Archie Spangenberg and his wife Gussie of Allentown were not accustomed to getting telegrams. So when one arrived at their door on December 3, 1942 they must have known it was the one they most dreaded. It is not known if they noticed at first that the Navy Department had misspelled their last name as “Spangenbert.” It was the message that followed, one that was being delivered to many places in America that year, that their eyes must have focused on: “The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son, Kenneth Jerome Spangenbert, gunner’s mate third class U.S. Navy, was killed in action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country.”
When Kenneth’s younger brother Robert got the news, he ran to his bedroom. He recalled later he awoke in the middle of the night with a toothache and his parents had to call a dentist out of his bed to solve it. The local newspapers would carry the news the next day. It was only later that it was learned that Kenneth Spangenberg had received the Navy Cross for his heroic actions in combat aboard the USS San Francisco and that his body was buried at sea, most likely somewhere off San Cristobal Island in the South Pacific. Even later Gussie Spangenberg would be standing in a Philadelphia shipyard, watching as a destroyer escort with her son’s name on it slipped out to sea. And eventually brother Robert would find himself serving part of his time in the service on that same ship.
Of course, there were many young men like Kenneth Spangenberg who died fighting for their country, who did not get the kind of recognition that he received at the time. And today as the last veterans of “The Good War” who did come home fade from the picture, this is a look back at one of them who did not. A lot of information about Spangenberg and his family comes from the website of the USS San Francisco Memorial Foundation.
Kenneth Jerome Spangenberg was born on Sunday, May 14, 1922. The headlines in the newspapers were telling of the successful end of the Washington Naval Conference that was hailed for stopping the naval arms race in the Pacific between the U.S., Britain and the up-coming power, Japan. Japan was given parity with the two other fleets and was recognized as a colonial power in the Pacific region. In other news, the Army Air Corps' William “Billy” Mitchel was blowing holes in the sides of captured German battleships with airplane-dropped bombs and infuriating the U.S. Navy by showing that the reign of the dreadnought had passed.
But perhaps little of this had much impact on the Spangenberg home at North Jordan Street. Archie, who had born in the Scranton area, was a fireman for the Jersey Central railroad. Later in the 1930s he would be an engineer. Gussie was a Macungie native. Five years before Kenneth they had their first son, Vincent. In the 1930s he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program. He served in the Army in Burma where he contracted malaria. He continued to work for the government until his death in 1962. Robert arrived 5 years after Kenneth. He served in the Navy. Post-war he joined the Allentown Fire Department and served with it for 33 years. On February 11, 1983, he had a heart attack while fighting a fire in a blizzard. He died on February 27th of that year.
Sources note that the Spangenberg household did not have an easy time in the Depression. They had always wanted a home but could not afford one and had to move several times. But sources suggest it was lively household. Robert was to recall brother Kenneth as a practical joker.
One that was recorded had to do with Spotty, the family dog. Kenneth would take the dog upstairs and play the harmonica, which led to its howling. Robert recalled that he would call the dog and get it to come downstairs. But Spotty would soon find its way back upstairs and Kenneth would play, which set the dog howling again.
Kenneth attended Harrison-Morton public school and Allentown High School, now William Allen. According to one source, English was not his favorite subject so he left school. He did odd jobs and had enough money to acquire a car which he drove around town with his friends. He was also active with Boy Scouts as a patrol leader in the American Legion troop. But the world did not stand still for Kenneth or his generation. On September 3, 1939 World War II broke out in Europe. “I don’t see why we can’t stay out of Europe’s real estate deals,” the isolationist local congressman declared, undoubtedly expressing the feelings of his constituents.
But the world had grown too small for that. As France fell to the Germans and Britain battled on alone, a world at war flickered across the nation’s newsreels. It was becoming less and less not a question of if but when the U.S. would enter the war. On September 11, 1940 Kenneth Spangenberg joined the U.S. Navy at Philadelphia. He took his basic training at Newport, Rhode Island and was assigned to the USS San Francisco, a heavy cruiser. On December 7, 1941 the ship was at Pearl Harbor for repairs and was not on Ford Island’s “Battleship Row” and so escaped the fate of the Arizona and Oklahoma. Its big guns were not operable but the crew who were there, and many were on shore, did what they could. It took a little while, but eventually the Spangenbergs heard from their son by letter that he was ok.
The battle that took Kenneth Spangenberg’s life took place on November 13, 1942. It was one of many that took place to keep the Japanese from retaking Guadalcanal and its Henderson Field airstrip. It began on November 12th when Americans began to land troops and supplies on Guadalcanal. Suddenly the San Francisco and the destroyer USS Buchanan were attacked by a swarm of Japanese planes. While the attack lasted only minutes it resulted in 30 deaths and 50 wounded. But this was only a prelude. Word came that a large Japanese fleet was on the way. The carrier Enterprise was a day away. Until then they were to defend Guadalcanal at all costs. Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan ordered his two heavy cruisers, the USS San Francisco and the USS Portland, as well as three light cruisers and eight destroyers to be ready for action.
It came at 1:24 am on November 13, 1942 when radar found the Japanese fleet. The San Francisco soon found itself in the middle of the action. At one point the fighting became so confused that the San Francisco was firing on the light cruiser USS Atlanta, killing a number of its officers and men. It was the Japanese battleship Hiei that targeted the San Francisco, first, with anti-aircraft shells that had been intended for Henderson Field. This was followed by a stream of armor piercing shells. They slammed into the San Francisco’s bridge, killing Admiral Callaghan and most of the ship’s senior officers. Kenneth Spangenberg, at his post and wounded, and “in the face of intense pain and waning strength,” continued to fire at the enemy.
But the San Francisco’s attacker had not been spared. The Hiei was badly damaged by the battle. Aircraft from Henderson field came out and the carrier Enterprise finally arrived. Her planes sent the Japanese battleship to the bottom. By that time Kenneth Spangenberg was either dead or dying, one of the 107 members of the San Francisco’s crew to perish. Like many of them he was buried at sea.
Spangenberg had always told his mother that if anything happened to him, she was to take the insurance money and build a house for them. She was reluctant at first but finally she did at 410 Irving Street, just south of Hanover Avenue.