One of the Greatest: Oxford WWII veteran recounts his memories of the war

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

COVINGTON -- Grady Spradley is one of a dying generation. A veteran of World War II, he was drafted by the U.S. Army at the age of 19 in 1944. Men like Spradley are the strong, silent type. They don't usually feel the need to share all they've seen and endured.

Now, with so many World War II veterans aging and dying out, more emphasis is being placed on getting their memories on record. Spradley at one time attempted to do that himself, when he started writing his memoirs, but he never finished his book. It's been about 20 years since he put those experiences on paper, and he hasn't talked about them since.

True of many of the Greatest Generation, Spradley doesn't expect glory or fanfare for his service. But there's another reason he doesn't talk about it.

"People don't care," he said. "They don't grasp what happened. They think it's like a movie or something."

But it was real, and Spradley lived it. He never saw combat, but he did see the devastation caused by the war, and it left an indelible mark on his life.

Raised in Moultrie, Spradley turned 19 in December 1943 and was drafted by the U.S. Army a month later. He wanted to serve, he said. Most of his schoolmates were in the military.

He was classified as a medic and served in Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah and eventually transferred to infantry and was told he would be shipped overseas to replace soldiers who had been injured or killed on the front lines.

Spradley was one of 14,000 who set sail on the RMS Queen Mary from Camp Shanks, N.Y. He recalls the American Red Cross and Salvation Army handing out milk and doughnuts to the troops before they departed. They were also given instruments such as harmonicas, potato whistles and piccolos.

"That was a loud thing on that ship 'cause everybody got to playing them," he said.

Up to 18 men were assigned to cabins built to hold two; the soldiers slept on the promenade deck.

"It was the first time I'd ever seen the ocean," Spradley said. It took four days to arrive in Glasgow, Scotland, and from there they headed to England and on to Normandy. They arrived on Omaha Beach six months after the D-Day invasion.

"There were no guns flying at us," he said. The camps there were named after cigarette brands. There was Camp Lucky Strike and Camp Chesterfield.

"We knew nothing, where we were going, what we were going to do," Spradley said. After a few days, the soldiers were loaded onto box cars, 50 to a car, and hauled to Belgium where they were set up in training barracks and over the course of the next week, sent out to the front lines. This was during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major Nazi offensive against the Allies.

At the end of the week, Spradley learned why he was one of only about eight men remaining in the barracks: The military had lost his records.

"They said, 'We can't send you out there without having your records,'" and so, Spradley was sent to Holland to help move a medical supply depot. There he was set up in a condo with a Dutch family. His first night there, he awoke to three gun muzzles pointed at him, held by three hostile men speaking Dutch. After much confusion, Spradley finally got them to understand 'little girl' and they brought in the 10-year-old daughter of the house, who spoke a little English, to translate.

Spradley was held hostage for several hours until his sergeant could be located to verify his story that he was, in fact, an American soldier. It turns out some German soldiers had parachuted behind the lines that night wearing American uniforms. The men were part of the Dutch home guard and were just trying to protect their town.

Spradley was back in Germany when he got word the war was over.

"It was like a Fourth of July picnic," he said.

Though he never got in the thick of battle, the suffering and devastation Spradley witnessed have remained with him all these years. He recalls whole towns decimated by bombs, destitute townsfolk begging for scraps from soldiers' plates or the last bit of coffee in their canteens. Spradley would often go back and get seconds so he could give the food away.

Newly liberated concentration camp prisoners wandered streets in a daze, and some, incredibly, remained where they had been held prisoner, having nowhere else to go. Perhaps the most heartbreaking memory is when Spradley's unit got word there was a town up the road where the Nazis were holding prisoners in a barn. They rushed there only to find a pile of bodies. The Germans told the prisoners they were free to go, then gunned them down as they exited.

A dental technician, Spradley assisted in a dental clinic set up in a schoolhouse for a time. He'd pump a pedal with his foot to get power to the drill.

"Man, you heard a lot of screaming and hollering going on," he said.

Spradley stayed on in Germany for months, awaiting an available ship to take him home; the one he was supposed to be on was overcrowded and he was turned away. He helped set up another military dental clinic in a castle in Frankfurt, Germany.

"Every meal we had at night, there was an orchestra playing," he said, recalling how a German orchestra offered to play in exchange for free food.

He visited Switzerland and Paris on leave, trips that sparked what would become a lifelong passion.

"It made me want to travel. I didn't want to do it in the Army. I thank God I did the tour, but I wouldn't volunteer to do it again," he said.

When he finally made it home, "It was a beautiful sight, to see the Statue of Liberty out there," Spradley said. Having saved money during his tour -- Spradley would buy cigarettes and resell them for as much as $50 a carton, more than he could spend in a month -- his first order of business was to buy a house for his parents, who had lost everything during the Great Depression.

He went on to college and took a job with Ford Motor Company, where he worked for 30 years. He married and had a child. He became a worldwide traveler. He joined the American Legion. Then, Spradley moved from Decatur to Newton County in 1984 and became a television star. Sort of. He worked as a double for Carroll O'Connor while "In the Heat of the Night" was filming in Covington. In addition to Connor, Spradley worked with the likes of Larry Hagman, George C. Scott and Jean Simmons.

He currently lives in Oxford with his second wife, Grace, and is newly a great-grandfather.

Spradley proudly wears a baseball cap emblazoned with "World War II Veteran." He wants to make it to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II monument. He hopes people remember the enormity of the conflict, and the sacrifices made.

"They say 4,000 men have been killed in the Iraq war. There were 6,000 killed at Omaha Beach in one day," he said.