Kenneth Jerome Spangenberg, GM, USN
For extraordinary heroism while serving as a gunner aboard the U.S.S. SAN FRANCISCO during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands area on November 12 and 13, 1942. Although mortally wounded by hostile shell fire, SPANGENBERG, with grim determination in the face of intense pain and waning strength, continued to man his battle station until the engagement ended. His unyielding devotion to duty was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave up his life in the defense of his country.”
Kenneth Jerome Spangenberg was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on May 14, 1922; he was born at home on North Jordan Street, delivered by Dr. Eckert. His father was Archibald “Archie” Spangenberg and his mother was Gussie Arner Spangenberg.
Gussie was born in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Archie was probably born in Scranton and raised in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.
Kenneth was the middle of three boys in the family. Vincent was five years older than Kenneth and Robert was five years younger. Gussie never allowed the boys to be called by anything other than their proper names in her hearing and was quick to correct anyone who addressed them with a nickname.
Vincent served in the United States Army and had been in Burma, where he contacted malaria. After the war he continued to work for the United States Government in the motor pool; he resided in Drexel Hill, PA. He died in 1962.
Robert Edwin Spangenberg left Allentown High School shortly before graduation to join the Navy; he served on several ships, including the USS Spangenberg. He was also a 33 year veteran of the Allentown Fire Department. During a blizzard on February 11, 1983, he had a heart attack during a fire and never regained consciousness; he died on February 27. The fire was arson and although the arsonist was identified, he was never convicted because of “procedural error.” Although most of the personal information about Kenneth Spangenberg is from Robert, he seldom voluntarily talked about Kenneth. The pain he felt about his older brother’s death he carried to the grave.
The Spangenberg boys grew up during the depression. The family moved around Allentown several times, living on North Jordan Street, the 400 block of Liberty Street, Jerome Street, and then 14 South Bradford Street. During the depression, Archie, Kenneth’s father, worked for the New Jersey Central Railroad as a fireman; during the war he was an engineer on that railroad. Uncle Thomas Spangenberg from Mountaintop, PA, also worked on the New Jersey Central. The boys sometimes traveled on the railroad between Allentown and Mountaintop. When the steam engine stopped near Mountaintop for water, they got off and went to their uncle’s house. Uncle Thomas had a homemade swimming pond in his yard which was fed by a nearby creek and Aunt Julia made pies which the boys and their cousin, Thomas Jr., stole from the windowsills where the pies were put to cool. Thomas Spangenberg Jr. died in WW II about a year after Kenneth.
Robert and Kenneth were especially close. Vincent, the oldest son, left home at seventeen to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps; at that time Kenneth was twelve and Robert was seven.
Kenneth was described by friends as “happy-go-lucky” and enjoyed practical jokes and pranks. The boys had a dog, Spotty. Kenneth would take Spotty upstairs with him and play the harmonica while Spotty howled. Robert would call the dog downstairs, but Spotty soon returned to Kenneth and howling. Spotty knew the boundaries of the family property and sat at the edge of the yard waiting for the boys when they were away.
Before Kenneth enlisted in the Navy his family moved to the east side of Allentown. Many of the areas which are now developed were wooded at that time. There were some dumps on the east side of Allentown and local boys often went to them with small rifles which they used to shoot tin cans or rats; the boys became proficient marksmen.
Kenneth attended public schools in Allentown, including Harrison-Morton and Allentown High School (now William Allen High School). Hating school, English class in particular, Kenneth quit Allentown High School before he graduated. Young men had only known depression times and they wanted to get a job if they could find one; also, they were aware that they could soon be fighting a war.
After he quit school, Kenneth worked at a diner which was on the SW corner of Union Boulevard and Irving Street in Allentown. One time when the business was slow he took broken plates from the diner outside and threw them up in the air while a friend who had a small rifle shot them like clay pigeons.
He had a jalopy and could usually find several friends to ride around with him. Sometimes, when the gas tank was near empty, he would pull up at a gasoline station and and take a collection from the passengers to put gas in the car telling them, “This car doesn’t run on water.” Another time when the car stopped running Kenneth parked it and went to a friend’s house. When he didn’t come home for dinner Robert went out looking for him and found the car parked in the 700 block of Hanover Avenue. Gussie was angry that Kenneth didn’t let her know where he was, but Kenneth was always able to get out of trouble by making Gussie laugh. Before he enlisted in the Navy, Kenneth bought Robert his first bicycle, secondhand. Kenneth was also a Boy Scout and in early 1940 he was a patrol leader in the American Legion troop. He and his family attended the St. John’s Evangelical Congregational Church and Sunday School.
