"An Empty Trunk Full Of Memories"
By Michael McCoy 1
Albion New Era - Febr. 20, 2002
After two days of grunting and chugging, we thought our task of helping a young lady move her motherís estate was near completion. That is, until she flipped open the basement door. Full of old tables, shelves and boxes, it appeared that no one had been downstairs in years. Whatever the case, these items could wait until tomorrow.
As we readied to depart, my eye caught a glimpse of an old trunk, buried under rolls of insulation. Curious, I uncovered it and wiped away the dust. I could read a name, "D. H. Spangler." I slowly opened the lid to see that it was empty, or seemingly so.
The owner woke me from my trance. "Yeah, that box was left here when my grandfather bought the house in the 1960ís," she explained. "The Spangler boy was killed in World War II and in that trunk, they shipped home his belongings."
Without orders from my brain, my mouth leaped. "If youíre just going to leave this here or throw it away, Iíll take it," I blurted out.
"Sure, we havenít used it in forty years," she reasoned, after a brief pause. "I donít know why weíd start now."
My gut told me that there was much more to this box than its lack of contents revealed. Worn wood and faded nameóit had a story to tell. Perhaps this empty trunk was full of memories.
Click-squeak, click-squeak, click-squeak. At 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, only the rhythmic hum from the Spangler boysí bikes broke the dawn silence. The year was 1929, and the brothers delivered the morning news, door to door, in the sleepy town of Albion, Indiana. "Donald liked the south route because he always got to stop at the Weber house," younger brother, Robert, now 84 and of Baltimore, Maryland, recently recalled. "They were a wonderful family. The fact that they had a pony didnít hurt either."
"Yeah, Donald used to collect at our house last on Saturdays and stay for lunch," Albion senior, Daisy Weber Winebrenner added. "He would stay and play so long that his mother would always have to call for us to send him home."
Donald Hayes Spangler was born in Albion on May 19, 1918, the fourth of six children of Martin and Myrtle Blue Spangler. In 1936, Donald graduated with honors from Albion High School. After completing two years at Purdue University, Donald received a congressional appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Robert remembers his motherís reaction as being less than enthusiastic. "She cried and cried," he described. "At Purdue, she would still see him two or three times a semester. But now, she feared the visits would be much less frequent. We were a very close family and it hurt her to see him go that far away."
As the events of Pearl Harbor sent shock waves across the nation, the U.S. military geared up. Due to the urgency of war, Donald Spanglerís Academy Class of 1942 was moved up and commissioned on December 19, 1941, just twelve days after the surprise attack. At Boston, in January 1942, Ensign Spangler reported for duty aboard the cruiser, USS Atlanta.
Guadalcanal stood as a seemingly unimportant landmass in the Solomon Islands chain of the southwest Pacific. However, in war, it became a highly prized jewel. Its value lay in its airstrip, Henderson Field.
On November 12, 1942, off the coast of Guadalcanal, the stage was set for one of the most epic naval encounters in U.S. history. A battle group comprised of thirteen American ships was poised to intercept a surface force of fourteen Japanese vessels. Within this group, the USS Atlanta and Lt. Spangler prepared for war.
The DANFS (Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships) contends that the Japanese fleet was picked up on radar at 26,000 yards. Yet, the American fighting force closed within 1,600 yards, in the black of night. Ships that were designed to fight miles apart found themselves on top of each other. Admiral Callaghan, aboard the USS San Francisco, was in charge of the group. In hindsight, it appears clear that he held little confidence in the new technology of radar.
That night, Stewart Moredock of Sacramento, California, served as the operations officer on Admiral Scottís staff, aboard Atlanta. As the distances closed, he remembers the mounting tension on the bridge. "On Atlanta, we were all getting a little jittery," detailed Moredock. "We knew we were getting in too tight. Then the Akatsuki hit us with their searchlights and immediately our guns turned and fired upon her."
Shipmate, Robert Graff of Far Hills, New Jersey was likewise on the bridge of Atlanta. In his mind, he still hears the urgent barking of orders, "After our ship was illuminated, an officer gave the order to counter-illuminate," explained Graff. "I distinctly remember the chief gunnery officer yelling, ĎFuck that! Fire! Fire! Fire!í No sooner said and, ĎBoom! Boom! Boom!í went our guns."
