Navy men of WWII

Navy men of WWII

By Sonia Duggan

They have been called members of the ‘Greatest Generation’ because of their service and sacrifice during World War II. They signed up as teenagers and returned home as men, having seen and experienced war and hardship. As the number of these veterans continues to decline, it’s important to honor and preserve their stories. Here are the stories of three men who served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946.

Spencer Guimarin, Lucas

The first time Edwin ‘Spencer’ Guimarin tried to join the Navy he was only 16 years old. He went to the Hale County Courthouse in Plainview the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. The line wrapped around the building he recalled. He said “After waiting all day in line the Sargeant took one look at me and turned me away laughing, saying ‘Son, I’d love to have you, but you’re just too young. Come back next year.’” With his parent’s permission, he returned a year later, in April 1943, and joined the Navy in Rockford, IL, where his family was living at the time.

This Olney native went off to boot camp eager to get busy. Once there, Guimarin spent two weeks doing KP duty in the gallery and decided he really liked it. That led to an assignment as a ship’s baker, which required attending a 16-week baking school in Chicago.

Guimarin ended up in the Amphibious Corps and volunteered to go the amphibious base in Maryland, not knowing anything about the Corps, and was assigned to a landing craft.

The landing craft (LCT’s) were 113 feet long and powered by three diesel engines. The crew consisted of ten men and two officers.

Guimarin’s journey brought him to New York to Pier 51 where, after getting a new flag to fly on the LCT, it

was loaded on top of a LST (landing ship tank). The crew traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia in October 1943. Once there, they joined a convoy of 100 ships. It took 17 days to get from Halifax to Plymouth, England. They arrived just as a German air raid hit. They trained up and down the beach until D-Day on June 6, 1944.

Guimarin said they tried to leave Saltash, England on June 4, 1944 but they turned around because the seas got way too rough. The invasion was postponed. The next day they tried it again, this time successfully as they journeyed to France. He said every soldier was seasick from the still rough seas. They arrived in France around 2:30 a.m. on June 6 surrounding their flagship, USS Ancon, in a round pattern. That morning they went in under the guns of USS Texas, and safely made the landing on Dog White Beach, in the middle of Omaha Beach, at 6:35 a.m. The first landing was made at high tide so they could get everything off. They unloaded, but many did not get off the ramp before they were under fire. They managed to land two more times that day unloading supplies.

A big storm blew in and lasted three days. Guimarin said they went to help the British, Canadians and the free French on the eastern edge of Omaha Beach with hauling supplies for three weeks because they did not have enough LCT’s.  “I learned to like tea from the British,” Guimarin said, “That’s basically all they had.” On their way back to their landing site on Omaha Beach, the LCT struck a mine which blew the bow off and sank the vessel. Luckily, the water was pretty shallow. Guimarin remembers swimming out to get the flag off the LCT. It was the same flag they had put on the vessel in New York at Pier 51 and he wasn’t about to leave it behind. He said he carried that flag with him for many years before giving it to his great grandson.

Days later, Guimarin went back to England where the crew split up. He was put on a train to Glasgow, Scotland where he boarded the Queen Elizabeth back to New York. He said, “It only took three and a half days to get to New York. The ship was going about 38 knots which was too fast for any escorts.” The ship had 24,000 people; 12,000 civilians, 10,000 troops and 2,000 German prisoners.

In New York, he was off to the Long Island training base before a 30-day leave. After that he went to Norfolk, VA and then on to Vallejo, Calif. where he met his new crew. “I was the only one with experience,” he said.

On Mare Island in California, he spent about a month before he commissioned a new LCT. They were loaded on a LST and they started on their way to Pearl Harbor. He said, “I remember looking up at the Golden Gate Bridge thinking I hope to see it again.”

They stayed in Pearl Harbor three weeks and then traveled around for a while before going to Okinawa for the landings, April 1, 1945, once again under the guns of USS Texas. They landed the 3rd Marine Division, off loading supplies. Guimarin recalled facing the artillery when they landed and the Kamikaze pilots that tried to sink them or “put them out of business’” as he said.

When the war ended on September 3, 1945, Guimarin said he was offered a raise and $1500. Because he was single without a family, he didn’t have the 75 points he needed to get out of the military. He figured he only had about 50 points. He had made three invasions, but he was still too young. As a result, Guimarin remained on Okinawa on the LCT hauling supplies and dumping stuff in the ocean. He said “I pulled a lot of pins on hand grenades. We’d throw them into the ocean and watch them explode. It was easier to dump the supplies than haul them back.”

