Local WW II veteran Samuel Spivey displays medals he earned during his service in the U.S. Army, which includes a Purple Heart he received for gunshot wounds suffered in action following the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion.
ALBANY, Ga. -- A child of The Great Depression, Sam Spivey saw very little hope in his future as he lived the hard life of a sharecropper in tiny Canoe, Ala., in the late 1930s.
Both his parents had died when he was young -- his father when he was 5, his mother three years later -- and he was taken in by relatives who were busy trying to eke out a living in hardscrabble rural America. He decided -- and his uncle was more than willing to sign enlistment papers -- that his hope lay in the military.
So in February of 1940, then not quite 16 years old, Spivey arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was assigned to the Army's First Division -- the Big Red One -- where he trained for the inevitable entrance of the United States into World War II.
After training extensively at Benning and at Fort Devens, Mass., Spivey and his fellow "Doughboys" shipped out for England on the Queen Mary. They trained there for a brief period and went to Scotland for amphibious training before getting their first taste of combat in Tunisia in northern Africa.
"The First Division trained for three years before we went into combat," Spivey, who is retired now in Albany, said Tuesday on the eve of the anniversary of the infamous D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. "That's why we were so good."
Under the leadership of Gens. Omar Bradley and George Patton, the Big Red One went from Tunisia to Sicily for a bloody encounter before heading back to England for specific training for the battle that would turn the tide of the war. It became known as the D-Day invasion, and for Spivey and others who survived the battle that cost an estimated 2,500 America lives, it was as close to hell on Earth as he'd ever come.
"They didn't tell us there were these big plans for a full-scale invasion, but we knew it was something big," Spivey said. "It turned out to be this incredible, gut-wrenching experience. We were told going into battle that we could expect up to 50 percent casualties.
"I can't describe the fears we faced. Through it all, I just kept hearing the words my grandfather said to me as I was getting ready to leave Alabama. He just said, 'Always do the best you can'."
Since Spivey, then a mortar section sergeant, and his unit had been in the first wave at Tunisia and Sicily, they were moved to the third wave during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Their objective was to march into and secure Caumount, an important transportation hub.
He recalls vividly the scene as his unit arrived.
"When we left Plymouth (England) and went across the (English) Channel, there were lots of ships in the water," he said. "It took us until the next morning to get in the vicinity, but they held us back because of this intense pillbox where the Germans had been taking out our men. One of our ships moved closer to the shore and finally took out the pillbox, and that's when we went ashore.
"It was eerie; there was fog and mist and smoke everywhere. But our mission was to get to Caumont, and we were determined not to stop until we got there."
Spivey won his first medal for bravery (the Silver Star) on the 22-mile march inland to Caumont. German machine gunners waited in ambush along the route and pinned down his platoon.
"I stepped out from a hedgerow, and they opened fire on me," he said. "I was able to dive to safety, but they'd made a mistake. I now knew where they were. I was able to call in directions for mortar fire, and that cleared the way."
The American soldiers secured Caumont and held their position there for a period before moving on through France. In early August, Spivey's platoon was surprised by a German soldier who had hidden in a wheat field. In the ensuing battle, his platoon leader and his section sergeant were killed, and he was shot at close range during hand-to-hand combat.
"I woke up to a medic saying 'I can't find where the bullet came out'," said Spivey, who was shot in the leg and chest. "That was pretty frightening. I knew Sgt. Miller was dead, but I found out Platoon Leader Mock was being transported to a field hospital with me. When we got there, I asked how he was doing and was told he was dead.
"I was shocked. We'd been together for years, and now he was gone."
Spivey recuperated at a hospital in Oxford, England, and was shipped back to the front lines as soon as he'd sufficiently recovered. But he was a changed man.
"I had a purple passion against the Germans," he said. "One of the things I'd learned in training is that in combat you can't react with anger. That will get you killed. But I had a hard time letting go of the hatred I felt.
"I just wasn't in good mental shape."
Now a war-tested veteran at age 20, Spivey went back into action as platoon sergeant of the First Division's Fourth Platoon. The platoon fought its way across Germany and took part in the infamous Battle of the Bulge. He received a Bronze Star for his bravery in a battle to take German-fortified castles near Liblar, a battle in which his unit lost as many as 60 men.
Spivey came home for deserved R&R in March of 1945, and before he was to report back to his unit, news arrived that the war had ended.
"I went back but had enough points at that time to get out if I wanted," Spivey said. "I was being interviewed by an officer who asked if I planned to stay in, and I said, 'Hell no.' The interviewer said, 'Son, it's not typical for an NCO to answer an officer's question in such a manner,' so I said, 'Hell no, sir'."
Spivey came home to Alabama, found that his lack of education hurt his chances of landing a job that paid enough to support a family, and soon he found himself back in the army.
"I was working for a laundry, and one day I was driving the laundry truck on a route with my assistant, and I came to a red light," Spivey said. "I slammed on brakes, put on the emergency brake and told my assistant to tell our boss I'd quit. I went in and signed back up for the army, had to call my wife to tell her I'd re-enlisted.
"With the jobs I'd had (since leaving the army), I couldn't even afford to buy my family gifts for Christmas. I didn't know what else to do."
Spivey served as a vehicle mechanic with the Third Infantry Division in Korea for 14 months and served as an advisor in Honduras and in the Panama Canal Zone before finally leaving the army after a 22-year career. He worked at a U.S. Post Office branch in Atlanta before coming to the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany in 1966. Heart and back problems were constant issues, and so in 1978 Spivey retired for good. The still-sharp 87-year-old lives now in retirement with his wife of 66 years, Euvida.
In recent years Spivey has made news as one of the leaders of a group that has charged the principles of the Seasons Christian Care retirement community of misappropriating and misusing their funds and belongings. That case is still pending.
Spivey said his life now centers around his four grandchildren. Because his daughters wanted their children to know of his accomplishments during World War II, this old army veteran in 1995 wrote the memoir "A Doughboy's Narrative." It's a compelling story of a quiet hero's contributions and remembrances of a war that changed history forever.
"Some people like to blow their own whistle," he said. "They like the attention. But that's not me. I'm just a simple man who's been involved in some incredible things. I give credit to my friends, my family and the Doughboys on the teams that I was a part of. Those are the people who made me what I am."