying over head.

“We wondered what was happening and were looking for a hole to crawl into. Then they told us the war was over,” he said.

He went to Tokyo Harbor in Japan to the Yokosuka submarine base, and was there until Nov. 1, 1945.

When he got back to Norfolk, Va., he still had 18 months to go on a six-year duty. He was transferred to Key West on the U.S.S. Sea Leopard.

“That’s where my luck ran out,” he said, as he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and spent three months in the hospital.

Just before his discharge, he was married. And this Oct. 10, he and his wife Eloise will have been married 65 years.

The society members and guests expressed their appreciation for Spooner’s service and for telling his experiences so vividly.

Upcoming events for the Society:

• There will be a used book and magazine sale at every first Saturday Market Days on the square from now through November, as one of the Society’s new fund raising events.

• A field trip is being planned for the August meeting. Persons interested in going to The Smithsonian Exhibit of Journey Stories at the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement in Calhoun County, Fla., are asked to contact Shirley Fleming at (229) 246-6327.

• In October, there will be an authentic Italian four-course dinner served at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

The Society is also seeking new members, and applications are available from Fleming.