”Honor the Past; Deserve the Present“

Karl Spencer

Staff Sgt., 82nd Co. 6th Regiment, 2nd Division, Marine Corps
(January 18, 1897 – February 18, 1977)

Contributor:  Violet Elder

Background

  • Born in Joplin, Missouri, on January 18, 1897, to Madeline and Clifton Spencer
  • Clifton was a railroad engineer
  • Family moved to Denver, Colorado, where Karl grew up
  • Karl was one of three children; the others were Galen and Dan

Enlistment

  • Spencer enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1915 (?)

Wartime Experience

  • Marines arrive in Marne sector
    • Because of the advance of German forces toward Paris, residents of Meaux, France, about twenty-six miles east of Paris, were evacuating when U. S. Marines, 82nd and 83rd companies, arrived in June 1918
    • Regiment marched eastward toward German lines
  • Battle of Chateau-Thierry, June 3-4, 1918
    • Chateau-Thierry is about 50 miles east of Paris
    • U. S. 2nd and 3rd Divisions and French forces prevented a German crossing of the Marne River and a resultant advance upon Paris
      • Note—the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments were attached to the 2nd Division
    • From the front, Spencer wrote his mother, "The Germans were advancing 10K a day when in swept the Marines relieving the retreating frogs and with the 82nd and 83rd companies in skirmish formation attacking, the Huns were stopped and in three hours time were pushed back four kilometers; our losses were slight for the Germans were not prepared to meet a stone wall resistance such as they bumped up against . . . ." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 27 June 1918, TS]
      • Note—Spencer's letters to his mother, cited here and below, explain much of his experience in France. In later years, he did not share his experiences with his children. His daughter comments, "I know he was proud to be a Marine. Being in battle in France in 1918 was not a tea party. He saw lots of action and lost some buddies. He never really told us kids much about it." [Joan Loy Murphy, e-mail to Violet Elder, 16 May 2011]
    • The successful defense of the Marne River set the stage for an Allied counter-offensive that began almost immediately at Belleau Wood, about five miles southeast of Chateau-Thierry.
  • Battle of Belleau Wood (Bois de Belleau), June 6-26, 1918
    • As Marines arrived south of Belleau Wood a French soldier, retreating with fellow French soldiers through American lines, proposed withdrawal. Lore has it that Captain Loyd Williams of the 5th Marines responded, "Retreat? Hell, we just got here!"
      • Note—captain Williams died in the Battle of Belleau Wood nine days later.
    • Capture of Hill No. 142, west of Belleau Wood
      • Hill No. 142 "is a sort of plateau rising out of Belleau Woods" and atop the hill are immense rocks, among which the Germans placed their machine guns [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 27 June 1918, TS]
      • The 82nd and 83rd companies attacked in unison
        • Note—The Marines captured Hill 142 on the same day they attacked it, June 6, but Spencer's account seems to confuse the attack on Hill 142 with the subsequent attack on the adjacent Belleau Wood. Spencer describes how Hill 142 was finally taken in a sixth assault, when Hill 142 was actually taken in one assault, that of June 6. Six assaults followed over a twenty-day period before the Marines cleared Belleau Wood.
    • Assault on Belleau Wood
      • "We formed in the wheat field in wave formation . . . and we rushed up that hill in the face of twenty machine guns—the woods were all full of German snipers. The attack failed, we lost all our officers and half our company." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 27 June 1918, TS]
      • The 82nd Company was in the first of six assaults upon Belleau Wood. Their attempt was unsuccessful, but during the assault an unarmed German soldier emerged from behind a rock, with his arms raised and shouting, "Kamerad." "A dozen Marines rushed forward with fixed bayonets and struck that man full of holes—Orders were to take no prisoners." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 27 June 1918, TS]
      • The cost of capturing Belleau Wood was high. Six assaults on Bellow Woods were required to drive the Germans out. About 1,800 Marines gave their lives.
    • Relief from combat
      • Writing on June 28, Spencer recollects, "Two weeks ago I had a bath—that was a memorable day. The Major decided that his boys needed washing so we marched the whole battalion about 12 k. to the rear of a small village on the Marne River. The town has been evacuated so we made ourselves at home—new potatoes, green peas, onions and honey. I had honey that day but I certainly paid for it. Several of us put on respirators, wrapped up well and invaded the bee hives. I finished with11 bee stings and a great quantity of excellent honey. After that escapade I filled my tummy and then went for a plunge in the River Marne. We were a happy crew that evening." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 28 June 1918, TS]
        • Note—3rd Division's 7th Infantry did relieve Marine units on June 16, a date which conforms with Spencer's June 28 statement about getting a bath, etc., two weeks earlier [The Battle for Belleau Wood, The Doughboy Center, 2010, www.worldwar1.com]
