Corporal John J. Spillane, Co. A, 2nd Amphib Tractor Batt.
Serial # 311385
Awarded the Navy Cross for action at Tarawa
Crew chief, Company A, 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion.
"For great personal bravery and heroic conduct. During the H-hour assualt, several enemy grenades on separate occasions were thrown into the troop compartment of his vehicle. Spillane began throwing the grenades out of the vehicle with absolute disregard for his own safety until one exploded in his throwing hand, mutilating it and causing severe multiple wounds elsewhere on his body. His dauntless courage and quick thinking saved the lives of the assualt troops in his vehicle."
Battlefield Heroes - Johnny Spillane
Don't go looking in your record books for Johnny Spillane, you won't find him. He was a prospect who chose the Marine Corps over a Cardinals' contract - a decision that ended his dreams of playing professional baseball.
Johnny Spillane was born on November 1, 1918 in Waterbury, Connecticut. As a shortstop at Wilby High School and with the Trojans Athletic Club he attracted a great deal of attention and was told "You've got a great chance of making the grade in professional baseball," by a Cardinals scout. But Spillane chose to put his baseball career on hold and enlist in the Marine Corps during World War II.
Following boot camp, Spillane was sent to San Diego, California for training on the Landing Vehicle Tracked-1 (LVT-1), a slow-moving assault vehicle (similar to a tank but without the armor or fire power) that could carry about 20 troops and was capable of both land or sea travel. The LVT-1s were invented by Donald Roebling of Clearwater, Florida and were known as "Roebling tanks", and the crews of these vehicles were known as "Alligator Marines."
The following poem was penned by an unknown Alligator Marine.
We are the yanks of Roebling tanks, the Alligator Marines
We drive those tanks through swampy banks..., the Army's never seen
So put her into high boys, a ten foot jump ahead...
Hit the surf and let her roll, there's no sense dying in bed
The Army better stand aside for the soldiers of the sea
The Alligators are on the march to make Naval history
So stand by for the ram boys we're traveling down the beam
We are the yanks of Roebling tanks, the Alligator Marines....
Serving with Company A, 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division, Corporal Spillane set sail from San Diego in 1942 to meet the Japanese tide sweeping across the South Pacific. On August 7, he was involved in the amphibious landings at Guadalcanal where they met little resistance from Japanese forces.
After a period of rest and reorganization in New Zealand (where he may well have played baseball), came the assault on Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands; the first time in the war that the United States faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing.
In order to set up forward air bases capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific, to the Philippines and into Japan, the United States needed to take the Marianas Islands. The Marianas were heavily defended, and in order for attacks against them to succeed, land-based bombers would have to be used to weaken the defenses. But to launch an invasion of the Marianas, the battle had to start far to the east, at Tarawa.
The Japanese forces were well aware of Tarawa's strategic location and had invested considerable time and effort fortifying the island. The 4,500 Japanese defenders were well-supplied and ready to fight to the last man.
On November 20, 1943, Spillane was the crew chief of an LVT-1 escorting the first wave of Marines up the beach when they were attacked. "Grenade!" yelled a buddy as a small black object sailed through the air and skidded along the deck of the vehicle. Like a shortstop starting a double play, Spillane scooped up the grenade and hurled it back. Unhesitatingly, and with complete disregard for his own safety, he repeated this action as another grenade fell into the vehicle. When a third grenade landed, Spillane picked it up like before but this one exploded in his hand before he could toss it away.
"I didn't have time to think, I just kept throwing them back," he said later. "Finally, one came over with a lot of blue smoke coming out of it. I picked it up anyway and just as I pushed back my hand to throw it went off. I was stunned for a minute.
"There wasn't much left of my hand, but I felt no pain."
Spillane's right arm was mangled. His buddy applied a tourniquet and poured sulfa powder over the wound and he was evacuated to a hospital ship where a Navy doctor amputated his hand.
The wounded Marine was shipped back to the United States where he endured a further eleven operations at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. With baseball never far from his mind, Spillane began to practice throwing left-handed and was able to peg a ball from shortstop to home plate.
Pete Gray, was a one-armed outfielder with the Memphis Chicks at the time. He would join the St. Louis Browns in 1945 and Spillane was asked if he might follow in his footsteps. "I'm all for him," Spillane commented. "But I'm a little different. You don't see many left-handed shortstops and second basemen in baseball. I don't think I'll ever be in another baseball line-up."
Spillane received the Purple Heart and was awarded the Navy Cross - the nation's second highest military honor - for extraordinary heroism. "Corporal Spillane's splendid initiative," declared his citation, "fearless action and self-sacrificing devotion to duty in the face of grave peril undoubtedly saved the lives of his companions and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
During the summer of 1944, his story was featured in the New York Journal American and caught the attention of William White, general manager of the Skouras Theaters Corporation, a movie theater chain based in St. Louis. Wanting to help the Marine hero, White arranged for Spillane to attend a World Series game between the Browns and Cardinals. He got the Marine Corps to agree to a ten-day furlough and flew Spillane to St. Louis, where he attended game four at Sportsman's Park and got to sit in the Cardinals' dugout and meet the players before watching the game from a box seat alongside Donald L. Barnes, president of the Browns.
Johnny Spillane talks with Marty Marion, Cardinals shortstop, before the game
After watching the Cardinals beat their cross town rivals, 5-1, Spillane spent the remainder of his furlough at home with his parents in Waterbury.
Johnny Spillane worked at the Mattatuck Manufacturing Company in Waterbury, where he met his wife, Philomena. They lived in the Connecticut town the rest of their lives. "When he came back," remarked Trojans Athletic Club teammate Joe Sileo, "things didn't bother him. He did everything on his own."
Johnny Spillane passed away on March 28, 1996, aged 77.
"He was the nicest person you would ever want to meet," said Waterbury resident Donald Mancini.
copyright 1998 T.O.T.W.
Created 16 September 99 - Updated 13 January 2013
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