For most of us World War II is a story learned from history books or museums. It is a part of our country’s history. But for some it is not a story. It is a vital part of their personal past that shaped their lives in ways they could never have foreseen. Angelo Spinato is one of those individuals. He tells a tale of a young man that found himself embarking on a horrifying journey that would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life.
A lifetime ago, Spinato, now age 92, was fresh out of high school and eager to begin his college career. He had obtained a boxing scholarship from the University of Southwestern Louisiana’s impressive boxing program. Like most athletes he was consumed with his studies and his sport of choice.
He was on his way back to his dorm on December 7, 1941, when he came across protestors that were protesting the recent bombing in a place called Pearl Harbor. He did not give it much thought. He could not conceive what an impact that bombing would soon have on his life.
I came across Mr. Spinato when he was accompanying his son, who happens to be my boss, to work one day. I thought he was a kind man. I soon realized he was with his son that day because they had just finished up his interview with the National WWII Museum. He told me that there was a total of eight hours of interview coverage. I was intrigued and realized he was so much more than I imagined.
He spoke about his invitation to the WWII Museum’s grand opening of its new wing. He was flattered that he, along with other veterans, were invited to be there to remember the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge – a battle that he had seen first-hand. I wanted to know more about one of our unsung heroes. He was one of the elite who sacrificed so much for our freedom and liberty.
He agreed to tell me his story, and through his eyes I saw a world so unlike my own that my mind was reeling when I left him. I had the privilege of spending numerous hours on various occasions with this amazing man. He had the most inviting smile and no one would ever imagine the sadness that hid behind it. He took me on a vivid journey that started when he left college and ended when he returned home from the unbearable stories of war.
The days following the attack on Pearl Harbor people were flocking to draft polls because they wanted to take a stand. But Spinato chose a different path. He decided to stay in school. He wanted to become a boxer, and staying in the boxing program was his best chance at making it a reality. Programs such as the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) were put into effect to help college students stay in school instead of being sent to war. It was going to help shape the minds of the individuals who were left home to carry the torch.
Spinato decided that he would join the Air Corps but he was not old enough and his mother refused to sign. So he joined the reserves instead and continued his education. In 1943, he learned that the boxing program was going to be closed. Without the program Spinato felt he was ready to move on. He took the test for the Air Force and passed. He started training and was preparing himself to be a flyboy.
During his training he was shoved into an unconceivable reality. The United States was losing troops in Italy and more men were needed in the infantry. He objected to this turn of events. He was discouraged to find out that he was going to be sent to war on the ground to fight against a sadistic enemy.
Without an opinion or a choice he was transferred to the infantry division. He was sent to Texas and that is where the real training began. He trained in a prison camp that was intended to hold Japanese prisoners. His eyes water as he remembers his time in Texas and how people would gather on Saturdays to find the lists of names of soldiers who were never going to return home.
While in training, D-Day came and went, and Spinato felt that he might have avoided war. But two months later he realized war was very imminent in his future. A dangerous 14-day ship ride where enemy submarines lurked beneath landed him in a ruined Le Havre, France. Everything had been destroyed except for the roads. He found his new reality was going to be very harsh. For weeks they waited on the final thrust. Everyone around him felt that the war would be over before they received orders.
Orders did come. He soon found himself in Belgium on a wrecker truck, setting up tents on the fringe of war. War was a life that no one was truly prepared for. “You can’t teach combat in a class,” Spinato said as he recalled those events long ago. Life now consisted of no showers, rations at every meal, taking shelter in bombed-out homes in unbearable cold. Everything he needed to survive had to be carried on his back including shelter, clothing and food.
Yet food and clothing were the least of his concerns during the nights he sat awake inside of fox holes. As German forces attacked from above and soldiers died around him, he felt as if he was inside his own grave. He was frightened and did not know if he would survive another day knowing the only shield he had to stop the bullets and their debris was the surrounding trees.
As the enemy seemed to strengthen it was easy to lose hope. He watched friends get captured and die in their quest to reach American lines. He witnessed one of his closest friends die and spent 23 years trying to make sure his body had been returned to the people who loved him. Injured soldiers were carried by their fellow soldiers through mines, snow and freezing creeks. They found shelter in bombed-out houses when they could and did their best to protect their wounded.
He endured the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, waking up to see the door to the cellar he was sleeping in had been bombed out on top of him along with the entire house where soldiers slept. That was the beginning of more sleepless nights and more bloodshed and more unspeakable loss.
He laid wire for communications while enemy fire rained all around him. He spent nights engulfed in frozen water and watched people loose limbs not just from combat but from dire weather conditions. They were constantly being attacked by enemy weapons, while their own weapons were frozen from the cold. The horrors he survived are unimaginable to most of us.
His rise to Communications Sargent would teach him even harder lessons. “Your decisions decide if someone lives or dies. That is the hardest part of war. Making decisions that you will regret for the rest of your life.”
The war seemed to go on for what felt like an eternity to him. In the final days many men were lost. Most of those men he can name and remember the way that their lives ended. On May 8, 1945, the war ended and Spinato was more than ready to go home. He had seen enough ugliness to last a lifetime. Under Army occupation he remained in Germany until he occurred enough points to return to the United States. When he was finally able to go home, he was instructed that he was going to return to the States for deployment to Japan. Disheartened, he set out on his voyage home to prepare to leave for more war. During the long boat ride he received news that a bomb was dropped on Japan, and the war was over. Spinato was finally going home for good.
Spinato, along with many of his friends and his two brothers, returned home to celebrations and partying. They just wanted to get back to their lives the way they had left them. “We had a lot of life to catch up on,” he said. He graduated from Tulane University in 1947, and married a nice German girl named Catherine Hemmelder, whom he swears I would have loved. They had four children and settled into a wonderful life. He spent most of his career with States Marine Steam Ship Company and retired in 1992 as Vice President.
Today you can find him at lunch with one of his children reminiscing about a life full of adventure, making jokes, or teaching people like me things I have never heard of. His story showed me the worst of humanity where concentration camps stood and decent people turned into monsters. I wondered during our conversations why there was never hostility in his voice. He said the enemy soldiers were men just like him, doing their jobs. “I never lost my sense of humanity,” he said, while showing me the best of humanity in that statement. His faith, courage and grace are humbling. He sees himself as a man who did what was required of him. I see a man who sacrificed himself, lost friends and came home to us as one of our heroes. When our conversation ended, he smiled and shrugged and simply said, “The Lord got me through it.”