A Ship Without Weapons

William Gordon Spence (1918-1983) Taken in the 1940s. This photo hung on our wall for years.

William Gordon Spence (1918-1983) Taken in the 1940s. This photo hung on our wall for years.  His features favored my grandmother’s Hopper family.

The story I am about to tell happened a couple of years before I was born immediately after December 7, 1941. My mother’s brother, William Gordon Spence, was on a navy ship that had no weapons somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Had that ship been detected, it would have been destroyed and all those on board would have been killed.

From the Find-a-Grave Memorial I created and maintain for my uncle, William Gordon Spence was born December 30, 1918 in Neosho, Newton County, Missouri, and he died March 5, 1983 in San Francisco, California. The rest of the biography follows–much of which was taken from The Sterns Family History I found in my Grandmother’s photo album:

“William Gordon Spence was the only son of William Franklin Spence and Oda Elizabeth Hopper Spence. His two sisters were Elva Gail Spence Inman and Marian Elizabeth Spence Van Fossen. He moved with his family to Iowa about 1925 and lived in the town of Marian. He joined the U.S. Navy prior to World War II and made the Navy his career. On April 21, 1951, he married Veronica “Ronni” del Palacio/Anselmi in Los Angeles. Ronnie had two children by a previous marriage: Michele Anselmi Tarkington and Raymond Mario Anselmi. The Spences were based in Hawaii prior to relocation to San Francisco ca. 1955. They lived there the rest of their married lives. William Spence died in San Francisco on March 5, 1983 and is buried in the military section of Olivet Memorial Park Cemetery in Colma, California, (Grave 748)”(1). 

Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the ship my uncle was on. He joined the Navy during an isolationist period, and the ship did not have weapons. They were somewhere in the Pacific the day of the Pearl Harbor attack and knew they had to return to the mainland immediately. Since they had no weapons or any means of defense, they had cut all communications for fear of detection. All radio transmissions were silenced.

“And for two months, we didn’t know whether he was alive or dead,” my grandmother told me.

Then my grandparents received the news that the ship returned to California safely. Everyone on board was fine!

I can only imagine what those people on the ship and their families back home experienced while all of this was underway. I think the ship must have traveled north and moved mostly at night or through in intense fog and then made its way down the coast. At any rate, once the weapons were installed on the ship, it was sent out on duty again.

I heard this story when I was really small–late 1940s. And I heard it repeated by my parents and grandparents from time to time. I grew up wondering whether anyone else knew about that ship.

Fast forward to late 1990s.

Howard and I were living in Colorado. A friend of ours–a Navy veteran– lived with us at the time while he was going to school. He worked as a security guard at the local mall. One night, he came home with a movie he rented–some war picture I no longer remember.

“I heard the darndest story today!” he said as we turned on the movie. “I’ll tell you about it later.”

About halfway through the movie, I spoke up:

“This thing reminds me of a story I heard years ago about an uncle of mine. He was on a naval ship that had no weapons on it when Pearl Harbor exploded. They had to sneak back to the mainland, and for two months, my grandparents and parents didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. The ship returned safely, but what a harrowing experience!”

“You had a uncle on that ship?” our friend exclaimed.

“My mom’s brother!” I answered, surprised that anyone knew the story.

“I met a man at the mall today! He was on that same ship!”

So we forgot the movie and compared the two stories: my memory of my uncle’s experience and the man’s memories of the same experience on the same ship.

What a coincidence!

 

References

(1) William Gordon Spence Find-a-Grave Memorial No. 97969745. Find-a-Grave.com Website. Created: 29 Sep 2012. Date Accessed: 7 Nov 2015. Available online at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=97969745&ref=acom

 

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