We are delighted to post an article that was written by a former tour guest, Robert Anderson. He traveled with us on a our D-Day to the Rhine tour, when D-Day veteran and American hero Albert “Spoony” Sponheimer, Jr. joined us.
As the article mentions, Spoony was originally from Seymour, Connecticut near Robert’s hometown of Naugatuck. There is a 100 plus year fierce sports rivalry between the towns. His nephew, also known as Spoony Sponheimer was the long time Seymour High football coach.
After his nephew read Robert’s article he called Robert and told him that his family knew that their uncle Al had served in WWII, but had no idea what his role was. Apparently there were a lot of tears shed at their Thanksgiving dinner.
We appreciate Robert sharing his article with us. It is a beautiful remembrance of D-Day veteran Spoony. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
PFC Spoony Sponheimer: A Legendary American from the Naugatuck Valley
By Robert Anderson
It was early in the afternoon, June 6, 1944. Bullets were whizzing by his head as the beach was being raked methodically with the fire of heavy guns emplaced in the cliffs overlooking the beach. Death and misery surrounded him. His comrades were screaming in pain. Still just a kid himself, he wondered how such a picturesque place could become such a living hell. Cold, wet, and tired Albert “Spoony” Sponheimer looked at his watch. It had stopped at 7:30 AM, about the time he figured he’d hit the beach as part of the 2nd wave of the landing force on D-Day. Preceding the landing, he had watched in absolute shock as his sister anti-aircraft battery was wiped out when enemy artillery scored a direct hit and destroyed the LST (Landing Ship Tank) that was transporting the battery to shore. “All you could see were dead people,” he said as he came ashore. Chaos reigned that morning as landing craft were blown off course and many never made it to their intended landing points. Yet Spoony was still alive this morning on the shore of Omaha Beach as he ran from wounded soldier to wounded soldier providing crucial aid, as was his job as a combat medic in his Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battery. Was it bravery that kept him going or fear? Perhaps he thought he was destined to die but he wanted to save everyone he could before his time was up.
I first met Spoony in the pub of a hotel in London that we were staying in prior to the start of a Stephen Ambrose “Normandy to the Rhine” WWII tour. He was sitting at the bar near me and my two friends, Gary Newell and Tom Szarzynski. We recognized that he was a WWII vet and would likely be joining us. A very outgoing man, Spoony struck up the conversation. “Where are you boys from?” he asked. We explained we were all originally from Naugatuck, CT and introduced ourselves by our first names. He said “What a coincidence. I’m originally from Seymour, CT but now I live in Vermont. Call me Spoony.”
I knew his last name had to be Sponheimer even before he told us. There is a historic rivalry between Naugatuck and Seymour, particularly when it comes to high school football. Yes Albert was the uncle of legendary Seymour football Coach Paul Sponheimer, also locally known as “Spoony.” It is such a small world. As it turned out, he was a regular on this tour. Coming every year, he went on these tours to honor the ones that didn’t come back.
Growing up in Seymour, Spoony was quite an athlete as a star soccer and basketball player, but in 1943 he quit high school to join the Army. As the son of a WW1 veteran, he was very eager to serve and couldn’t be drafted since he was still in high school. When he joined the army, he left his parents and two sisters to fight for his country and a cause he believed in deeply. There were no assurances given that he would ever see his family again.
The Omaha Beach landing area was six miles wide. It is so much larger in life than anything you have ever read about or have seen depicted in movies or documentaries. Soldiers disembarking at low tide from their landing crafts had to run a half mile onto the shore to reach cover. Many never made it. The magnitude of the misery on this beach was indescribable, plus there were three other beaches just about as large. This landing was part of “Operation Overlord,” the Allies successful attempt to breach the “impenetrable” Atlantic Wall built under the direction of Erwin Rommel.
Spoony was fortunate that Rommel did not expect the main attack to happen in Normandy and also had made several blunders that enabled the successful breakout of the Allied troops. Though he did not know at the time, this miscalculation surely helped the Allied invasion succeed and many American lives were spared as a result, likely including his.
