LARGER THAN LIFE: THE LEGACY OF DeWITT SHY SPAIN
Attorney Jonathan Emord
Author of "The Rise of Tyranny"
August 9, 2010
If measured by the human lifespan, we each are reflective of a brief moment in time, but if measured by impact on humanity, a few (those whom we call great) escape the limits of biological time by touching, transforming, and uplifting the lives of others, for generations. Such is the legacy of DeWitt Shy Spain (1919-1969). I am one of those upon whom he left an indelible impression.
On Wednesday, May 12, 1965, at 5:50 PM, my father and I (a four year old boy) stood on the flight line at Royal Air Force Alconbury as the sleek frame of a United States Air Force RF4-C Phantom II made two passes over the base, its jets thundering, then left the sky and screeched its tires on the runway, landing at 5:58PM, following a nine hour flight from Shaw Air Force Base, Sumter, South Carolina. The plane contained the new Commander of the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. When the engines quieted, the canopy opened and out stepped the pilot, a slender, handsome figure, the quintessential emblem of American military power at the height of the Cold War, Colonel DeWitt Shy Spain.
I stood at attention, mimicking my father’s salute. My father was Chief Master Sergeant Ernest A. Emord, Colonel Spain’s senior NCO. In my eyes my father (a former professional boxer who fought under the alias Tommy Reardon with a record of 57 wins, 3 losses, and 1 draw) and this decorated combat pilot were monumental figures, super heroes come to life and, indeed, they truly were.
DeWitt Shy Spain was born on April 24, 1919 in Memphis, Tennessee. An adventurous boy of athletic build, he loved fishing, swimming, and science fiction and dreamed one day of becoming an aviator. At 21 he entered the Aviation Cadets and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in May 1941.
On December 7, 1941, Second Lieutenant Spain was stationed at Wheeler Army Airfield in Oahu, Hawaii, a 22 year old pilot in the Army Air Corps’ 46th Pursuit Squadron. That day Japanese Val dive bombers, Kate torpedo bombers, and high level bombers rained ordnance from the sky, obliterating the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and blowing apart much of Wheeler Airfield. Racing across that battered field in an effort to confront an enemy streaming away after a successful bombing run, Spain mounted his P-36 and was in the second wave of American fighter pilots to get aloft, but he could not find the enemy. Pandemonium, and smoke ascending, everywhere, surface to air fire even involved firing on friendly aircraft.
For his bravery that day, Spain received a commendation from Brigadier General Davidson, Air Corps Commander. On April 20, 1942, he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant; on October 16, 1942, to the rank of Captain; on November 1, 1943, to the rank of Major; and on April 13, 1945, to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
After Pearl Harbor, First Lieutenant Spain continued brave service in the Pacific Theater from 1941 to 1945. In the Seventh Fighter Command, he flew the P-51 Mustang as a fighter escort for B-29’s running bombing runs over Japan from Iwo Jima to Tokyo. He also flew PT-19s, BT-9s, AT-6s, P-40s, P-36s, P-39s and B-16s in the Pacific, accumulating over one thousand hours in the air war, most of which were in P-39s. Promoted to command, he led the first American fighter squadron over Tokyo.
He was awarded the Purple Heart for suffering a slight fragmentation wound to the shoulder while bivouacked in quarters during a Japanese ground assault. Concerning the wound, Spain wrote home to his father:
“Just got your letter worrying about the slight wound. By now you’ve heard all about it, and have quit worrying. I’m a wee bit disappointed because when the scab fell off there wasn’t any scar left, and now I don’t have anything to show around. I’ll have to get out my x-ray to prove it I guess.”
Downplaying the wound and the incident that brought it on, Spain finally confessed some of the details to his father in another letter that came after he was sure his father would not worry about his recovery:
“The other night just before dawn a large batch of Japs succeeded in getting into our sleeping area and started throwing hand grenades on our tent . . . Everybody . . . was in bed, but it didn’t take us long to get out . . . We succeeded getting into our [fox] holes in time to avoid all but superficial wounds such as mine. Some of the other tents . . . weren’t as lucky . . . I’ll gladly admit that I was more scared than I ever thought I could be. Just like in the movies, the Marines arrived just in time and killed every Jap around the place. I think they killed about seventy-five . . . in our area. I’ll never low-rate the Marines again.”
Spain faced the greatest danger in the air, flying on repeat missions throughout the Japanese Empire, engaging Japanese fighter pilots in aerial combat, engaging Japanese ground defenses, and escorting bombers safely to their targets. In another letter to his father, Lieutenant Colonel Spain explained the strain World War II fighter pilots experienced in escorting bombers on long missions:
“We’re still hitting the Japs in their home territory quite regularly, and I’m doing my share. We don’t get to go on everyone, because the Docs say we can’t stand it for long if we do. Those long trips take a lot out of the pilots in mental strain and in actual physical weariness. Try sitting in your office chair for seven hours without even being able to shift your weight, and see how your back end feels. Add about half a hundred odd jobs to be done during that time, fight a few Japs or do a bit of strafing right in the middle of it, and I think you’ll sleep pretty well when you get done. At least you will if you aren’t so nervously tied up that you can’t sleep even then. Of course that doesn’t bother me much, because it seems that I’m sort of “low strung.” It looks like I could go on doing these jobs for quite a while without snapping. I sleep pretty well before missions, and really saw wood afterward.”
In recognition of Spain’s valor and superior performance in leading the first fighter squadron over mainland Japan and Tokyo, he received a citation, complimenting him with these words: “The success of that mission, both in protection for B-29 aircraft and in numbers of enemy aircraft shot down, together with the minimum loss rate of his group on this first and longest ever-water fighter mission of World War II, are a tribute to his leadership, high professional skill and courage, and reflect great credit upon him and the Army Air Forces.” When the war ended, Spain was all of twenty-six years old but had lived a lifetime.
