Howard Spencer recalls walking out of a movie theater in Sharon, Pennsylvania nearly 75 years ago, when a friend ran up to him and said, “Something terrible’s happened.”
The date was Dec. 7, 1941 and word was spreading across the nation that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day, Spencer enlisted in the U.S. Army. Spencer would spend the next four years serving his country – first by training to be a fighter pilot and then training other pilots before flying bombing missions over Europe.
Spencer, now 95, never forgot his wartime experiences and the lessons it taught him. And neither, it seems, has one of the nations whose freedom he helped secure. Last week, Spencer was one of 14 World War II veterans to be named a Knight in the Legion of Honor – France’s highest commendation. Philippe Létrilliart, the consul general of France in Miami, presented Spencer with the award at a ceremony held at a French restaurant in Winter Park, Fla.
“In order to be considered for the honor, you had to have fought the Germans on French soil,” said Spencer’s son, Tom, who accompanied him to the ceremony.
But the members of the 405th Fighter Group did more than just fight the Germans in France, Howard Spencer stressed. “We kicked them out of France!” he said decisively.
Receiving the Legion of Honor prompted Spencer to recall his wartime days and the men he served alongside.
“I’ve asked myself, ‘What does this (honor) mean?’” he said. “When I reminisce about the war, I think of the people who didn’t make it. We went out every day knowing the risks. But we thought we were the best in the world; if you’re not a fighter pilot, you can’t understand.”
Fighting for freedom
After completing a yearlong pilot training program and training other World War II pilots, Spencer was shipped overseas to England in 1943. He later was stationed at an air base in France before traveling across the continent, supporting General Patton’s march toward Germany. As part of the 405th, he flew a P47 Thunderbolt, which carried a 500-pound bomb and four 50-caliber machine guns on each wing.
“Our role was to destroy things,” he said simply. “German tanks, German trucks, soldiers…anything that got in the way or complicated Patton’s route across Europe.”
Because the 405th provided ground support, they flew quite close to the ground, Spencer said, rarely flying above 5,000 feet. As a result, they took a lot of enemy fire without ever having the option of bailing out because there wouldn’t have been sufficient time for a parachute to open.
While the pilots knew their job was dangerous, Spencer said they developed a confidence that saw them through their missions. That confidence was tested on one particular mission, though, when Spencer was assigned to blow up a freight train.
“It was rather exciting, because it was going to blow up,” he recalled. “But as we attacked, the sides of the boxcars opened to reveal rows and rows of German 20 millimeter canons.”
The Germans opened fire and Spencer’s plane sustained considerable damage, rendering it nearly inoperable. Spencer climbed to 5,000 feet and went through the plane’s emergency procedures twice, but the engine wouldn’t turn over.
“I finally said to the Man Upstairs, ‘I need your help,’” he said.
To his surprise, Spencer received an answer. “A voice said, ‘Check the fuel transfer pump.’ I thought, ‘That’s impossible, I’ve already checked it twice and that didn’t work.’ But I did it and immediately the engine started.
“That sort of changed my belief about religion,” he continued. “After that, I felt reassured that things would go right.”
Returning home from the war with the rank of major, Spencer enjoyed a long and successful business career. He and his late wife of 62 years, Casey, traveled the world with their four children, as his career took the family to Australia, Holland and Hong Kong among other places.
“I attribute my business success to the thought processes I developed during the war,” he said. “If you’re going to go out and get shot at, you become confident that you’re just going to keep going. One of the biggest things I learned in combat is there’s always a way.”
A Sawgrass Players Club resident since 1988, Spencer goes to the gym at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club every day and works hard to stay physically and mentally fit.
“I’m very happy with where I am,” he said. “As I enter my 96th year, I’ve enjoyed my life on this soil and I’m planning ahead for the future – maybe not 10 years, but for what I’ll be doing in 2022.”