Omaha Beach was more than six miles wide and it was packed with troops and equipment disgorged by the non-stop shuttle of Higgins Boats, DUKWs (vehicles that can go both in water and on land), LSTs, and other landing craft. There was a ten foot seawall and a barrier of thirty meter high cliffs that all of the troops and equipment had to pass through in order to get off the beach. There were only five exits from the beach, if you did not count going back into the ocean. These exits were well protected by Widerstandsnesters, or resistance nests. The troops on the beach had to egress through these five exits, or the landing would fail. Time was of the essence, as more troops and equipment were arriving by the minute.
One of the passes was a dirt road leading from the beach inland and it was protected by a Widerstandsnester. Spoony and the men in his battery were some of the first to move off of the beach. They tried to get their halftracks (vehicles with tires in the front and tracks in the back, usually armed with multiple fifty caliber machine guns) through this well protected outlet. One of the halftracks suffered a flat tire, only yards from an active resistance nest. According to Spoony, as they repaired their halftrack the occupants of that resistance nest surrendered without a struggle and their heads held high. Another company of soldiers passed through shortly after Spoony’s unit departed and they took credit for neutralizing that resistance nest. Spoony resentfully says “these guys repeatedly lied and exaggerated how this exit was secured. They made it sound like they were in a ferocious battle, ending when the Germans surrendered crawling out on their hands and knees crying.”
I am proud to say I was there in June 2012 when Ron Drez, tour guide and historian for Stephen Ambrose tours publicly acknowledged the 197th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, Battery A, for its role in the neutralization of this fortification, and opening up this vital passage inland. After sixty eight years of having this contribution overlooked, Spoony finally received the credit he and his team were due.
As a combat medic, Spoony was there to treat the injured and not fight. According to the Geneva Convention, he was a non-combatant. That did not stop Spoony from participating in combat. During the hedgerow fighting that ensued upon the breakout from the Normandy beaches, Spoony’s First Sergeant was manning a fifty caliber machine gun and firing at unseen threats in the next hedgerow. Spoony assisted him by feeding the ammunition belt into the gun. His company commander saw this, and ordered Spoony to stop. Spoony obeyed that order, at least until his commander was out of sight, whereupon he resumed assisting his First Sergeant with the machine gun. Not only could Spoony have been court martialed for this, but if he were caught by the Germans, he would have been executed by a firing squad.
Later, as the Allied troops advanced deep into France, Spoony’s unit was among those greeted as liberators. He spoke of women coming out to hug, dance and even kiss the GIs. The French women gave the soldiers bottles of what they thought was the best “ginger ale” they had ever tasted in celebration. He and his buddies drank lots of it, and ended up feeling very dizzy. They were in the Champagne-Ardennes region and that “ginger ale” was the first taste of sparkling wine, or Champagne, that Spoony and his fellow soldiers ever tasted.
When we visited the Battle of the Bulge Memorial in Bastogne, Spoony was able to put into perspective just how desperate the situation was at that time. The Allied offensive had been very successful to that point, and victory was in sight. The Battle of the Bulge, or as the Wehrmacht called it “Operation Watch on the Rhine,” was a last ditch effort by the Nazis to stem the tide of the war. Launched just before Christmas 1944, the Nazis sought to re-capture Antwerp. Antwerp was a crucial deep water port used to supply the Allies in their drive to the heartland of Germany. In order for the Nazi offensive to succeed, they needed to take Bastogne. Control of that strategic city and its vital crossroads was critical for the Nazi advance to Antwerp.
The Nazis had Bastogne completely surrounded. The American defenders lacked food, ammunition, medical and other crucial supplies, plus the weather was terrible. With continuous storms and low cloud cover, there was no chance for a resupply by air. The situation seemed completely hopeless when General Anthony McCauliffe, the acting Division Commander of the 101st Airborne division, infamously replied “Nuts!” to the Nazi demand of surrender. Spoony, who was staged in Bourcy, just behind the front lines, remarked “It looked like you could walk on top of the Panzer and Tiger tanks all the way back to Berlin!” When the weather cleared, and Patton’s 3rd Army arrived, the tide turned and the Allies held Bastogne. Indeed the siege of Bastogne will go down as one of the most heroic stands an outnumbered and undersupplied force has ever resisted. The loss of Bastogne would have greatly lengthened the war, and surely would have imperiled our chances at an ultimate and complete victory.
