CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Henry E. Von Spreckelsen
Henry E. Von Spreckelsen graduated from New Brunswick High School in January 1943, at the age of 17. Though the attack on Pearl Harbor angered him, he always wanted to join the military anyway. “I definitely wanted to go in and do something for my country,” Von Spreckelsen said.
After working as a civilian at Camp Kilmer, an army processing center, for several months, Von Spreckelsen visited a recruiting station in New York. Though recruiters badgered him to join the different branches of service, he was already set on the navy. Von Spreckelsen’s father served on a submarine chaser in World War I, and his ship was credited with sinking a submarine near Gibraltar. Sharing this tradition, he often took Von Spreckelsen and his brothers to naval museums. His family even had a shore house and owned a boat.
After passing his physical, the navy gave Von Spreckelsen 30 days to “clear up any business.” “I’m 17 years old,” he joked. “I don’t have any business to clear up!” On May 20, 1943, Von Spreckelsen officially enlisted, his parents signing the required papers without issue.
Von Spreckelsen attended seven weeks of boot camp in Newport, Rhode Island. With years of outdoor experience as a Boy Scout, he said “It wasn’t bad.” The 80-man barracks saw “a lot of bruised rear ends and casualties from falling out of the hammocks at night.” There were gas drills, swimming classes (where, ironically, some people “had problems” because they could not swim), classroom activities, and a “happy hour” of physical activity every afternoon. “I enjoyed it,” Von Spreckelsen said of his experience, comparing it to the events of the movie An Officer and a Gentleman.
After a week’s leave to visit home, Von Spreckelsen returned to Newport for fire control school. “When they told me that I was gonna go to fire control school,” he laughed, “I thought I was gonna become a fireman!” Through twelve-hour work days, Von Spreckelsen studied manual operation of fire control systems. He also spent a week at a gunnery school elsewhere in Rhode Island, practicing at the rifle range and learning to operate naval anti-aircraft guns and artillery. In their free time, the students ran across the Rhode Island beaches and saw dummy torpedoes washing up from off-shore training. Occasionally, they also ran across the lawns of the millionaires living along the shore!
Von Spreckelsen completed his training in December 1943 and was told to arrive in Pearl Harbor in 30 days. He spent a week at home before taking a troop train from Newark to San Francisco. With no change of clothes and terrible food, the five-day trip was miserable.
Arriving in San Francisco, Von Spreckelsen awaited a ship to report to. For several days, he explored the city and slept at a YMCA before boarding the USS Indianapolis. A band played “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” on a loudspeaker as the ship passed underneath the San Francisco bridge, causing him to cry. “It broke my heart,” Von Spreckelsen said. During the subsequent voyage, he slept in the room where the atomic bomb parts were transported during Indianapolis’s fatal 1945 cruise.
Heavy winter storms beset the three-day voyage, making Von Spreckelsen seasick. He compared the calmness of Pearl Harbor to going “from winter to summer.” An officer asked him to join Indianapolis’s fire control crew, but Von Spreckelsen declined, now knowing his seasickness would bode poorly on such a light vessel. He bunked in barracks overlooking Pearl Harbor for several days before being assigned to the battleship USS Mississippi in the “F” (fire control) division.
Mississippi, Von Spreckelsen explained, was launched in 1918 as one of three sister ships of the New Mexico class (whom she generally served alongside), and had since been overhauled twice. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mississippi was in Iceland supporting trans-Atlantic convoys; the next day, she sailed for the Pacific. Through 1942-43, the ship operated in the Aleutian Islands, and just before Von Spreckelsen enlisted, the Gilberts.
Perhaps accidentally, appropriate to the ship’s namesake state, most sailors were southerners. Most were also volunteers, though there were many draftees as well. Nineteen was the average sailor’s age; “You were an old-timer if you were 25,” Von Spreckelsen said.
Von Spreckelsen reported as a replacement for a sailor killed in the Gilberts campaign. His first station was below decks in the plotting room, controlling main battery firing. His tasks were menial: entering information into the fire control computer and communicating with the bridge staff.
Though protected by the 14” armored deck, Von Spreckelsen did not like his post’s claustrophobic nature, and he feared being trapped should the ship begin sinking. Thus, through conversation with his CO, he transferred to the “sky aft” position. Atop the ship’s mast, Von Spreckelsen controlled the rangefinder for the operators in the plotting room. He much preferred this post, though he mentioned that a friend who felt the opposite remained below decks.