Within close proximity, 27 ships rained war upon each other. Akatsuki, the Japanese battleship that illuminated Atlanta, bore the early brunt of the American fire and was soon on its way to the bottom of the ocean. Yet, it was still able to fire a torpedo that struck Atlantaís forward engine room, rendering it largely powerless.
The DANFS made note of what happened next. "Soon after her duel with Akatsuki ended, Atlanta reeled under the impact of a flurry of what was estimated as 19 8-inch hits when San Francisco, Ďin the urgency of battle, darkness, and confused intermingling of friend and foeí fired into her. Ö Fragments from their impact killed many men Ė including Admiral Scott and members of his staff."
In his memoir, Memories of a Personal Journey, Stewart Moredock recounts that frightful scene. "It was moments after the torpedo blast that all hell broke loose," he wrote. "The superstructure of the ship, including the bridge began receiving devastating shell fire. There was exploding shrapnel all around and the noise was deafening. Ö I saw Admiral Scott coming toward me. He took one faltering step forward and then fell. I instinctually felt that he had been fatally wounded. Ö There was just Captain Jenkins, the skipper, and myself left on the bridge. As far as I am able to determine, all others, about 60, in the area including the radio and navigation stations had died." As a communications officer, Lt. Donald Spangler most likely met his end at his post in the radio room, just below the main bridge.
Both Stewart Moredock and Robert Graff miraculously survived, but received serious injuries that would require years of surgery and rehabilitation. Lt. Spangler and the rest of his fallen mates went down with their ship, and to this day, rest at the floor of Iron Bottom Sound off the coast of Guadalcanal. Joining Atlanta on the ocean bottom were eight other American ships and six Japanese vessels. Collectively, over 3,500 hundred men lost their lives that day. Yet, as the smoke cleared, the day ended as it had begun, with the United States in control of Henderson Field, and Guadalcanal.
The News Comes Home
A knock on the door, accompanied by a telegram is how older brother, Walter Spangler of Atlanta, Georgia, received the news of his brother Donaldís death. "I was living in New York City at the time," he relived. "The telegram came to my door and it just took my breath away. I had to know more, and finally found a crewman that had survived and was recuperating in Long Island. As best he could, he told me the story. I then wrote a letter to Mom, giving her the details of that day."
Younger brother, Robert had enlisted in the Merchant Marines and was returning from a cruise when he received the dreadful report. "It was Easter of 1943 in Philadelphia when my ship got in, and someone handed me a telegram with the news," he confessed. "It was devastating! For that reason, after my time at the Academy was complete, I requested active duty in the Navy. Since Donaldís death, I took it upon myself to investigate every source and read any author I could find that spoke or wrote about that day at Guadalcanal. I needed to know what happened to my brother."
As I look at this most ordinary of boxes, I canít help but think back to the time when it first arrived at the Spangler home. Had a motherís tears spilled upon this trunk as she unpacked her sonís belongings? Had a father spent countless nights sitting on it, alone in the basement, rehashing in his mind the times he and his boy had played catch or read a book together? Had this crate brought a finality that no one was yet ready to accept? Donald was not coming home, and instead of their sonís embrace, Martin and Myrtle Spangler were left with only memories.
The USS Spangler
It was time to put on a brave face. The largest ship ever constructed on the Great Lakes was near completion, and needed a name. The Navy was searching for a fallen hero of mid-western origin, and Donald Hays Spangler fit the bill. They paid tribute to Albionís lost son by naming a destroyer escort in his honor.
Martin and Myrtle were on hand in Bay City, Michigan to christen the USS Spangler (DE-696) at her launch in July 1943. They kept the plate and neck of the bottle, fashioning them into a plaque, always to be proudly hung on a Spangler wall.
The couple was also present in Chicago in September 1943 for the Treasury-Tribune Navy Show, which featured the newly launched USS Spangler. As part of the ceremonies, they met with the captain and crew, took part in photo opportunities and spoke on a broadcast for WGN radio.
