A veteran’s story, 1917

My father, Leland Spencer, was working as a ticket agent aboard a Minneapolis streetcar when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War I.

He often spoke of the city’s brutal winters, when cars appeared to resemble cakes of ice sliding on steel rails with minus 40-below temperatures.

His first assignment was to a Navy radio station at Great Lakes Chicago, where he was taught the Morse code. This was followed by a transfer to Coney Island, New York, where he worked as a linesman assisting the landing of dirigibles. This job proved to be strenuous and difficult.

His luck soon changed when he was offered a chance to fly — yes, fly — aboard a Navy seaplane known as a “Liberty 12.” This was a heavy, bi-wing, open-cockpit bird used to fly patrol around New York City.  

It actually was referred to as the “Flying Coffin.”

The Hudson River was used for their landing strip. My father was trained to use the .30-caliber nose-mounted machine gun and at his disposal were small bombs he could drop over the side if ever necessary.

The plane was also capable of carrying a 500-pound bomb.  

His pilot, a young lieutenant, would occasionally fly under the Brooklyn Bridge and at times come so close to the Statue of Liberty one could reach out to her and shake hands.

Their barracks at Coney Island were located close to an amusement park, where a merry-go-round played 24 hours a day. For many sailors, it took two weeks to learn how to sleep. Upon leaving the area, they could not sleep without the noise.  

In their barracks was a bulldog mascot that liked to play games. One favorite was some sort of a tug of war where a rope was flung up and over the rafters until it was barely off the floor. The bulldog would grab the rope, which was then hoisted about two feet, allowing the dog to swing back and forth with his jaws locked.

My father and his friends would take bets as to how long it would take for the bulldog to unlock his jaws and fall back to the floor.

As mentioned, the Hudson River was used for the landings and takeoffs for the Liberty 12. According to my father, all the patrols around New York were done with two seaplanes flying side by side.

These planes taxied the shortest distances possible through the water to keep the engines from overheating due to the strong resistance of the water on the pontoons. His sister ship was lost one day, costing the lives of two airmen when they sat down too close to the shoreline causing their plane to cartwheel.

On Nov. 11, 1918, almost a century ago, my father’s tour in the U.S. Navy was completed and he returned to civilian life as a farm worker for Oscar Stotts near Churdan.

Mr. Stotts later became his father-in-law.

Lyle D. Spencer, of Goldfield, was born and raised in Greene County near Churdan.

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