It was this background of humble, dedicated, and selfless service to his country that Colonel DeWitt Shy Spain brought with him when he landed that F4 Phantom jet at RAF Alconbury in May of 1965. A boy of four, I nevertheless could appreciate the greatness of the airmen who surrounded me, all willing to die if necessary to ensure that the Soviet menace did not enslave the free world. So enthralled was I with them and that mission that I pled repeatedly for my father to take me to the air field to watch them fly out in perfect formation day after day. Weekly air sirens would bellow from locations across the base, alerting airmen to their respective missions with a coded message following the alarm, beginning, “Sneaky Pete, Sneaky Pete . . .” I was so impressed by the gravity of the tasks those men undertook and wanted exceedingly to be a part of it. When the alarm would signal in the wee hours of the morning, I would race from my bed to my father’s room as he would rise in fulfillment of his mission. I would pull his uniform from the closet and pull out his black patent leather shoes, polishing them to a perfect shine. He would salute me and dart off into the dark morning, and I would watch him go from outside, flush with notions that he was heading to the flight line where Colonel Spain and the other flyers would be on their way, flying those Phantoms ultimately to the Soviet border.
Despite the weighty mission they fulfilled in those troubled days of the Cold War, certain of these men, like Colonel Spain and my father, were preoccupied equally with their love for their families. They idolized their wives and adored their children. In this, as in many other great deeds that affected the lives of others, Colonel Spain left his mark, preserving within me his memory long past the time he left this earth.
Summoned one early morning by my father, I was escorted to the base command center. Along the way my father told me that this day was very special. “Finnegan, my son,” he said, “today you will be inducted into the United States Air Force.” Down a long corridor and into a room I walked beside my father not knowing what I was about to encounter. The door opened and there stood this four year old boy’s larger than life heroes—Colonel Spain and a few select officers and NCOs. With my father looking on, Colonel Spain then spoke to me, informing me that by the authority vested in him I was thereby made an honorary non-commissioned officer. A very small uniform was presented to me, and I was told to wear it in defense of my country. My specific mission, Colonel Spain said, was to make sure that when the air raid sirens signaled an alert that I went about the base making sure that women and children remained in their homes and that during all other times I made sure that no one littered on base property (which I referred to as “Colonel Spain’s lawn”). At the suggestion of my father, I saluted Colonel Spain and thanked him for the opportunity to serve my country. Thereafter every time the alert sounded, I would put my uniform on, race to get my father’s uniform and shoes ready, and then head out on my bicycle, held up by training wheels, traveling about the base ordering women and children to remain indoors (in point of fact, that was an actual standing order and only I was exempt from it, by order of Colonel Spain). I also regularly detained NCOs and officers who cast gum wrappers and cigarettes to the ground, demanding that they pick them up. “Stop littering on Colonel Spain’s lawn,” I would say.
Spain’s daughter, Randy Spain Romanchek, many years later came into contact with an officer who witnessed one of my efforts to enforce Colonel Spain’s orders and recounted the story: “A friend of my husband’s and mine told us,” she said, “that even though he never met my dad he learned a little about him when he overheard a little boy who was walking on base with his father reprimand an airman who was walking on ‘Col. Spain’s lawn.’” The reference to the lawn actually meant not that the airman was walking on the lawn but that he had dropped litter there and needed to retrieve it. I strictly enforced the orders Colonel Spain gave me, regardless of the rank of the offender. On one occasion, an airman threw down a cigarette butt on his way to church, I raced in front of him and ordered him to stop littering on Colonel Spain’s lawn and to pick up the cigarette butt. The airman smiled and then began to walk around me. I grabbed his leg, wrapping my body around it and holding on for dear life. My father came to the rescue, placing his powerful right hand on the airman’s shoulder and saying quietly but firmly into the airman’s left ear, “if you know what’s good for you, pick up that cigarette butt.” He obliged, and I let go.
Through Colonel Spain’s magnanimous gesture in the middle of his very busy military career, he cast an indelible impression on a young boy’s mind. Repeatedly thereafter I reflected on the greatness of this humble yet extraordinary man. In my own way, throughout my career, I have tried to live up to his great example and the great example left me by his friend and colleague, my father.
In 1969, when I was eight years old and my father was stationed at Chanute Air Force Base, a package arrived in the mail. It was from Brigadier General Spain. The letter recited in a matter of fact manner that Spain had contracted cancer and would die soon. He enclosed the epaulettes of a Brigadier General and a signed photograph showing him stepping out of that RF4-C Phantom II the day he arrived to assume command at RAF Alconbury. (Randy Romanchek recalls her father saying that his tour of duty at RAF Alconbury was his most enjoyable of all.) In the letter General Spain asked that I be given those items along with his thanks for my love of country, service, and friendship. My father tenderly conveyed the word of the letter’s contents to me. “Colonel Spain is dying of cancer, my son,” he said with an expression of deep and abiding sorrow on his face. “He wanted you to have these few important things to remember him by.”
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Brigadier General DeWitt Shy Spain died on April 28, 1969 of lung cancer at the age of 50. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery at Section 4, Site 18, with his wife Joan Kessler Spain (1924-1991). Over the years when near Arlington National Cemetery, I have stepped away for a moment, alone, to visit General Spain’s grave, to remember him, and to say a prayer for him. Having touched a youthful heart and mind in an indelible way, Dewitt Shy Spain lives on in me and will in my children as I recount the story of his remarkable life.
© 2010 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved