Joseph C. Spitler Oral History Interview

June 5, 1991
Oral History #OH0125
Spitler, Joseph C.; Lennon, Donald R.
Physical description
0.01 Cubic Feet, 2 audiotapes, 2 hours, 45 pages
Preferred Citation
Joseph C. Spitler Oral History Interview (#OH0125), East Carolina Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, USA.
ECU Manuscript Collection
No restrictions

Biographical/historical information

Captain Joseph Spitler was born in Lufkin, Texas, and grew up in Florida and Texas. He entered the Naval Academy in 1937 and after graduating in 1941, he joined the USS OKLAHOMA (BB 37) in Pearl Harbor, where he experienced the Japanese attack on the harbor. After the attack, he was assigned to an emergency pool of soldiers and was sent out on board the destroyer USS WORDEN (DD 352), which participated in the battle of Midway, and later was capsized in the Aleutian Islands. Spitler and other crewmembers were rescued by the USS DEWEY (DD 349). He was then sent to Boston to put the USS HALL (DD 583) in commission. Spitler was involved in a variety of operations in the Pacific before being sent to Norfolk, Va., to train a crew for the USS ORLECK (DD 886) in 1945, and then to Seattle, Wash., to command the USS FIEBERLING (DE 640) in March 1946, which sailed to Shanghai. Spitler worked in California and Hawaii, and became flag secretary and aide to Admiral Francis Low. At the start of the Korean War he spent one year as an exchange officer from the Naval Academy to the Military Academy at West Point. During the Korean War he commanded the USS HYMAN (DD 732), and after the war took command of the USS DU PONT (DD 941), sailing from Guantanamo Bay to the Mediterranean. By 1960 he was a captain stationed at the Naval War College for a year and then working in Washington, D.C., with the staff of the Joint Chiefs. After leaving the Navy in 1968, he worked briefly in education and then in insurance.

Scope and arrangement

Spitler discusses the assistance he received from the office of Texas Congressman Martin Dies in being admitted to the Academy (pp. 2-3) and from doctors in passing the eye exam (p. 3); difficulties in his initial orientation to Academy life (p. 4), particularly in math (pp. 5-6); the midshipman cruise (pp. 4-5) to England and France on the USS TEXAS (BB 35); the value of the Academy education to him (pp. 6-7); and the hazing of older classmates during "Hundredth Night" (p. 7) and new plebes (p. 8).

Concerning his World War II service, Spitler describes many events surrounding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and his experiences during the attack, having been on watch from four to eight that morning. He explains that orders to attack unidentified submarines suggested to him that someone knew something was coming (p. 9) and he describes his movements when the attack did come, which included swimming away from the OKLAHOMA after the "Abandon Ship" announcement was given (pp. 9-12); the hazards he risked while swimming away; and his experiences during the next few days in helping to rescue those trapped on board the OKLAHOMA (p. 12-13). He also mentions communication problems among the Japanese bombers and how that affected the attack and the response (p. 14).

Continuing discussion of his World War II experiences, Spitler mentions the circumstances surrounding his assignment to WORDEN (p. 13), its role in the battle of Midway after the Japanese codes had been broken (pp. 14-15), and problems while refueling after the battle (p. 15). He also describes action in the Aleutian Islands, the loss of the WORDEN on a reef, and the rescue by the crew of the DEWEY (pp. 15-18). He mentions putting the HALL in service and work escorting the USS MISSOURI (BB 63), carrying President Roosevelt, to Iran (p. 18); service in the Pacific in various operations, including Truk Island where he was to lead a party to board Japanese hospital ships reputed to be moving Japanese troops (p. 19-20); and experiences in the Philippines, Leyte Gulf, and Ormac Bay (p. 20), and at Iwo Jima, where he witnessed the raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi (p. 21).

Spitler describes his post-war service after leaving the Pacific, which included training the crew for the ORLECK in Norfolk and Texas (p. 22); taking command of the FIEBERLING in Seattle, which was then sent to Shanghai (pp. 22-23), where it was flagship of the Amphibious Forces Seventh Fleet; work in California and Hawaii where he had a role in rescuing Chinese sailors from a freighter that sank off the California coast (pp. 23-24) and two destroyers that got loose from a tug (p. 24); and work as flag secretary and aide to Admiral Francis Low in Hawaii, where he became lieutenant commander (p. 24).

Spitler also saw service in the Korean War, and he describes concern among soldiers, during his time (1950-1951) at West Point as an exchange officer from the Naval Academy, regarding their impending combat duties (p. 26). He also describes actions hewas involved in while on board the HYMAN in Wonsan Harbor's "Ulcer Gulch" (pp. 27-29). Following the Korean War he discusses duty on board the DU PONT, particularly the DU PONT's role in the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the liberation of Tunis (p. 30) and its involvement in the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 as an escort to the British Royal Yacht BRITANNIA (pp. 31-32). He then mentions the difficulties he encountered when working on a project for Robert McNamara while on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (pp. 32-33), his involvement in preparation for the Cuban Blockade while working as War Plans officer on the Commander Second Fleet (p. 33), and an attempt by the Soviets to test the Cuban Blockade with the MARUCLA (p. 34).

He closes with a brief discussion of his work in the insurance industry of the 1970s and 1980s after his retirement from the Navy (pp. 35-37), and a detailed description of occurrences during World War II that directly developed into The Caine Mutiny, with an example of events on board involving a squadron commander and their parallels in Herman Wouk's novel (pp. 37-38), plus other examples of this officer's failure to command (pp. 37-44), particularly during situations in Leyte Gulf (pp. 40-42) and Manus (pp. 42-43).

Administrative information
Source of acquisition

Gift of Joseph C. Spitler

Processing information

Encoded by Apex Data Services

Copyright notice

Repository does not own copyright to the oral history collection. Permission to cite, reproduce, or broadcast must be obtained from both the repository and the participants in the oral history, or their heirs.

General note


Key terms
Personal Names
Spitler, Joseph C.
Corporate Names
Oklahoma (Battleship)
United States Naval Academy--History
United States. Navy--Officers--Interviews
Korean War, 1950-1953--Naval operations
Midway, Battle of, 1942
Pearl Harbor (Hawaii), Attack on, 1941
World War, 1939-1945--Campaigns--Pacific Ocean
Aleutian Islands (Alaska)--History, Military--20th century