Thursday, December 31, 2015

Albert T. Sprague

Captain Sprague, March, 1945, commanding the Cebu invasion
My mother visited us last night and we got her talking about her father, Albert T. Sprague Jr, who was a Captain in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Mom was born in 1941 just before the United States entered the War, and so didn't see much of her father as a result. The war ended in 1945; Grandpa retired not too many years later and eventually moved the family to central Alabama where he taught in the Department of Engineering at Auburn University. My mothers' first complete memories of her father begin in Auburn, but she remembers he never talked about the war, and there was a sense growing up that asking about it was off-limits.

I thought it would be interesting to delve more deeply ito my grandfather's life. Albert Tilden Sprague, Jr. entered the Naval Academy during World War I. That he joined the Navy is not surprising given his ancestral history: His great grandfather, Seth Ford (1798-1891), was captain of the "Smyrna," a merchant ship, for 25 years, while his grandfather, Albert T. Sprague I (1843-1922) commanded the "Annapolis" before retiring from sea life early, upset with the increasing prominence of steamships (!). His father, Albert T. Sprague II (1870-1943), stepped away from that tradition, becoming an engineer, marrying Ella Worster Baker, and together they had four children: Albert III, Elizabeth (who died in childhood), Willard Ford, and Barbara. My grandfather was technically the "third" Albert of his line, but must have assumed the title of "Jr." during his adult life when his grandfather passed away. Combining the professions of his ancestors, he graduated from Annapolis in 1919 as a naval officer with a degree in Engineering, 28th in a class of 199 men.

Not much is known about his early professional career in the Navy, but he married twice: First, to Ebba Briand, with whom he had three children: June, Evie and Albert Tilden IV. Upon Ebba's death, he married my grandmother, Marie Ancona Robertson, and had two children: my mother, Katharine, and Caroline. Thus my grandmother "inherited" three teenage children and was soon pregnant with my mother, just as the War was breaking out and her husband was away at sea--no easy task!



U.S.S. Beaver, 1943
During World War II, my grandfather was first a Commander of the USS Beaver, a Submarine Tender, from October of 1941 to April of 1942. "Commander" is a rank just below "Captain," and "submarine tenders" were ships that supported submarines, carrying necessary supplies and equipment that subs were too small to carry for themselves. He was then elevated to "Captain" in April of 1942 and given command of the Cruiser USS Raleigh. The rank of "Captain" is the senior most commissioned officer rank below a "flag" officer (Admiral), and in time of warfare especially, to be in charge of a warship was a grave responsibility and a high honor. 



U.S.S. Raleigh

Though there were different "types" during WWII, "Cruisers" were large warships, approximately 550 feet in length, designed to work in tandem with smaller "Destroyers," typically 350 feet in length. They featured big six inch guns and were surprisingly quick for their size, with top speeds of 35 "knots" or about 40 mph. During WWII, it was typical that "Omaha class" Cruisers had a crew of approximately 450 enlisted men and 30 officers.



Naval Operations in Cebu, WWII


That he must have earned respect in his role as Captain is evidenced by the fact he was given even greater responsibility, when in March of 1945, he was asked to lead an invasion of Cebu in the Philippine Islands. Cebu was in the southern Phillipines, regarded as the second most important industrial island in the Phillipines and an important harbor for future Allied operations. It was under Japanese control, garrisoned by 14500 to 15000 Japanese troops. 


"Task Group 78.2" was the name of the Cebu Naval operation, to be done in conjunction with the U.S. Army's "Americal" division, under the direction of Major General William Arnold, which had won earlier fame by its victory at the Battle of Gaudalcanal. Captain Sprague's mission was to lead an amphibious assault on the island, secure the shoreline and provide landing and support for the Army's fight inland. At least three Cruisers and six Destroyers supported the Naval efforts. It's worth noting that typically, "flag officers" commanded these kind of missions, not Captains, and in fact, Rear Admiral Fechteler was originally named the task commander, but he was unexpectedly detached for duty as Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel in Washington, D.C. and my grandfather was chosen to lead in his place. 



