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Carson man survived Pearl Harbor

Karl Horeis

Sixty-two years and one day ago, Howie Spreeman had just ordered bacon and eggs for his Sunday breakfast when a plane buzzed the mess hall at the Navy seaplane base at Kaneohe Bay. The Army was known to conduct mock air raids on the base, but never on Sundays.

“Maybe it’s the Japs,” Spreeman joked to his buddies.

Then another plane screamed 50 feet over the building.

“Darn near took the roof off. As he peeled off to the side I could see the big, red meatball on it, and I knew it was the Japanese,” he said, referring to the circular “rising sun” image on the flag.

Spreeman saw white puffs of smoke from the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane’s 37 mm guns. The “day of infamy” had begun.

The seaplane base at Kaneohe Bay was across the island of Oahu from Pearl Harbor. It was attacked about three minutes before the harbor.

“We probably had the first causalities of the war,” said Spreeman. He said both his on-coming duty officer and outgoing duty officer were killed early in the Kaneohe Bay attack -before a single bomb was dropped on Pearl Harbor.

It took Spreeman 15 minutes to get to the hangar two blocks away from the mess hall because he had to dodge strafing Japanese fighters.

“When we got down there, most of the planes were on fire,” Spreeman, now 82, recalled from his Carson mobile home on Friday.

The 20-year-old radioman waded through ankle-deep gasoline to remove a 50-caliber machine gun from a PBY Catalina seaplane so he could shoot back at the Japanese planes. When he couldn’t mount the gun anywhere to fire it, another sailor propped it on his shoulder and said, “Oh, just shoot the damn thing!”

Of 30 Catalina seaplanes on the airfield that day, only two could be salvaged.

“The least damaged of those had over 100 bullet holes in it,” Spreeman said. “The rest of them we scraped together with bulldozers.”

It’s been 62 years since the Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, but Spreeman remembers it clearly.

“There’s some things I just remember,” he says. “And Dec. 7, 1941 is one of them.”

Spreeman remembers hearing rumors that the Japanese had landed on the island and poisoned the water. He and other sailors were told to wear their white uniforms because the blue denim dungarees looked too similar to Japanese outfits. They rolled around in the red soil and used strong coffee to make the white clothing more camouflaged.

Fearing a land attack, the sailors dug fox holes and watched through binoculars from lookouts.

At one point, Spreeman and seven others all clearly saw Japanese tanks approaching along a rural road.

“They turned out to be grazing cows,” he said with a chuckle. “I guess if you expect to see something you probably will.”

He saw a lot of the Pacific during the rest of the war. He recalls using pulleys hanging from coconut trees to lift engines from Catalinas in the Fiji Islands.

Spreeman retired from the Navy in 1960. He then worked for 11 years as a correctional officer in Carson City.

“I wound up a captain at the medium-security prison down at Stewart,” he said.

He retired again in 1975, but he hasn’t slowed down.

“It seems like I’m busier than ever.”

He married his second wife, Rosie, in November 2001. Her first husband was also a Pearl Harbor survivor. He died in 1996. Spreeman’s first wife died in 1997.

Both Spreemans are very involved with the survivors group. He’s a group leader, and she bakes bread and cookies for meetings and organizes raffles.

The group meets once a month, though the turnout is getting smaller.

“Now it’s to the point where there’re not too many of us left,” Spreeman said. “And they’re going fast.”

He enjoys going to the meetings and eating the baked goods Rosie makes. It all goes back to missing that bacon-and-egg breakfast 62 years ago.

“Not only did I miss breakfast, but I missed all the rest of the meals that day, too,” he said. “I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since.”

Contact Karl Horeis at khoreis@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1219.