Sharing a love of history with her father, Rebecca House ’20 enjoys watching World War II movies with him and their tours of historical sites including Pearl Harbor and the National WW II Museum.
House and Indian Springs history teacher Dr. Colin Davis now are taking a deep dive into D-Day in Normandy, the turning point in the war in Europe.
They will study it, in part, from the point of view of a soldier from Alabama, paratrooper and 1st Lt. Melvin Spruiell from Leeds. The 29-year-old was killed near the town of Carentan days after Operation Overlord began on June 6, 1944.
“This is going to be about discovery for both of us,” says Davis, who taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for 27 years before joining the Indian Springs School faculty this academic year. “We’ll see it through this man’s eyes.”
The program, “The Price of Freedom: Normandy, 1944” by the Albert H. Small Normandy Institute, includes five days of study at George Washington University in Washington and five more in France.
But work starts long before House and Davis board a plane in mid-June. Students begin in January with extensive readings and online discussions with GWU faculty about the Allied campaign that led to the demise of Nazi Germany.
House also is preparing a eulogy to give at Spruiell’s grave site at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. “I’m invested in this guy,” she says. “I’m going to be a mess.”
Already-extensive research into Spruiell’s life includes interviews with two relatives. One has Spruiell’s combat helmet, a bullet hole marking the spot where the fatal shot entered. A friend of the Spruiell family happened upon it in a French flea market and gave it to them after authenticating it.
Spruiell earned a Ph.D. in physiological chemistry at Ohio State University, where he also was in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. (He earlier obtained a B.A. at Auburn University and a Master’s at the University of Tennessee.) House says she is trying to obtain his doctoral dissertation.
Spruiell was a government food analyst before joining the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. House has photographs, including one of him parachuting. She describes the lieutenant as “good-looking;” Davis calls him Hollywood handsome.
Spruiell fascinates House on several levels. “For someone so full of potential from such an early point in life, to volunteer as a paratrooper,” she says. “I’ve read articles from Ohio State that called him ‘brilliant.’ He gave that up.”
House hopes to answer why he was driven to volunteer for such a dangerous duty. A great-nephew tells House that Spruiell frequently wrote letters to his parents. “I would love to get them because I’m sure he discussed that,” she says.
In his first combat action, Spruiell was among the members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions that parachuted inland as part of a larger mission to capture the town of Carentan and support the Allied landing at Utah Beach.
He was a forward spotter for the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Division, directing fire toward the enemy, when a German sniper killed him on June 11, 1944. The Alabama man was among 182 soldiers with the 101st Airborne who died that summer in Normandy.
Davis learned about the program from a friend who teaches at George Washington University. House was one of six ISS students who wrote proposals expressing interest.
“Rebecca knocked the ball out of the park,” Davis says, praising her thoroughness and depth. Next, Davis and House both filed written applications to the Normandy Institute for an expenses-paid grant.
She wrote about her great-grandfather, a moonshiner who fought in the campaign to capture Okinawa Island in the Pacific theater. He volunteered soon after getting caught making corn whiskey when the judge gave him two options: five years in prison or two years in the military.
“They loved it so much they called me within days, the following Sunday,” Davis says.
As a child growing up in England’s East Anglia region in the late 1950s and early 1960s, World War II was very much present in the local psyche, Davis says. Both parents served in the Royal Navy.
Davis has toured Dunkirk in France, where British and Allied troops were trapped in 1940 by German tanks and soldiers before escaping across the English Channel in a makeshift flotilla. “I’ve never been to Normandy,” he says. “So when my friend mentioned it, I wanted to go.”
House will present her findings at Indian Springs. Her Spruiell biography will be archived at the Normandy American Cemetery.
By Eric Velasco P '23