Cebu landing
The invasion is well documented in the WWII historical accounts. After bombardment by Cruisers beginning at 2 a.m. and minesweeping along the coastal waters in the very early morning, the first amphibious group began landing at 8 a.m. Military historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, in his book the Liberation of the Philippines, describes the early invasion thus:

Ferdinand Magellan landed at the site of Cebu City on 7 April 1521 and promptly made an ally of the local Rajah. He lost his life on the nearby island of Mactan on 28 April 1521 when personally leading an amphibious assault against one of the Rajah's enemies. The natives caught him in shoal water covering the retreat of his men, who were beyond the then very limited range of gunfire support, and with their spears did to death this greatest of navigators. Four hundred and twenty one years later, Captain Sprague, walking almost in Magellan's steps, was also troubled by shoal waters, but not hampered by lack of gunfire support. Yet he had to surmount one hazard which Magellan never had to face--land mines. (p. 235, Liberation of Philippines, Chicago, 1959)

In fact, ten of the first fifteen LVT's ashore were knocked out by mines only a few yards inland, and adding to the distress, submerged log booms held beaching craft up for several hours. But by the afternoon, the Navy had secured full access, allowing the Army to land and press inward. The Japanese chose not to engage U.S. soldiers on the shoreline in direct fire, but instead created barricades further inland, believing it gave them a strategic advantage. Unfortunately for the them, much of their fortifications were within range of the guns on the naval ships, which blasted away at them as the Army advanced. The eyewitness accounts are telling: "Destroyer fire is excellent," and "Pillboxes destroyed on the ridge, the Japs were smoked into the open, and we mowed 'em down with automatic fire."

Indeed, as with most of the Philippine island wars, it was a brutal, bloody battle. The fighting continued for almost a month, becoming more intense as the Army pushed inward, before all the Japanese fortifications were eventually destroyed, and the few remaining Japanese soldiers retreated to the hills of northern Cebu, deemed "without menace." By the end of the fighting, the U.S. Army had lost 410 men, with 1700 wounded and 8000 "non-battle casualties, principally victims of various jungle diseases." There were just a few Naval casualties, victims of land mines. Some 5500 Japanese were killed, and 8500 more surrendered at the end of the war, including three generals and an admiral. For  youtube video of the Cebu invasion, with actual historical footage, go here.


At some point shortly thereafter, Grandpa was promoted to "Commodore." The rank of "Commodore" no longer exists in the U.S. Navy, but was briefly revived in WWII due to the rapid expansion of the Navy during the war, requiring Captains like my grandfather to assume command responsibilities far beyond that of a single ship. The rank of "Commodore" was the equivalent of a "one-star" Admiral and somewhere around 100 men had that rank in the Navy and Coast Guard by the War's end.


After the War, Grandpa taught at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA and later was name C.O. of a Naval Munitions Dump in Dover, New Jersey, before formally retiring from the Navy in 1948. The Navy honored him at retirement by promoting him to "Rear Admiral" (two stars), and his service to his country now complete, he began civilian life with his family in Auburn. I was only six years old when he passed away and have very few memories of him, but my father credited Grandpa in teaching him how to "play" with us kids. Dad grew up in a rather formal family, but recounted visits when Grandpa would get down on the rug on all fours with my sisters and me, barking like a dog or wrestling with us, as we squealed with glee. At first, he was somewhat taken aback, but realized if a decorated, World War II Sea Captain could do it, then it was probably OK for him to do, too. My sisters and I have fond memories of wrestling with my father, just as my grandfather had done.

Grandpa died in 1968 and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, together with his two wives. He is survived today by his third child, my Aunt Evie, and his fourth and fifth child, my mother and Aunt Caroline. Tom Brokaw, speaking about the men of WWII, said they were America's "greatest generation." It's hard to argue with that. I am simply honored to be his grandson.


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