Mississippi primarily served in a shore bombardment role, her twelve 14” guns capable of firing 18 miles inland. Dropping anchor eliminated calculations for the ship’s movement, making fire direction simpler. Von Spreckelsen commented that for the ship’s “excellent” gunnery crews, who constantly trained. “everything was always practice, practice on the ship,” he said.
Von Spreckelsen’s first mission aboard Mississippi was to support Marine landings in the Marshall Islands. In the preceding invasion of Tarawa, standard naval gunfire tactics proved ineffective at suppressing subterranean Japanese defenses. Thus, Mississippi anchored close to the beach to deliver as direct gunfire as possible (The ship was so close that Von Spreckelsen heard Japanese rifle rounds hitting the hull.) This method was much more effective, such that the infantry named a beach after Mississippi in appreciation.
Afterwards, Mississippi anchored off the New Hebrides for several weeks. The ship’s rifling had worn out, causing shells to wobble in flight. New Mexico was scheduled to travel to Washington for barrel replacement, but the more pressing state of Mississippi’s guns meant that she was transferred instead. Meanwhile, her sister ships took leave in Australia. “They had a wonderful time there, which we missed out on,” Von Spreckelsen laughed, “but we did get back home.”
Mississippi drydocked in Bremerton, Washington for two months, with renovations progressing constantly. Though the crew had some leave, they also assisted in the “tremendous job” of overhaul. As a precaution, each welder was accompanied by a sailor with a fire extinguisher. “If that guy had a twelve-hour shift, you were with him for twelve hours,” Von Spreckelsen said. In addition to replacing the main armament, the ship received new anti-aircraft guns, engine facilities, and radar. He attended school to update himself with new equipment. Von Spreckelsen also partook in firefighting training, run by New York City firefighters, on a mockup-ship.
At the end of her overhaul, Mississippi conducted a brief shakedown cruise, with some civilians remaining aboard to finish renovations. Von Spreckelsen commended their work: “They understood there was a war to go to, and they were willing to pay the price.” Especially with civilians on board, things were “loose” in home waters. In contrast, operations in the “war zone” were straining. Each day, Von Spreckelsen stood two two-hour watches and woke up a half hour before sunrise. He rarely slept well. Some days Von Spreckelsen constantly remained at general quarters, eating sandwiches on post instead of mess hall meals.
As supply ships could take a month to cross the Pacific from the US, much of the food came from Australia. Von Spreckelsen did not like it. “We always thought we were eating up all the kangaroos and sheep and lamb,” he said. “So, it was horrible meat… You take it in your mess tray, so you wouldn’t get served it again, and when you get down to the end of the aisle you throw it in the garbage can.”
Even so, food shortages frequently occurred. Conflicts over supplies between Von Spreckelsen’s 7th fleet and the 5th fleet (led by William Halsey) often left the former lacking. Nevertheless, in such situations, simpler meals could still be served: rice, canned meat, bread, dried vegetables, oatmeal, and candy bars.
Occasionally, sailors could go ashore with two cans of beer or soda to relax. They could buy food from the natives, though necessarily remaining wary of tropical diseases. Anything with a skin to peel, such as a banana, could be safely consumed.
For entertainment, games between ships’ crews (such as baseball matches) were held. Von Spreckelsen notably mentioned boxing competitions, known as “smokers.” Interestingly, one smoker in the Philippines was run by Von Spreckelsen’s PT instructor from boot camp, a professional boxer.
Her overhaul completed, Mississippi travelled to assist landings at Peleliu, aimed at supporting the future invasion of Leyte in the Philippines. “That was a mistake,” Von Spreckelsen said of the invasion; Peleliu held little significance and could have been bypassed. In fact, he explained, an American fighter pilot had been downed over Leyte several weeks before. Linking up with friendly Filipinos, he reported no heavy Japanese defenses. This revelation prompted plans to cancel the Peleliu operation as unnecessary, but unfortunately it was deemed too late to alter course. Thus, as Von Spreckelsen said, “Peleliu ended up being a terrible tragedy, all the men lost really for nothing.”
