Remember Charlie, remember Baker, they left their childhood on every acre.
-- Billy Joel
Sam Spivey's 87 now and he's slowed down a step or two. But his mind remains as sharp as ever as he recalls the events that led to his enlistment in the U.S. Army at age 15.
There are times, though, when his ability to recall all those years ago so vividly is a detriment rather than a blessing. As he recounts the horrors of World War II and, on the eve of the remembrance of the war-changing D-Day invasion, remembers the names and the faces of the men who fought beside him but never made it home, he's often overcome with emotion.
"We were just kids, and we didn't really understand what we were fighting for," Spivey said as he recounted his part in the D-Day invasion on the beaches at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. "We knew we were there to fight the Germans, and that was enough for us.
"I can't describe what it was like to go into a battle where they told us we could expect as many as 50 percent casualties. You look at the law of averages ... well, I guess I'm one of the lucky ones. My platoon leader and my section sergeant were killed beside me when some German soldiers came on us out of a wheat field. Those young men, those good men, were killed in the prime of their lives."
Spivey almost lost his life during that encounter as well. He was shot in the chest and leg and woke up to the voice of a medic saying he couldn't find where the bullet that had entered Spivey's chest had exited his body. But Spivey survived the attack and, after a period of rehab, went back to the front lines with a "purple passion against the Germans."
He went back with a vengeance, earning a Bronze Star for his bravery during his platoon's march across Germany. By the time the war ended, he'd earned a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Cross, the Army Commendation Medal and, appropriately enough, the Victory Medal.
Spivey left the Army for a period, returned when he found there were few jobs available back home, and retired for good in the early '60s after 22 years of service. The Alabama native came to Albany in 1966 to work at the Marine Corps Logistics Base here, and he and his wife Euvida, who've been married 66 years, are now happily retired and proud of their four grandchildren.
In 1995, at the urging of his daughters, Spivey wrote a book about his war experiences. In support of "A Doughboy's Narrative," he toured the Southeast. At book signings, he usually encountered young people who were curious about his service. Inevitably, one would ask the question Spivey has never been able to answer: "Did you ever have to kill anybody?"
"I just never could answer that," he said, pausing as emotions swept over him. "I just tell them I was trained to survive."
On days like today, and on Memorial Day and Veterans Day and other such days of remembrance, dignitaries are trotted out to say good things about the men and women who have served in our country's military. And while good intentioned, rarely do such celebrations truly mark the heroism -- the unbelievable bravery -- of scared young men and women who faced down enemies intent on their destruction.
As Sam Spivey said, "It really was kill or be killed."
There aren't many WWII vets like Spivey still around. Time is the one enemy capable of doing what the Germans and Japanese couldn't. But there are plenty of veterans among us who survived their own horrors in places like Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq.
We owe them more than a detached thank you. We owe them more than a token commendation of appreciation. We actually owe these men and women our very freedom.
When the bureaucrats who make decisions on budgets at the local, state and national level -- very few of whom ever put their lives on the line -- chip away here and there at the benefits due veterans, we as Americans owe it to our freedom fighters to speak up. We owe more than our sympathy to those who are now homeless, wondering the streets in search of food, to those who can't find jobs and to those who are suffering from illnesses related to their service.
From this point on, when I hear some fat-cat politician talking about cuts to veterans benefits, I'm going to think of Sam Spivey. And I'm going to do everything in my power to try and urge him to find cuts elsewhere.
These brave heroes have gone above and beyond the call of duty for America. It's about time we returned the favor.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcheralbanyherald.com.