Guimarin returned home on Mother’s Day 1946. He remembers seeing the Golden Gate Bridge for the second time, this time in the early morning sun. It was then that he noticed how golden the bridge looked. “It was a beautiful sight,” he said

Upon return, he adjusted to civilian life. He worked for the Case Company in Dallas for one year before quitting to return to school. He married and went to San Antonio Junior College at night and Southwestern Christian College during the day. He received his BA in theology in 1949. He moved to Wimberly where he became pastor of Wimberley Christian church. He remained in that position for 21 years. At the same time he also ran the college museum at Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University) He also attended SW Texas State Teachers College. He got a master’s degree in Education and a teaching certificate along the way.

He raised his two daughters in Wimberley and later divorced. His work career was diverse over the years. He worked at promoting graphic arts in teaching and was the Director of Texas Health Careers Program. His last official position was as the director of the Wylie hospital in the 1970s. It was there he met and married his wife Bonnie and they moved to Lucas.

He served as a substitute teacher for Wylie ISD for many years, and worked as a security guard a few days a week until. He has two grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Today at 91, he possesses a sharp memory and quick wit, and given the opportunity, he will gladly share stories about his very full life.

Robert Riley, Wylie

Robert Riley was just 15 years old when he joined the Navy in Detroit, Mich. in September 1943. He wanted to join so bad he lied about his age. “My mother, of course, was all against this episode,” he said. “My Dad was not near as up in arms as my mother.” Had his parents not ultimately given his consent, Riley said, “I had a plan all worked out that I would go to Canada and enlist.”

Riley was born in Nova Scotia, Canada and moved to Michigan for his father’s job when he was young. He attended basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Northern Illinois. At his Naval orientation he told them he wanted to go to Boiler School.

“After graduation from boot camp I was sent to Chicago to the University of Chicago Culinary Teachings,” he said. “ I kept telling people there had been a mistake made that I was to go to Boiler School. I was told that if I did not attend class here I would be shipped out with the fleet and more than likely wind up in the deck gang.”

He went to culinary school and said he enjoyed the courses. “I did advance in rankings much faster than a lot of my chums,” he added.

When he completed his schooling, Riley was sent to Newport R.I. where the Navy was forming the crew for the USS Bennington CV 20 aircraft carrier.

The young sailor was part of the commissioning crew when the ship was commissioned in Brooklyn, NY in 1944. He was also part of the revered Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Task Force 58, also called Carrier Task Force 58.

“That in itself was a great education. We had many episodes dodging Kamakazi’s in the Pacific,” Riley said.

According to the Dept. of Navy, “The USS Bennington’s first combat operation took place when she participated in Task Force 58’s raids on the Japanese home islands. Bennington also supported the invasion of Iwo Jima in February, hit the enemy home islands again in March and pounded the Ryukyus until Okinawa was secured in June.”

Riley was active during the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and he witnessed the sinking of the Battleship Yamoto in April. He remembers leaving port for their next engagement when they ran into a typhoon at sea. “The waves were so great that they came up over the bow of the ship and crushed approx. 40 feet of flight deck,” he said. “We also lost eight aircraft off the flight deck. After the storm we went in to The Philippines to make the repairs and to retake our position with the task force.”

Riley commented that one of the best things (during his service) was the signing of the Peace Treaty in Tokyo Bay Sept. 2, 1945.  “We laid off the port bow of the Missouri when it all took place. Kind of tattered and torn.”

Returning back to Michigan in 1946, Riley worked on the ore boats on the Great Lakes before he took a job on Guam Micronesia for a period of time helping to rebuild the island from the war damage.

Along the way Riley married, had children and later divorced. Like many veterans, he utilized the GI bill, putting himself through night school at the University of Detroit in the late 50s through the early 60s. He earned his BA in mechanical engineering.

After Guam Riley worked for Ford Motor Company for a bit before moving to General Motors. He remarried in 1980 and seven years later retired after 33 years with GM as a senior staff engineer.

Riley is modest when he talks about his long-accomplished career, not focusing on the titles and the fact that he was called out of retirement at one point by GM, to return to Columbus, Ohio to solve problems that no one else could.

After retirement, Bob and his wife Lorrie built their dream home in Southern Illinois but moved to Wylie in 2008 to be near Lorrie’s daughter Becky, her husband, Miguel, and their 9-year-old granddaughter Taela.

Today at 89, Riley is not a person to sit around. He remains active and invests himself in the community by volunteering at the library, the American Legion Post 315 and, when grandfather duty calls, he can be seen at George Bush Elementary where Taela is a student.