The morning of the landing, Mississippi bombarded the beach for about half an hour. Around daybreak, the shelling ceased, and Marines immediately landed. From his position, Von Spreckelsen constantly watched the beach, close enough to observe the battle clearly. Though his ship was not threatened by Japanese attacks (neither coastal artillery nor airstrikes), the same could not be said for the Marines. Some landing craft prematurely struck coral reefs, and infantry “drop[ped] like flies” as they landed. To avoid revealing their positions, Japanese defenders did not open fire until the Marines hit the beach. “It was a slaughter.”
As the infantry advanced, Mississippi’s fire control crew collaborated with a Marine officer to provide support with 5” dual-purpose secondary guns. All night long, every two minutes, star shells were fired to reveal enemy positions. Japanese snipers, perched in coconut trees, harassed advancing forces. To deal with them, Mississippi fired proximity-fused shells, blasting the tops off trees across the island. Von Spreckelsen also directed fire in support of specific objectives, such as “Bloody Nose Ridge.” After the battle, he received letters of gratitude from some infantry who assaulted that position.
After Peleliu, Von Spreckelsen sailed for the invasion of the Philippines. Mississippi arrived off Leyte three days before the landings to bombard the beaches. A common tactic was to sail slowly just offshore, enticing the enemy into firing on the ship. Their positions revealed, Mississippi would use her superior firepower to suppress them. The invasion was massive, with over 500 ships involved, but resistance on Leyte was light.
About a week later, Von Spreckelsen’s fleet received a report of approaching enemy warships contacted over 100 miles away. With five other battleships (all but herself being Pearl Harbor veterans), Mississippi headed into the Surigao Strait. The ship’s three spotter seaplanes were removed (to prevent interference with the rear turrets) and moored alongside several other seaplanes off a nearby island. Unfortunately, a Japanese bomber later found and destroyed them all! Weeks later, Von Spreckelsen chuckled, “like you order something in a grocery store… they ordered some new planes.”
Having entered the Surigao Strait, the American fleet slowly sailed back and forth along its width. Around 2 am, ten approaching enemy vessels were contacted. They were harassed by PT boats, destroyers, and cruisers for 8-10 minutes before the American battleships opened fire. Mississippi targeted the second battleship in line, “Yamoto.” (Presumably, Von Spreckelsen meant Yamashiro.) Within 15 minutes, the enemy force was decimated.
Despite the battle’s one-sided outcome, Von Spreckelsen mentioned several mishaps. The PT boats attacked ineffectively, launching their torpedoes prematurely under fierce enemy fire. During the battle line engagement, Mississippi nearly collided with another battleship, and she only fired one salvo. (A second salvo was loaded but never launched. These shells could only be removed by firing; thus, after the battle, an impromptu wooden training target was towed behind a destroyer for practice.)
The US fleet held position until daybreak. Most Japanese survivors refused rescue, and one even knifed an American sailor attempting to save him. About a week earlier, a Japanese submarine had machine-gunned American sailors after sinking their ship. Remembering this incident and facing such stubbornness, the Americans made little further recovery effort. Very few Japanese sailors ultimately survived.
Around 9 am, Von Spreckelsen’s fleet received reports of a large surface group attacking a small American force (Taffy 3) just 50 miles to the north, off the island of Samar. His fleet was ordered to respond, and they would be in gun range within half an hour. However, as Von Spreckelsen explained, Taffy 3’s resistance was so stubborn that the Japanese admiral believed he was fighting American fleet carriers, and thence withdrew.
The first kamikaze attacks of the war occurred at this time. “You couldn’t believe it,” Von Spreckelsen said of the tactic. “It was a hard thing to accept.” Standard bombing runs preceded the attacks; and, it took several minutes to realize that the suicide strikes were deliberate. Mississippi was not hit, but many other vessels were. Even hospital ships, deliberately separated from warships, were targeted. “They’re marked,” he explained. “They’ve got a red cross on each side of the smokestack… on the decks, fore and aft… You cannot miss a hospital ship… They had complete disregard for that.”
Von Spreckelsen visited many atolls across the Pacific. The sheltered interior of an atoll made an ideal fleet anchorage, and the surrounding islands could host airbases. At this time, Mississippi sailed into Ulithi Atoll, which was 15 miles across and could hold “the entire fleet.” While anchored there one day, an explosion tore through the ammunition ship Mississinewa, just 1000 yards from his ship. “It just evaporated,” he recalled. Panic ensued, but the assailant escaped undetected. Evidently, despite facing submarine nets and destroyer patrols, a Japanese submarine had infiltrated the atoll to torpedo the ship.