    • Witnessing "an air battle"
      • Writing to his mother, Spencer described an air battle that had taken place during the Battle of Belleau Wood. "I saw a wonderfully thrilling sight . . . –an air battle. For several hours a Hun plane had been flying low up and down our lines observing our activities and probably signaling his artillery our range. He was loafing over our position when out from the clouds above darts a frog plane straight for the Hun; when within range the frog opened up with his machinegun and the next minute the German plane was nothing but a ball of fire." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 28 June 1918, TS]
    • Rest following the Battle of Belleau Wood
      • Comments on Red Cross and YMCA
        • On June 26 Spencer had time to rest and enjoy "a package of eats from Paris—plum pudding and chocolate bars. . . . Twice the Red Cross and Y.M.C.A. (God bless them) have sent us jam and cakes and chocolate and cigarettes. I smoke cigarettes (when I have them) like a trooper, and especially when I am lying in my hole in the ground and the shells are breaking all around; they quiet one's nerves, I believe." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 27 June 1918, TS]
      • Comments on taking "souvenirs"
        • On June 28 Spencer wrote, "Some of our men went out this morning to salvage the dead Germans. They returned with watches, razors, iron crosses, pictures, knives, German money, and allsorts of souvenirs. I don't like salvaging, for the odor of a dead German is stifling; nix on that stuff. The only souvenir I care to bring back to the U.S.A. is yours truly." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 28 June 1918, TS]
      • Comments on seeking recognition as a soldier
        • Having seen the horror of the battlefield, Spencer wrote to his mother, "I used to be ambitious; I desired a war cross and honor, but my ideas have changed. I have seen too many men with those ambitions go down riddled with bullets. One of our lieutenants was shot twenty times while trying to rush a machinegun position, so I've come to the conclusion that I am of more value and credit to my country, to you and myself, as a live soldier, obedient and ready for duty, rather than a dead hero." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 28 June 1918, TS]
  • Aisne-Marne Counter-Offensive (Second Battle of the Marne), July 18-August 6, 1918
    • A combined American and French attack that drove the Germans from the Marne salient
    • In the morning of July 17, Spencer explains, "we were in trucks riding toward Soissons. . . ."
      • Spencer noted that "A traffic jam on Grand Avenue could not compare with the congested condition of this single road leading through the woods. . . . Filing down the right hand side of the road, three columns of infantry, down the left, two columns; on the right center a continuous stream of vehicles, machine guns, carts, provision and munition trucks, hundreds of artillery pieces and their caissons; occasionally a general in his auto; large French tanks and British armored cars, and probably best of all, the French cavalry, regiment after regiment, going forward at a trot; on the left hand side the road coming out were trucks and ambulances and wagon trains. Troops of the world were represented here—the Americans in their khaki; Moroccans and Italians wearing a dirty brown colored uniform; the Scots in their kilties; Englishmen and Canadians in their khaki; Irish troops wearing Tam o' Shanters, and the French wearing all the different shades of blue imaginable. Here was a display of colors that outclassed the rainbow." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 26 July 1918, TS]
  • Assault on Mont Blanc ridge, October 3, 1918-October 27, 1918
    • This ridge in the Champagne region of France, a strategically valuable position, with views to Reims Cathedral in the west and to the Argonne Forrest in the ease, had been held by the Germans since 1914. U. S. Marines succeeded in taking the position.
    • During the fighting many Germans emerged from their trenches surrendering, "with their hands up shouting 'Kamerad" "don't shoot, "quit" and words to that effect." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 15 October 1918, TS]
    • During a lull in the fighting Americans took "souvenirs," Spencer finding "a watch and a fairly good one—at least it keeps good time." [Karl Spencer, Letter to his mother, 15 October 1918, TS]

College

  • Attended Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, earning a law degree in 1922

Employment

  • He was employed by a law firm in downtown St. Louis, Missouri
  • His residence was in Clayton, Missouri

Military service following the war

  • Spencer was stationed in Quantico, Virginia, and in the Reserves until 1926 as a 1st lieutenant

Marriage

  • Spencer married Doris Kathryn Loy on August 25, 1925
    • The Spencers had two children, Joan Loy Spencer and Thomas Kerwin Spencer

Death

  • Spencer died of a stroke at age 80 on February 18, 1977, in St. Louis, Missouri
  • He is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis
(rev.5.27.11)