Wayne Spraggins, Murphy

Wayne Spraggins’ illustrious military career started when the Montgomery, Ala. native joined the Navy during World War II not long after graduating high school. It was Feb. 1, 1943. He was 19 years old.

Inducted into military service in Gaston, Ala. Spraggins was one of 120 men sent to boot camp in Bainbridge, MD. He said in a very matter-of-fact tone, “Of the 120 men, 118 of them were Yankees. We verbally had a Civil War every night.”

After boot camp, Spraggins was sent to Boston where he boarded a destroyer bound for the Mediterranean.

“Our ship took two torpedoes protecting an aircraft carrier,” he said. Because they lost their ship, the crew was brought back to Norfolk, VA. While back on shore Spraggins said 12 of them had their appendixes removed. After he recovered, Spraggins, along with 199 other sailors, was placed in the Fleet Marine boot camp.

According to the Marine Corps Association, “The Marines serving in the Fleet were more permanently organized into companies, battalions and regiments, and were landed for drills and exercises on shore whenever occasion offered in order to preserve their military character and keep up their proficiency in military movements and maneuvers on shore.”

Spraggins said that he and the rest of the men were put through an intensely difficult camp and were forced to sleep on the sands of a beach about 40 miles from Norfolk.

“We sure didn’t like the marine sergeant. He was tough on us to say the least,” he said “For two weeks I slept on the sand. We went through some hellacious motions. We even had to play with bayonets.”

From there, Spraggins went to California, traveling from Oxnard to San Francisco before being put on a troop ship.

“Our first stop was Pearl Harbor. We stayed one day then had to get more supplies on Kwajalein Island then we went back on the ship,” he said.

His troop went in with the second wave of Marines to fight in the Battle of Iwo Jima. He said they were put on LST’s (landing ship tanks) and dropped off. Once there he said, “We all dug in to the black dirt.”

“I remember being in a trench and looking over and seeing a Japanese soldier, and noticing that I had 12 rounds of ammo in my gun. After that, all I can remember was waking up and the clip being empty and me missing my teeth,” Spraggins said. Though he’s unsure what followed he remembers someone standing over him saying, “He’s dead” referring to the other soldier. Spraggins lost a tooth when the other soldier hit him full force in the mouth with the butt of his rifle.

After he got hurt at Iwo Jima, he was put on the hospital ship and sent to Guam where he spent the rest of the war.

On Guam, he was put back in the navy and served as a storekeeper until he was honorably discharged in March 1946 as Storekeeper First Class.

He said he went to Midway Island before going to San Francisco. “When I got off the ship I kissed the ground,” he said. He made his way to Tennessee where he was discharged.

Spraggins said the navy tried to get to him to reenlist for another four years but that didn’t work as he had other plans. “I was told that I was a First Class Petty Officer, but if I reenlisted for four more years they would make me a chief right now,” Spraggins said.

“I told him ‘No, I’m going to take the discharge and go to college.’ I knew that there was a better world out there,” he said.

When he was being discharged, Spraggins and a fellow sailor noticed their paperwork history was not complete. “I told the officer it’s important my history be documented.” The officer wasn’t interested and he threatened to have them leave in handcuffs. “We all gave up,” Spraggins said.

He married in Alabama had two sons and later divorced.

Spraggins took advantage of the GI bill and went on to earn a degree in business administration from Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now known as Auburn University. He got a four-year degree in two years, due to his time spent serving in the Navy. During college he worked for the Associated Press, and on the weekends he worked for the Montgomery Advertiser as a police reporter. Upon graduation he was offered a job as a sport reporter for the Houston Post. He covered the Indianapolis 500, the World Series and the Kentucky Derby three times each, and even Little League baseball.

He worked for the Post for four years and went on to hold the position of assistant managing editor with the Houston Chronicle for seven years. Next, Spraggins was offered a job as a foreign correspondent with The New York Times. That position took him all over the world until his editor offered him a job that he turned down because he didn’t want to live in New York.

Spraggins headed back to Houston and soon ended up being co-owner of a very profitable ice machine business until he sold it years later.

As a former writer, Spraggins remains committed to the craft and sends a column under a pen name to the Times on major holidays and writes monthly columns for the Murphy Monitor.

After his military career, Spraggins received three Purple Heart awards.

In November 2015 he was awarded the Congressional Veteran’s Commendation from Congressman Sam Johnson during a special ceremony.

He lives in Murphy with his wife Betty.

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