Mystery at Guadalcanal
The last anyone ever heard from 1st Lt. Herman Spoede was a radio call from his F4U Vought Corsair over the South Pacific Ocean on July 3, 1943.
First Lieutenant Spoede was a pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps and a member of the VMF-213 Hellhawks squadron stationed at Guadalcanal, an island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean and part of the British Solomon Islands. On an airborne combat patrol mission that day, the squadron encountered a fierce storm. Radio communication from the flight leader gave the order to return to base. The pilot did not receive the transmission. He never returned and was reported missing in action. He was declared dead a year later.
John Ramsay (McCallie Class of 1934) was a photo interpreter for the U.S. Navy also stationed at Guadalcanal. During some downtime that same day, Lt. Ramsay was near the Allied airstrip, Henderson Field, when he decided to sketch one of the Corsairs that was awaiting a mission. The plane’s pilot later climbed into the cockpit, and his image was included in Lt. Ramsay’s painting.
The artist planned on sharing the artwork with the pilot upon the mission’s completion, but the pilot and his plane never made it back.
Those are the only details Lt. Ramsay’s extended family knew of the painting. It survived World War II and later hung on the office walls of Mr. Ramsay’s Salisbury, N.C., home with another wartime piece.
“It was one of those public secrets,” says Kerr Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay’s grandson. “My dad knew about it, my uncles knew. That generation knew some details, but no one from my generation knew what it was about.”
Following the War, Mr. Ramsay founded his architecture firm. During a 50-year career, he became a prominent and renowned architect and a proponent of modern architecture.
“He didn’t talk much about the War,” says his son John Ramsay ’66, a two-year boarding student at McCallie who also became an architect. “That is pretty typical about ‘the Greatest Generation.’ The ones that saw a lot of the horror didn’t like to talk about it. My dad was very measured and guarded.”
Upon his death in 1991, Mr. Ramsay’s wife Anne downsized from their large, modern home to an apartment. The painting of the Corsair and the pilot was left leaning against a wall with other household items. Recognizing that it had some family history, Kerr asked if he could hold on to it.
A television blurb about a Philadelphia exhibit displaying soldiers’ artwork caught his attention, and he determined that was a perfect way to honor his grandfather, Papa John.
The submission required a summary of the artwork, and Kerr began to conduct research about the painting. He used Google image search to compare World War II aircraft and came across a website maintained by Dan McAnarney devoted to the VMF-213 Hellhawks squadron stationed in Guadalcanal.
Kerr scoured the information on the site, learning about the strategic Guadalcanal location and battles, sifting through names and reading about flight records and missions that Mr. McAnarney had collected with meticulous care and detail. But it was a journal entry for July 3, 1943 that lit a lamp for him.
“Spoede – while in division returning from combat patrol in late evening – division ran into thunderhead and all planes were separated. No contacts with Spoede. Reported as missing.”
“Thunderhead” was the title Mr. Ramsay had given the painting.
“We had assumed the painting title was the name of the plane or the nickname of the pilot,” Kerr says. “Suddenly it just clicked. This has got to be the guy.”
Kerr shared his findings with his father and uncles.
“Papa John wanted to give this painting to the pilot, and it’s not supposed to remain with our family,” Kerr explained. “I’ve got the name, and if y’all are up for it, I’d like to track him down and give it to his family.”
John is the war buff of the family, Kerr says, and he talked with Mr. McAnarney whose father-in-law was a member of the Hellhawks squadron. He filled in the blanks about the missing pilot, 1st Lt. Herman Spoede. From what he knew, says Mr. Ramsay, the Corsair radios were unreliable, and in the storm, the pilot did not receive the orders to return to base. He later radioed in for coordinates and directions, but military protocol did not allow that information to be transmitted over the radio for fear of interception.
Mr. McAnarney introduced the Ramsays to David Spoede, the nephew of the pilot, and the remarkable story of Herman Spoede and the painting was relayed to David and his family.
David’s father, Bob, was the lone survivor of the three Spoede brothers, all of whom served in World War II. He didn’t share the news with his father, choosing instead to surprise him.
It took a year’s worth of emails and telephone calls between the two families to coordinate a date when the painting could be presented to the Spoede family and to determine a proper and respectful presentation.
“We worked so long for this to happen,” Kerr says. “It felt so good to find a time to make this work for all of them.”
The lunch meeting took place July 30, 2011 at a large rectangular table in a private dining room at a resort in Irving, Texas. Bob Spoede was the guest of honor. John and Kerr Ramsay sat on either side of Bob and David Spoede, and they were joined by Mr. McAnarney. All three of Bob’s children traveled great distances with their families to be present for the reunion.
Mr. Ramsay showed Mr. Spoede wartime photographs and a photo of his father, John Ramsay Sr. He shared a picture of Herman Spoede in front of his airplane. Kerr had the honor of presenting Mr. Spoede with the original framed painting and announcing that the pilot depicted in the painting was Herman, Mr. Spoede’s brother.
Wrapped in brown paper, the painting was unveiled, and Mr. Spoede held in his hands a gift from one family to another nearly 70 years after it was intended to be delivered. “I’m in a state of shock,” Mr. Spoede said after receiving the painting. “This is a total surprise.”
“He was perfectly stoical in ‘the Greatest Generation’ style,” Kerr says. “He was confused why my uncle and I were at lunch with his family and why the local TV station had shown up and put a camera in his face. It was clear something was about to happen, but he had no idea.
“The coolest part for me was when he started telling stories about his brother. You could see him open up after we gave him the painting. His kids and grandkids hadn’t heard many of these stories about their uncle and great uncle or about himself. That generation doesn’t like to talk about what they did.”
With the mystery now solved and the circle completed, the painting is hanging in Mr. Spoede’s house in Texas. The two families still keep in touch. Kerr says they cherish the new friendship, and the Spoedes shared a recent Christmas dinner with the Ramsays in North Carolina.
“It felt good to complete my grand-father’s mission,” Kerr says. “Our goal had never been to keep the painting. It is not closure for the Spoede family because we didn’t change anything, but it felt good for them to be able to share those stories and to know that someone was kind to their brother in the last moments of his life.”