Ernie Spangle didn't have to join the military.
In 1943, World War II had already been blazing for more than a year and Spangle was immune from the draft — what was called a protected worker because his skills as an electrician at Allis-Chalmers corporation in Milwaukee were more valuable to the war effort than his service would have been as a soldier or sailor. And with war production ramping up, there was plenty of well-paying overtime work available.
He had another good reason to stay out of the fight: He had a girl.
Lois Gustafson, who worked at the Ashland County courthouse and whom he had met at a policeman's ball at the Bohemian Hall, was his steady. The two planned to get married, and going off to fight in the war was a prospect that neither really wanted to think about.
Yet, like many of his generation — those who fought World War II and who American journalist and author Tom Brokaw named The Greatest Generation — Spangle had strong feelings of patriotism.
"He told me that with so many others going into military service, including his brother, he felt that he should be signing up too," said his son, Randy Spangle.
So Ernie did what his what his heart told him was right.
He left his draft-proof job and enlisted in the United States Navy.
That was the first step in a process that landed Spangle aboard one of the most battle-tested ships in the Navy — and that today makes him Ashland County's oldest surviving World War II veteran.
Going to sea
Spangle was 21 when he entered service on June 13, 1943, and was assigned to the light cruiser U.S.S. Birmingham. During the course of World War II the Birmingham earned a well-deserved reputation for being the "fightingest ship in the Navy."
The Birmingham was the first of a new class of cruisers that were relatively lightly armed but fast and well-armored, intended to be able to slug it out with just about anything except a battleship.
Christened in 1943, the same year Spangle enlisted, she took part in raids on Tarawa and Wake Island, emerging unscathed from both battles.
Spangle was aboard her on Nov. 9, 1943 when she took part in the battle of Empress Augusta Gulf in the Solomon Islands, and was hit by two bombs and a torpedo in a Japanese aerial attack.
"We knocked down seven planes before they got us," said Spangle, who served the same role on the ship as he did in civilian life — an electrician.
He was below decks during that battle when a torpedo, dropped by a Japanese plane, struck.
"The water rushing in was like Old Faithful — whoosh!" he said.
Spangle said he had only bits of memory of the attack.
"It all happened so fast," he said.
Spangle, like the rest of the crew, battled to save their ship, and thanks to her robust construction, the Birmingham didn't sink. Her crew was able to return to to Pearl Harbor for more work before sailing to Mare Island San Francisco for permanent repairs. A photograph of the ship in dry dock shows the enormity of the battle damage; a 30-foot hole blown in the side of the ship. Still, the watertight construction of the ship saved her and she lived to fight again.
The Birmingham would go on to take part in other battles, and was seriously damaged twice more, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf and at Iwo Jima.
Hundreds of men would die in those battles, and Spangle recalls the losses.
"A burial at sea is something you never forget," he said.
But Spangle would not finish the war on the Birmingham. He was transferred to the newly built destroyer Harlan R. Dickson, constructed in Hackensack, N.J. With the Dickson being completed in the New York City area, he married his wife, Lois on July 31, 1945, while on leave.
Lois had never been out of Ashland County before, but at Ernie's invitation, she got on a train by herself and traveled straight to New York City to get married, meeting her husband-to-be in Grand Central Station. They married at "the little church around the corner," otherwise known as the Church of the Transfiguration, a popular location for wartime weddings.
Less than a week later, on Aug. 5, the Dickson began to sail for the Pacific, her crew preparing for what was predicted to be the bloodiest battle of the entire war — the invasion of mainland Japan.
But while they were at sea, word reached the Dickson of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The war was over. The Dickson was ordered to turn around and return to America.
Spangle never saw combat again. He was discharged on Nov. 12, 1945.
Since the end of the war, Spangle has lived in northern Wisconsin, working for 35 years at the Fort James paper mill's maintenance department. He and Lois raised four children and eventually retired in 1987 to Lake Delta in Bayfield County. They later moved back to Ashland.
Ernie Spangle has been a long-time member of the Ashland Veterans of Foreign Wars post, and Lois Spangle was also active in the VFW Auxiliary. The couple enjoyed 73 years of marriage before Lois died in January of this year.
Ernie Spangle's memory of the war now is fading — he can recall some events in great detail, but can't remember others at all. He now lives at Ashland Health Services, a nursing and rehabilitation center, where he turned 97 on Oct. 16.
"We had a big party for him. We joked about him being the last man standing," Randy Spangle said.