World War II Veteran Interview with C.O Spikes

Life in Rural Woods Preps C.O. Spikes for Heavy Equipment Duty in Europe (World War II Interview with C.O Spikes)

By Bob Holeman

(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans in 2011-12.  Most of these 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).

There are often exceptions to the rule.  C.O. Spikes, Atlanta native and World War II veteran, is one.

Today’s job market virtually demands formal education for success.  But when Spikes completed 6th grade in Atlanta, he concluded that life was passing him by so he forged out on his own into the working world.  The 94-year-old has never looked back at his choice that led to a successful career.  He chuckles that, due to illness, it actually took him three stabs just to get out of the first grade.

It all started on June 30, 1918, when Charles Orville Spikes was born to Woodard and Ella Thomas Spikes in their old log house at Five Forks, near Atlanta.  “Atlanta was a big sawmill town back then.  Dr. John Pugh made house calls, either on his horse or by buggy.”

Spikes’ father worked at the Germain-Boyd sawmill but when it closed, the family moved to Campti for work at the mill there.  Here he began first grade but after only three days, he contracted typhoid fever and he didn’t get in enough days to move up.  A second move after a fire at Campti took the family to the Huttig, Arkansas, sawmill where Spikes tried first grade again.  But this time, it would be pneumonia and the Depression that delayed the classroom pursuits of the young student.  His father decided to return home to try his hand at farming and logging to feed his family of 3 boys and 8 girls.  So it was at Oak Ridge school, a little east of Atlanta, that he’d finally complete first grade.  And second grade and part of third.

That school closed, however, so Spikes began his studies in Atlanta.  “Odell Durham Cobb finished out my third grade year, Charlie Durham’s wife taught me fourth grade and Evelyn Miller was my best-ever teacher in fifth grade.  Sixth grade was as far as I went, with Edna Mae Shaw.  I could make 20 crossties a day and didn’t need any more education.  I’d get 10 cents for a 7×8 or 7×9 tie and eight cents for a 6×8.  At the end of the day, I’d skid other people’s ties.  I made about $2 a day.  I bought my first car when I was 15.”

As a young man, Spikes went to work for R.C. White at the Louisville Cooperage Co.  “The finest white oak staves that there were came from right here.  They were for whiskey barrels that didn’t leak.  I was running jobs for them here in the woods and they wanted me to move to Alexandria.  I was living in Winnfield at the time.  They furnished me a house, car, gas and paid me $45 a week.  I stayed out in the woods most of the time, buying timber, moving things around.  Everything changed all up when I was down there.”

When war broke out, White was able to get two deferments for his key employee who was 24 years old.  But in 1943, Spikes was drafted into the Army and reported to Fort Belvoir, VA, where he was assigned to the 381st Engineer Combat Battalion.  He ran all types of equipment during Engineer School and graduated with a superior rating.

“They shipped us to New York but our train was delayed and we just missed going over on the Queen Mary.  So we went across the Atlantic on the Excelsior with 3,000 soldiers, part of a 59-ship convoy.  From England we went to Le Havre, France, on LSTs with all the equipment.  When that front end dropped, I was the first one off.  I drove a dozer.”

Spikes said the battalion took off, cutting through France to catch up with the fighting force in Holland.  “They assigned me to open up the area between the British 1st Army and the 9th Army as they were heading to the Rhine River.  Some of those places in there were rough.  I went 59 days without a bath or a shave…we’d be trying to get back to the company and they’d turn us around in the road for another assignment.

“We built a road around one town, Wesel, Germany, in one night.  There was a creek running around it but all the bridges had been blown up.  It was easier to build a road around it than to try to pass through it.  It was all dark but you’d be surprised what you could do in the dark.”

