March 26, 2011 in Washington Voices

Living history lesson

By The Spokesman-Review
J. Bart Rayniak photoBuy this photo

World War II veteran Radarman 2nd Class Del Spear talks to Central Valley High School students about his life aboard the USS YMS-302, a U.S. Navy minesweeper, March 17. Spear assigned several students in alternative curriculum teacher Marcy James’ humanities class jobs aboard the ship, and explained the living conditions and the task of a minesweeping ship during the war.
(Full-size photo)

Students in Marcy James’ humanities class at Central Valley High School received a taste last week of what it was like to be on a minesweeper in the Pacific during World War II.

Radarman 2nd Class Del Spear, 85, visited the class and assigned students positions on the minesweeper USS YMS-302, the boat on which Spear served.

Spear came in wearing the same uniform he had in the Navy in 1944, while students welcomed him with signs, banners, coffee and treats.

Spear grew up in Four Lakes. He told the students about the day he and a buddy went to Cheney when he was still in high school. On the way home, they were listening to music when the program was interrupted. It was Dec. 7, 1941. The radio announcer broke the news about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“To be honest, it didn’t mean a whole lot to us,” he said. He didn’t even really know where Hawaii was at the time.

But soon, his teachers started bringing radios into their classrooms to hear the news of the day.

The day before he turned 18, in 1943, Spear traveled to downtown Spokane to enlist in the Navy.

“They told us to bring only our billfolds,” he said.

He described his boot camp experience at Farragut and told them about his daily routine. He remembers marching a lot and eating beans three times a day.

“If you didn’t like beans you were in trouble,” he said.

He assigned a couple of the students jobs such as bosun, yeoman and quartermaster. Throughout his story, the students would make announcements, much like they did on the boat.

Spear showed them a diagram of the USS YMS-302, which was 136 feet long and 24  1/2 feet wide. He told them about the tiny, cramped bunks where they slept, and said he was lucky to work up in the wheelhouse instead of below decks.

He described a minesweeper’s mission. It cruised the ocean, sending out magnetic pulses to find an explosive charge, then extended a cable into the water to catch hold of the mine and cut the mine’s connecting cable so it would float to the surface.

One day, YMS-302 was leading a formation of minesweepers with YMS-385 and YMS-294 through un-swept waters. The ship caught a mine, but the cutter jammed. YMS-302 pulled out of the formation and YMS-385 took its place. Spear said the lead boat didn’t get very far when he heard an explosion. YMS-385 lifted completely out of the water, broke apart and sank.

Spear also brought pictures of him from his Navy days and asked them to guess which one he was.

When he returned home, he went to college on the GI Bill. He became a teacher, working in Cheney, Four Lakes and Colfax schools.

Spear has four children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

James presented Spear with a picture of a minesweeper and a read him a poem about life in the Navy.

Valeria Garcia, a junior, said she enjoyed hearing about Spear’s experiences.

“It fit well with what we’re learning now,” she said. The class has been making scrapbooks and following one person through World War II.

“It’s a thrill and an honor to share my experiences with (Mrs.) James’ class,” Spear said.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email