Throughout our tour, Spoony grew very close to Gary, Tom and me. I think he felt comfortable with us because we all were veterans, and we grew up in the same area. We did a lot of joking on the tour, and Spoony’s sense of humor matched ours well. We had never laughed so hard in our lives.
Spoony was treated as a celebrity. Everywhere we went strangers came up and started asking him questions. Spoony was very happy to engage these people, but he was getting weaker every day. He was 87 years old and was suffering from respiratory issues. My friends and I started to act as his de facto family. We ensured he had his privacy when needed, and someone to talk to when he wanted. He in turn told us about his personal experiences in the war, and I believe some things he did not care to share with others, as the memories were agonizing.
The day we were on Omaha Beach, it became instantly clear to me that the painful memories Spoony had were still as intense as when they had occurred. I saw him sitting quietly on a bench, overlooking the beach, tears streaming down his face. I know the scenes of that morning played out over and over again in his mind in an endless loop. He could still hear the sounds of gunfire and artillery shells exploding and the screams of men in pain, some asking for their mothers. I’m certain he could still sense the acrid smell of gunpowder, blood and death of that day. Only those who experienced this hell first hand will ever know the depths of such pain.
Spoony returned home after the war. He found work in a shipyard on the Connecticut coast, then he went into the plumbing and electrical business, eventually becoming a Master Plumber. He moved to Vermont in 1965, and was very active in his community. He raised a great family, including two daughters and a stepson. He suffered from nightmares and eventually was diagnosed as suffering from Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder. Spoony was very proud of his service in WW2, and always sought to educate youth and honor those he served with. Very humble, he always hid his own personal stories, histories and accomplishments.
Spoony was unrecognized during the war. The fact that he was not promoted beyond Private First Class may be a testament to that fact; it may also attest to Spoony’s sense of fun and adventure that got him into trouble with his superior officers. The delayed credit for his role in neutralizing the fortification on the Omaha beach breakout is another example of denial of the recognition he deserved.
It wasn’t until 53 years after the D-Day landings that Spoony was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. War is a disorganized hell, and credit clearly is not always given where it’s due. I’m glad to know Spoony received this award, even though it was 53 years late. At last Spoony had been recognized for the heroism he displayed virtually every single day he was in combat, particularly that fateful morning on the shores of Normandy.
Spoony’s reaction to receiving the nation’s 3rd highest honor for gallantry? “I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t deserve that medal any more than any person who stepped foot on the beach that day. I did what I was trained to do. I did what was the right thing to do, just like every other soldier did that day. If you ask me, everyone involved deserved a medal.”
Spoony and I maintained contact after the tour. He was always someone who could lift your spirits when you were down. His sense of humor never failed. He was a bright light in a hostile world, perhaps due to his own experience with the worst hostility imaginable. At home, I have a little military shrine set up. It includes my father’s flag from his military burial, and jars of sand from the beaches of Normandy. Lying across the jar of Omaha Beach sand is the cheap watch I purchased at one of the souvenir shops on the tour. Oddly enough it stopped at 7:30, a very appropriate time where it will always remain in honor of Spoony’s heroism.
On June 30th of 2014, I saw Spoony for the last time. My friend, Gary, and I drove up to the VA Hospital in White River Junction, VT after Spoony had been admitted with severe respiratory problems. His daughter, Denise, told us that when he learned Gary and I were coming to visit, he perked up and started bragging to his nurses that a couple of buddies of his were coming to visit. I have never been so proud to be called someone’s “buddy” before. It is a personal honor that humbles me greatly, and I will take this honor to the grave. He passed away several days later, on July 4th, and he was interred in Arlington National Cemetery in November. By chance I am wrote this on September 30, 2014, and it would have been Spoony’s 90th birthday. Happy birthday Spoony.