At the end of December, Mississippi escorted an invasion convoy to Lingayen Gulf, preceding landings on Luzon in early January. With no friendly carriers supporting, Japanese aircraft harassed the convoy “morning, noon, and night.” In addition, the convoy traversed narrow straits, allowing Japanese planes to use the islands to approach unmolested by anti-aircraft fire. Von Spreckelsen constantly remained at general quarters.
Finally reaching the gulf, things initially remained “quiet,” and the warships began bombarding the beaches. Then, more enemy aircraft approached, and “all hell broke loose.” A kamikaze, diving out of the sun, struck Mississippi just after noon. The plane missed its target, the bridge (the left wing grazed the superstructure) and struck several anti-aircraft positions. The plane carried a 500 lb. bomb, which fortunately exploded outside the ship.
Von Spreckelsen was in the mess hall when he heard the tremendous explosion a deck above. Rushing to general quarters, he passed the carnage on the way. Upsettingly, Von Spreckelsen recalled stepping over a casualty whose legs had been severed. 42 sailors were killed, with three more missing in action and dozens wounded. Several 5” and 40 mm guns were destroyed. “It was hell to pay,” he said. Von Spreckelsen displayed a metal fragment from the plane he salvaged in the aftermath.
As there were no refrigerators to preserve the dead, burials took place at sea. They were typically conducted at night in open water. Bodies were wrapped in canvas and placed on mess tables at the stern. After saying a prayer, the table was lifted to allow the canvas to slide overboard A 5” shell was placed with the body to facilitate quick sinking and prevent sharks from eating it. “They had a lot of lunch after that battle,” Von Spreckelsen said, attempting to find some light in a “very, very sad” event.
Mississippi received temporary repairs from her own crewmen. Winches were hung off the battleship’s rear gun turret, supporting a three-foot wide coffer dam. Air was pumped into the box, and repairmen lowered in to patch the hull. The battleship then headed to Pearl Harbor for further repairs, and to receive updated radar and guns, thus missing the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Von Spreckelsen’s final combat missions took place during the Battle of Okinawa. “Okinawa was a bloodbath,” he said. “Horrible, horrible, horrible.” Mississippi arrived late to the battle, after the northern half of the island had been captured. To protect the south, the Japanese organized a defensive line centered around Shuri Castle. At a Marine officer’s request, Mississippi’s captain agreed to shell the castle before an infantry assault. The battleship moved closer to the beach to close the range. There were many uncharted shoals nearby, however, and she advanced very slowly to avoid beaching. A small boat motored ahead, equipped with a heaving line to detect obstructions.
A nearby destroyer (possibly the USS Longshaw) paid for not taking such precautions. The brand-new warship, captained by a junior officer, beached itself on a shoal within range of Japanese shore batteries. Mississippi covered the stricken vessel by suppressing the enemy artillery. Once the batteries were silenced, a tugboat arrived to tow the destroyer. Attempting to free the ship tore open its hull, however, and it was declared a loss. As Japanese divers might arrive at night to steal documents or equipment from the wreck, Mississippi destroyed her with 14” shellfire, leaving “nothing but pieces.”
The next day, Mississippi commenced bombardment of Shuri Castle as spotter planes directed fire through the clouds. The first day of shelling did little damage, but after two more days the castle “had disappeared.” (Von Spreckelsen later displayed a kill marking card which included the castle as credit!) Marines subsequently captured it with no casualties, finding dozens of enemy soldiers killed by blast concussion in the ruins. They also discovered lengthy tunnel networks running from the castle, which had allowed the enemy to safely move troops across the island.
After three weeks off Okinawa, another kamikaze struck Mississippi. The plane hit the ship’s stern, killing a chaplain and injuring several mess boys. Mississippi sailed to a floating drydock in Leyte Gulf for repairs. These completed, she patrolled north of the Philippines in search of vessels attempting to retreat to Japan. Not only were no enemy vessels contacted, but no land was sighted for the entire 52-day voyage.
With the capture of Okinawa, angst brewed for the invasion of Japan. “It would have been a bloodbath,” Von Spreckelsen said. “I really thought I’d never live to see it [through].” News of the atomic bombings produced gaiety among the sailors, who “knew they had a chance that they’re gonna go home.” Their chance was realized several days later with the official cessation of hostilities. Displaying a photo of the celebrations, Von Spreckelsen described seeing “the largest fireworks in the world, bigger than any Fourth of July I ever saw.”
