ST. ALBANS — Frank Spendley is 96 years old. When he was 20, in 1942, he joined the army and signed up for airborne training. He jumped into Normandy on June 6, 1944, and was involved in every major operation of the war until his discharge in November of 1945.
He has never told his family any stories of his experiences in the war.
“Just remember, son, when you come home, you’re going to have to live with yourself.”
That’s what Spendley’s dad, a World War I veteran, told him the day he boarded a train for basic training.
“He didn’t say a word,” said Spendley, explaining the almost total silence among his otherwise talkative family as they stood waiting for the train. He left for training with those words, and he never forgot them.
As Spendley talks, a large book, published in maybe 1948, is open on the table. Images of soldiers, of parachutes, of corpses and of explosions, captured in black and white.
“Anyone can look at pictures and believe it happened, because they see the pictures,” said Spendley. “But a soldier sees them differently. It puts him in every moment he experienced during his time in the war, and those moments stay with him for the rest of his life.”
When Spendley got back from the war, he said he could not settle down. He couldn’t sleep, so he would go on long walks through the woods until he was tired enough to sleep. He did that for a year.
“It was around Christmas of 1946 that I decided I wanted to visit the families of all the friends I had over there who never came home,” said Spendley. “So I hitchhiked around to visit all their families.
Spendley named at least six places, ranging from Boston to Michigan, to Wisconsin to Ohio, but never gave an actual number of all the families he’d visited. But he did that, and he said it meant a lot to the families.
“After all that, I was an entirely different person,” he said. “I was finally comfortable with civilian life.”
He went on to say his experience in the war was all part of a pattern that brought him to realize how important life was.
“I made the life that I made after the war as meaningful to me as it could possibly be.”
Spendley used his GI Bill to attend Georgetown University after the war, and spent his working life with the U.S. Customs Service, but only after he walked through the woods to sleep and visited all the families, and put his experiences into a box.
Talking about the night of June 5, when after nearly two years of training they were loading up on the planes and preparing to jump into Normandy, he said every trooper dealt with it in his own way, but for him he had a sense that what they were doing was payback to the Nazis. He and his fellow troopers had seen the devastation from bombing in London, so he knew the war would be all encompassing.
“The Nazis had no limitations,” he said.
But Spendley said other thoughts ran through his head on the trip across the channel.
“I was thinking about home,” he said. “June 6 is my sister’s birthday, so I was thinking what a terrible surprise this will be for her. We knew that by noon at least the news would have reached the United States.”
Spendley also talked about being scared, and about praying, and about how books and movies don’t tell the whole story.
“You’re scared, and that fright can immobilize you,” he said. “But you quickly put that aside, because you have a job to do. Fear has no place. You do a lot of praying. And when you see a buddy go down for the first time so close to you, you think of course, ‘that could have been me,’ but then you keep going, and you also know those experiences will stay with you for the rest of your life. You can’t forget it. None of it is forgettable.”
Spendley talked about the young service members coming back from wars today, and how identical their experience is to his and his fellow veterans. The difference, he says, is that he came home in large groups with other veterans, so there was an instant support group.
“We would plan get togethers and talk and meet for New Year’s and things,” he said. “I think the boys coming home today are coming home alone, but they have to deal with the same things that we dealt with. We called it battle fatigue, and now they have a different word for it.”
Spendley opens a box and produces a small flat nickel device. It’s a camera, the kind we might see in James Bond film. He took it from Hermann Goering’s hunting lodge in Berchtesgaden, home of Hitler’s opulent mountain hideaway known as the Eagle’s Nest. Spendley and his fellow paratroopers occupied the Eagle’s Nest at the end of the war.
“It was just laying on the floor,” said Spendley of finding the spy camera. “Because they’d destroyed things as they were leaving ahead of us and that camera just got left behind.”
Spendley also has a Bronze Star, a medal awarded for heroic service in combat. But he’s quiet about that and has to be asked to get it out and show it.
Talking more about his time in the war, Spendley answers questions about contemporary literature and film dealing with the war, billed as realistic and true accounts. The book and subsequent series Band of Brothers, and the film Saving Private Ryan come up, and Spendley said he and other veterans have some issues with both.
“They want to make it as dramatic as possible for the screen,” he said. “They depicted soldiers drowning underwater on the beaches, taking their last breath. That is something nobody ever saw. What they can show that we really saw is bad enough.”
Spendley also said some elements of Band of Brothers were at odds with his and other veteran’s memories, but he chalks that up to individual perspective.
“At Bastogne, there were four of us shoulder to shoulder,” he explained. “And what we saw was worse than the worst car crash you could imagine, and if you ask us to tell you what we saw you’ll get four different accounts.”
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