LT. Commander William A. Burgett welcomes Mr. and Mrs. Martin Spangler aboard the new destroyer USS Spangler. (Photo taken at Treasury-Tribune Navy Show in Chicago, September 25, 1943 - contributed by Robert Spangler)
Then again in October 1943, they were with the Spangler in New Orleans for her official commissioning. The family always considered it a great honor that the Navy would name a ship after their son, and Martin and Myrtle were determined to do all they could to show their appreciation. Well after warís end, Myrtle even traveled to California to take part in ceremonies following an overhaul of the Spangler.
In World War II, the USS Spangler saw action throughout the Pacific. Navy Veteran Ted Smith of Springfield, Illinois, proudly remembers his days aboard the destroyer escort, from 1943 to 1945, "She was a great ship," he offered. "We spent a lot of our time dropping depth charges on Japanese subs. As for Donald, I remember a plaque in the mess hall telling his story."
Ironically, the USS Spangler spent much time in and around the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal. One wonders, how many times the ship passed over the watery grave of her namesake, Donald Spangler and his ship, Atlanta.
The DANFS reports that in 1958, the USS Spangler was decommissioned and joined the Pacific Reserve Fleet. There she served until March 1972, when her name was struck from the official active record, and she was sold for scrap.
The timeless adage "old memories die hard" has never been truer than for our war veterans. Atlanta survivor, Stewart Moredock, will never forget that day, but more precisely, he will never forget the faces. "The whole experience was something I could never really talk about," he mourned. "The first time was in 1992, when I returned to Guadalcanal to take part in the filming of a National Geographic special. Iíve had nightmares for the longest time and although theyíve decreased over the years, they still havenít ceased. Itís the men you think about the most."
Shipmate Robert Graff can still see Spanglerís face. "We were both ensigns and all of us hung around together, so I got to know Donald," he admitted. "We would always kid him about Ďtaking the Kingís shilling.í Most of us other ensigns were all reservists, but Donald was from the Academy, so we would rib him about being ĎNaval royalty.í I remember him as being intelligent, straight-forward and a wonderful young man. Itís really too bad."
In hearing brothers, Robert and Walter, talk of Donald, you canít help but realize that a part of them died too that day. Growing up, they were as close as brothers could be, all sharing much, including the same tiny bedroom. "We used to have a lot of fun together," Robert recalled. "I remember us playing cowboys and Indians down at the creek west of town. And I still remember the time Walter and Donald put marbles under my sheets, just to see my reaction when I jumped into bed."
Similarly, a community never forgets. Many of those, wiser for their years, still speak wistfully of simpler times, when the Spangler boys delivered their morning news. Albionís Spangler-McGinley Post 6413, Veterans of Foreign Wars was named in honor of Donald and another fallen local hero, Edward McGinley. Albion still holds Donald Hays Spangler dear to her heart, nearly sixty years after his death.
Passing The Torch
As I unloaded the box and hauled it into my house, I felt as if I was carrying a treasure chest. But rather than gold or silver, it was full of something much more valuableóthe memories of a young man who went off to fight for his country, never to return.
I set the trunk on the floor. My curious six-year-old son, Connor, approached. "Whatís this old box, Dad?" he asked. As with most six-year-olds, he has more questions than time for answers.
He opened the lid, and continued, "Looks empty, what was in it? Whatís this name on the top and sides?"
As more and more of our veterans, and their contemporaries, pass with each setting sun, it seems clear that their stories will soon be gone. Perhaps, through this old trunk, the torch of Donald Spangler has now passed from his brothers, friends and shipmates to me, and my generation. In turn, may we pass it on to our children and grandchildren, never letting the flame burn out or fade away.
Having fully absorbed the contents, I thoughtfully closed the lid. As I put my arm around Connor, both of us now sitting on this "empty trunk full of memories," I began, "This is the story of Albionís own Donald Hays Spangler, someone I didnít really know, but someone I will surely never forget."
1Michael McCoy is a freelance writer from Indiana. His first book, "Bootprints: An Infantrymanís Walk Through World War II (ISBN: 0975915509)," has enjoyed rave national reviews and is currently available online at Amazon.com. Your local library may purchase copies at the wholesaler, Baker & Taylor Books.