Following the ceasefire, Mississippi sailed to cover the landing of occupation troops at a Japanese airfield. Afterwards, she sailed into Tokyo Bay, as Commodore Matthew Perry had done with the first USS Mississippi in 1853. A Japanese pilot came aboard to guide through the minefield. A minesweeper led the way, and Marines lined the deck to shoot any sighted explosives.
A Japanese tugboat approached, with the crew asking for fresh water. The 40 mm guns trained on the boat while an interpreter explained that the crew did not have water. Water conservation, Von Spreckelsen explained, was very important; Mississippi had a distillery, but the fresh water produced was needed for the engines and crew, and could not be spared.
There were also fears that suicide divers would break the truce and plant bombs under the ship. At night, a small boat with anxious Marines patrolled around the battleship. “The Marines on the ship were shooting anything floating by,” Von Spreckelsen laughed. Soon after, he sailed south to Yokohama, where the final surrender took place. Mississippi anchored at the edge of the fleet, but MacArthur’s voice at the ceremony played over the loudspeaker for the crew to hear.
With the war over, Mississippi sailed to Okinawa to shuttle servicemen home as part of Operation Magic Carpet. Around 1,000 extra men came aboard the battleship, sleeping in the crew’s bunks during the day. For the first time overseas, the ship kept its lights on and was “lit up like a cruise ship.” Some feared that a Japanese submarine, unaware of the ceasefire, would target the vulnerable ship, but fortunately these worries were unfounded.
After dropping off men at Pearl Harbor, Mississippi sailed through the Panama Canal toward New Orleans. To reach the city, she had to sail 100 miles up the shallow Mississippi River. To lighten her displacement, ammunition (except for the main battery shells), aviation fuel, and miscellaneous “junk” were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. Along with nine other ships, Mississippi then sailed up her namesake river, only troubled by an occasional mud patch that shook her violently. The governor declared their arrival a state holiday, and schoolchildren lined the levees to wave.
Von Spreckelsen shared several images and documents from his service. Among them was a notebook from the captain’s assistant, who recorded all orders carried out. The notes would later be transferred to an official logbook. Von Spreckelsen noted that some of the “bad stuff” in the notebook never made it into the official log.
Von Spreckelsen left the navy in 1946. He worked at AT&T, serving twelve years as an hourly employee and twenty as a supervisor. After age 58, Von Spreckelsen accepted an early retirement offer. Meanwhile, both of his brothers joined the navy, serving on the aircraft carrier USS Tarawa. During the Korean War, one of them redeployed to Rhode Island per the Sullivan rule, which prevented siblings from serving on the same ship in a warzone.
Several years later, Von Spreckelsen revisited Mississippi, now an anti-aircraft training ship, in New York. He asked if there were any World War II servicemembers left, and one man was brought forward. Evidently, this sailor had joined Mississippi in New Orleans, just as Von Spreckelsen and most other wartime crewmembers left. Mississippi was decommissioned and scrapped several years after.
Remaining a lifelong member of the American Legion and the VFW, Von Spreckelsen attended many reunions. Notably, he recalled a ceremony on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Surigao Strait in Mobile, Alabama, where he found himself “treated like royalty.” The veterans were scheduled to have a ride on an aircraft carrier, but it was called to support an intervention in Haiti. Instead, they toured a modern frigate, which Von Spreckelsen remarked as a “good time.” The next year, he saw the Blue Angels perform at another ceremony in Pensacola, Florida.
If he could ‘go back,’ Von Spreckelsen said, he would reenlist in the navy, but only under the circumstances of the time; he would not want his children or grandchildren to enlist today. “It [WWII] was a complete different war,” he explained. “Today it’s so political… and you’re not fighting for a purpose… and the people don’t appreciate you; they hate you over there. It’s a terrible mess we’re in.”
Nevertheless, Von Spreckelsen felt that his service left him a positively changed man. “You grew up and matured,” he said simply. Von Spreckelsen also felt that the military provided a unique path: “I don’t think it’s something you can teach a person. It’s something that you have to experience.”
Henry E. Von Spreckelsen passed away on June 27, 2011 at the age of 86.