On September 11, 1940, Kenneth enlisted in the Navy at Philadelphia, PA. He completed basic training at Newport, RI, and was assigned to the USS San Francisco (CA-38) where he served as a gunner’s mate. When Pearl Harbor was bombed during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, the San Francisco was in Pearl Harbor, but not on battleship row at Ford Island with the Arizona and the Oklahoma. Instead, the San Francisco was in a dock area across the channel from Ford Island where it was undergoing an overhaul. Spangenberg’s family was relieved to find that he had survived the Pearl Harbor attack; they knew he was at Pearl Harbor but didn’t know how he was until they received a letter from him telling that he was okay. Within a year, however, Kenneth was to be involved in a battle which would cost him his life.
The military engagement in which Kenneth died was part of a long series of battles to keep Guadalcanal and it’s very valuable airstrip, Henderson Field, from being retaken by the Japanese. On the morning of November 12, Americans began unloading troops and supplies onto Guadalcanal. During the afternoon of that day the Japanese launched an air attack against the Americans. The San Francisco and the destroyer USS Buchanan were both hit, with almost 30 deaths and 50 wounded in a battle which lasted minutes. This was a prelude to the battle which was to follow.
Word came that a large Japanese naval force was steaming toward “The Slot,” which was the water corridor between Guadalcanal and Florida Islands, which are both part of the Solomon Islands. Although they would be badly outgunned, the Americans were ordered to stop the Japanese from retaking Henderson Field. The aircraft carrier Enterprise, badly damaged in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on August 24, had been repaired and was about a day away from Guadalcanal with badly needed planes. Henderson Field had to be held.
Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan ordered a task force of two heavy cruisers: the San Francisco and the USS Portland; three light cruisers: the USS Helena, the USS Atlanta, and the USS Juneau; and eight destroyers: the USS Aaron Ward, USS Barton, USS Cushing, USS Fletcher, USS Laffey, USS Monssen, USS O’Bannon, and the USS Sterett, to meet the oncoming Japanese.
At 0124 on the morning of November 13, 1942, US radar picked up the Japanese fleet. In the battle which followed, the San Francisco was hit 45 times times. The Japanese battleship, Hiei, repeatedly hit the San Francisco, initially with shells designed for anti-aircraft work, intended for Henderson Field, which killed personnel and wrecked equipment out in the open. Then the Hiei loaded armor piercing ammunition. San Francisco’s bridge was hit; Admiral Callaghan was killed, as were Captain Cassin Young, Commander Jerome C. Hubbard, Commander Mark Crouter, and most of their staff.
Lieutenant Commander Herbert E. Schonland was the senior officer on the San Francisco, but as the damage-control officer he was busy trying to save the ship, so command fell to Lt. Cmdr. Bruce McCandless.
The Hiei sank later on November 13. It had been badly damaged in battle and was finished off by aircraft from Henderson Field and the newly arrived Enterprise. American losses were very heavy. The San Francisco lost 107 men during the battles but managed to return to the Mare Island Shipyard in San Francisco where it was repaired and returned to duty in the Pacific. The Atlanta, Cushing, Laffey, Barton, and Monson were all lost. Other ships were damaged. The next day the Juneau was sunk by torpedoes from an enemy submarine and the five Sullivan brothers lost their lives.
Kenneth died as a result of wounds received during a battle off Savo Island and Guadalcanal in the Solomons on November 12 and 13, 1942. He was buried at sea, probably off San Cristobal Island. On December 3, 1942, a telegram arrived, addressed to Archie Spangenbert (the name was spelled incorrectly) stating that “The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Kenneth Jerome Spangenbert gunners mate third class US Navy was killed in action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country.” When the telegram arrived telling of his death, Robert went upstairs and stayed in his room. Robert remembered that when he came down later he had a terrible toothache and his parents had to find a dentist that night to pull his tooth.
Kenneth’s grandmother, Gussie’s mother, lived with the family for many years. She was a strict Mennonite and when the telegram arrived telling of Kenneth’s death, she angered the family by telling them that Kenneth deserved to die because he had been killing others. This grandmother later had a massive stroke from which she almost completely recovered. Outliving both Kenneth and his mother, the grandmother later went to live with another daughter, Elizabeth (Aunt Lizzie), and died in the early 1950s. Although there was a split between Robert and his father for many years from 1950 until Archie’s death, Robert often saw Vincent, his grandmother, and his aunt.
In one of the letters which Kenneth wrote to his mother before his death, he told her that if he died in the war she should take the insurance money and buy a house. Kenneth’s parents, like many others during the depression, had little money and never owned a house. When Kenneth died, Gussie was reluctant to spend the insurance money, calling it “blood money.” She later relented and, according to Kenneth’s wishes, Gussie and Archie built a little white house at 410 Irving Street, just south of Hanover Avenue in Allentown.
There is a small plaque in the ground at the family plot in Cedar Hill Memorial Park on Airport Road in Allentown. For his part in the battle, Kenneth posthumously received the Navy Cross.