The Allies later proved what they could do in a single night, Spikes said.  In a major offensive in March 1945, Allied forces arrived at the Rhine River at Remagen to find a single railroad bridge still intact, despite German attempts to destroy this river-crossing opportunity for the Americans.  “In one night, they put down pontoon bridges one here and the other up river.  I was the first man to cross that pontoon bridge.  I had five roadblocks to clear…I had to bump them around with my heavy equipment to get them out of the way.”  He explained that he watched as a Sherman tank was called in to blow up, point-blank, one of the more stubborn roadblocks.  He then bulldozed the debris.

“This was the final push of the war in Europe,” the veteran went on.  “We were trying to get back to Gen. Patton’s troops but the roads were so torn up that the war ended before we got there.  That was the last of the fighting for us.”

It was the end of fighting but not the end of action for the Winn native.  “A two-star general picked me out and told me to go find the two tallest trees in the forest.  He wanted to build some American flagpoles to show the Germans.  He said I could take as many men as I needed but I’d been doing this all my life.  I told him I only needed the two men I’d been working with, Bob Bagwell and Sanders.  We took a truck, a pontoon trailer and a crosscut saw and headed out into the forest.  We found a stand of pretty, straight spruce and cut two.  Then we dragged them back into town, 105-foot and 100-foot poles.  As soon as we got back, the general got soldiers to scraping and peeling them.  The next morning, they had those poles up with American flags flying on them.”

Although fighting in Europe had ended, the need for materials for the ongoing Pacific Campaign was still great.  “I stayed in Germany for a long time.  They picked me again because I knew something about sawmills.  There were about 80 of them in Germany.  I hauled them supplies so they could cut lumber for the Pacific.  Then they made me a shop foreman.  I had Germans working for me as mechanics and they were very good workers.”

Spikes’ service in Europe ended in 1946.  He was sent back to Le Havre, France, (the port where he’d initially landed on the LST, he mused).  There he boarded one of the many Victory Ships, the Akin, that were transporting American soldiers back home.  Stateside once more, he arrived at Camp Shelby, MS, and received his honorable discharge.

“I came straight back to Winnfield.  There’s no place like home.”  The hard-working young man picked up where he’d left off, getting a job with Louisville Cooperage.  “I went to buy my first truck from Max Theim, a 1946 Chevy truck.  I had to have $1,800 and R.C. White financed it.  I paid him back.”

His work ethic and entrepreneurial drive saw Spikes use his truck and any other resources he could find to expand his interests through the years.  “At one point, I hauled pipe.  They tried to get me to go to New Mexico.  For a while, I hired out to a contractor building a levee.  But I decided to go to work for Dunn Brothers (pipe) and worked with them for 17 years.  For the last five years, I was in charge of everything west of Fort Worth.  I probably strung 1,400 miles of pipe in the San Juan Basin alone.  And way more than that if you add it all.”

Spikes beams as he explains that he’s had two special ladies in his life. The first was Pearl Wallace who he met several years before the war. “She came down to visit her brother, Ross Wallace. She told me, ‘You and me ought to get married.’ We dated for a long time then got married on Feb. 14, 1937. They were together for 28 years. She died in 1965 after a battle with cancer.”  Shortly after Pearl’s death, Spikes met another, Marie Gresham Neal who was a widow herself. They were married in May of 1966 and were together for 45 years. She died December 26, 2011.”

Spikes has three daughters, Judy Marie Finklea, Mary McDonald Kidd and Janea
Thompson. Judy and David had 3 daughters, Desha Hight, Robyn Stephens and Brittany Townsand. Those granddaughters gave Spikes 4 great grandsons, Dustyn Howell, Jacob Hight, Rene Stephens, and Roman Stephens. Mary and Garland had 2 daughters, Brooke Reeves and Kelli Williams. They got busy and gave Spikes 8 great grandchildren, Kathryn Reeves, Anna Marie Reeves, Leah Reeves and Tanner Dane Reeves, Taylor Williams, Jada Williams, Jake Williams, and Maci Williams. (This June 1, Kelli and Keith will have another baby boy). Janea gave Spikes a grandpuppy named Bullet

“I have been a very blessed man, very blessed,” the veteran concludes.