A soldier’s story within a story

Colonel Everett Spees and the Hessians.

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Everett Spees of Chilmark is 86 years old, and spent a career in the U.S. military, where he was a surgeon specializing in transplant surgery. And were it not for an email a co-worker received from Cynthia Riggs of West Tisbury, we might never have gotten to know him.

Riggs wrote that Spees is in her Sunday Writers group, and he’s writing “an amazingly researched book on the role of the Hessians in the Revolutionary War, translating old German documents that he’s been unearthing.” Riggs, an established novelist in her own right, was taken by Spees’ writing, which she described as “concise, graphic, and [putting] the reader right there.”

We thought that Spees might be make a great profile, but what we discovered was that there was a story within a story: not only the one about the illustrious career of Colonel Everett Spees himself, but another one about Spees’ five-times-great-grandfather, Private Johan Friedrich Spies (later Spees), who served in the Hessian army. Approximately 30,000 German troops (Hessians) were hired by the British to fight against the Colonists in the Revolutionary War.

Everett Spees retired as a colonel in the Army in 1977, but in 2007, at the age of 75, he volunteered to resume active duty and report to the U.S. base in Landstuhl, Germany, where troops from Iraq and Afghanistan were being sent for surgery.

Landstuhl was not that far from Schwebda, the ancestral hometown of Johan Friedrich Spies, and Spees thought it might be interesting to visit the hometown of his ancestors. One weekend he took the train to Schwebda, and walked around town, trying to imagine what it might have been like 250 years ago when his relatives had walked these same streets.

Spees came across a graveyard next to a church and walked toward the parsonage, where a man and a boy were mowing the lawn. Spees introduced himself and said he was an American. The man, a parson, said, “Have you come about the war?”

Spees asked, “Which war are you talking about?” thinking he was about to hear about the Hessians in the Revolutionary War. The parson said, “World War Two.” Unbeknownst to Spees, near the end of World War II a convoy of ambulances carrying German and American casualties was traveling through Schwebda, and a group of Hitler Youth targeted the convoy with rockets, killing many of the soldiers, both German and American. A delegation from Washington was scheduled to arrive in Schwebda — that very same day — to investigate the event.

Spees explained that he was there trying to track down information about an ancestor — Johan Friedrich Spies — who had fought as a Hessian in the Revolutionary War. The parson recognized the surname, and said, “You’ve come to the right place; would you like to see his birth information?” The parson led Spees into the parsonage, where a huge bookcase stood, and reached for an old ledger, marked “1758,” and said, “This church is where your grandfather was baptized.” He opened the ledger and showed Spees not only information on Johan Friedrich Spies, but on his two brothers as well. Armed with this precious information, Spees returned to the States and set out to learn more about his Hessian ancestor. “It was a journey of love,” Spees said.

He learned that following the defeat of General Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Va., on Oct. 19, 1781, Johan Spies’ regiment was held in Frederick, Md., for 19 months as prisoners of war. By researching old German and American records and reading the American, German, and English diaries of the day, Spees was able to piece together not only an account that was chronologically accurate, but one that captured the humanity of the Hessian soldiers as well.

In an article prepared for the magazine Hessian, Spees writes in graphic terms about the wretched conditions that existed at Frederick, and more positively noted the relationship the soldiers had with members of the community. Because the Hessians were clever and resourceful, they worked on local farms and in shops, and they became friends with the locals, sometimes even marrying women in the community. The article gives a robust account of the prisoners’ lives, culminating on April 21, 1783, when General Washington announced the liberation of all prisoners. Spees writes vividly about a glorious Easter celebration that ensued:

“Ironically, on that same Easter day General Benjamin Lincoln, the city commander, announced the restoration of peace and ordered festivities and parades. The Continental and militia troops set a peace-celebration bonfire, and then paraded through the city streets to the music of fifes and drums, with flags and wreaths, firing their weapons repeatedly. With each volley the soldiers and townspeople cheered loudly. ‘Hurrah for peace. Hurrah for liberty. Hurrah for Congress. For Hancock! For ourselves! God save General Washington, our Master!’ … Following the pyrotechnics, all the American officers, the German officers, and the gentlemen and wealthy merchants of the city attended a reception and dance with spirits flowing liberally, while the Hessian Band entranced the guests. The soiree lasted all night.”  –Hessian

While Spees can trace his ties to the military back to the Revolutionary War, his father was a career soldier, and in an email he wrote to me, Spees talked about the impact that WWII had on the country: “On Dec. 7, 1941, our family was driving from a picnic in the mountains when the announcement of the Pearl Harbor raid came over the radio. The announcer said that all servicemen were to return to their bases. Dad [a photo-intelligence expert in the Army Air Corps] was recalled, and all the men were issued weapons in case of a Japanese attack. When the quartermaster had used up all the available pistols and rifles, he gave baseball bats to the other men. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Everyone’s ears were glued to the radio.”

Spees and I met recently at the West Tisbury library, and he explained that the second World War was very personal to everyone. The father of one of his friends was killed at Omaha Beach, another was in the Bataan Death March. “We all wanted to save our country,” he said.

By the time the war was over, Spees was ready for college, and his father asked him what he wanted to do with his life. He said he either wanted to be a pianist, a doctor, or a preacher. His father told him to make up his mind, and by way of incentivizing him, said if he wanted to be a doctor he’d help him pay for college.

“I literally zoomed through school,” Spees said, “I finished med school at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine at 22.” Upon graduation he joined the Army Air Corps as a captain, and was sent to the University of Alabama for a surgical residency. “It was an exciting time,” Spees said; “it was the advent of bypass surgery, and there were long lines of people waiting to get their hearts fixed.”

In 1963, one of Spees’ advisors suggested that if he was going to have a career in the military as a surgeon, he’d need to do a few extra things in the field. Spees chose jump school, and before long he had his paratrooper wings.

At this point in our conversation, Spees got out of his chair and demonstrated for me the parachute landing fall, or PLF. “What happens if you land without rolling?” I asked. “You get shorter,” Spees said.

Spees shared his résumé with me, which was about seven pages long. After the University of Alabama, he became a thoracic surgery resident at a San Francisco hospital, where he became interested in organ transplantation, spent time as a hospital commander at the Army Hospital at Colorado Springs, then at age 45 went back to school at Duke and got a Ph.D. in immunology. He retired in 1977 as the chief of the transplant program at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C.

Spees voluntarily returned to active service during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and again in 2007 in Landstuhl, Germany. When Spees was 35, he was one of the youngest colonels in the Army, and at 75 in Landstuhl, he was the oldest surgeon in the Army.

In 1995 Spees was able to fulfill another of his childhood goals — he became an ordained priest in the Polish National Catholic Church. Fortunately, the church didn’t require a vow of celibacy: Spees has been married to his wife Ann for 41 years. “I couldn’t have done it all without her,” Spees said.

Post-retirement, Spees remained active in the medical community in the Denver area until 2008. Looking back on the role the military played in his life, Spees said, “I may not be part of the service any more, but the service is part of me.”

Nowhere is that better exemplified than in a 2007 article in Stars and Stripes magazine, where Spees is quoted as saying, “When I’m not on active duty, I dream about it, I dream about being in an operating room in an Army hospital, seeing casualties. It’s sort of a way of life. Whenever they call me and say they need me, that’s all I need to trigger saying ‘yes.’”