It’s hard to read about Junior Spurrier’s exploits during World War II without imagining the movie that could be made from them.
Picture an old-school, two-fisted action yarn in the mode of “The Dirty Dozen” or “Where Eagles Dare,” a literal barn-burner advertised by a poster replete with muzzle flashes, gritted teeth, flying shell casings and other signatures of battlefield mayhem.
Even better: At the center of it all is a young and colorfully rough-around-the-edges soldier, a now-mostly-forgotten Appalachian farm boy who, in 1944, across two French townships, undertook wildly reckless yet highly successful one-man rampages against Nazi forces.
Spurrier’s actions that year alone netted dozens of enemy casualties and prisoners, earning him the Distinguished Service Cross as well as the coveted Medal of Honor, and making him one of only 3,511 recipients of that latter decoration over the course of its 162 year history.
Unlike such similar war heroes as Sergeant Alvin York and Audie Murphy, however, Spurrier never parlayed his experiences into cinematic fortune and glory. Indeed, his post-war life stateside was marred by alcohol, probable post-traumatic stress disorder, violence and criminal charges, but a St. Paul, Virginia lawyer who grew up near Spurrier’s hometown is now hoping to elevate him out of his relative obscurity.
“I want him to be honored,” attorney Frank Kilgore recently said, and earlier this year he lobbied the Virginia General Assembly to recognize Spurrier’s life and achievements with a resolution in March, sponsored by Del. Jeffrey Campbell, R-Smyth County, which listed Spurrier’s accomplishments and officially deemed him “a brave Virgnian who served our nation during World War II.”
That bill also references a proposed memorial site in Castlewood to mark Spurrier’s birthplace, and Kilgore, who helped found both the Appalachian School of Law and the Appalachian College of Pharmacy, is the driving force behind that effort as well. He’s trying to raise between $25,000 and $50,000 to complete it.
“I’ll put some in, and two banks have committed, and two or three private donors have donated,” Kilgore said earlier this month.
“The amount of money would dictate how nice of a memorial we’ll be able to do,” he explained, adding that much of the construction will be undertaken by volunteers. “Unless there’s something we can’t do, like make bronze casters.”
Kilgore is negotiating for a spot along U.S. 58 Alternate, the four-lane highway that runs through Castlewood.
“I want something where people can see the sign and see the memorial, and they’d be more likely to stop there than if it’s tucked away on a side-street,” he said. He’s also hoping to construct it in such a way — possibly on the back of a flatbed — so it could be moved around to different places for different military-themed events.
Spurrier’s medals went missing for years, but in 2011 they were found and are now included in a separate exhibit in his honor at the “Those Who Served” War Museum in Princeton, West Virginia, near where he spent time as a teen, working in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“He was up there to make money to send back home, and then he lived in Wise County for a little while, and then he went to Richmond to be inducted,” Kilgore said. “But he’s born and raised in Castlewood.”
Brought up the son of a Russell County farmer during the Great Depression, Spurrier quit school to help raise his four siblings, then joined the Army the year before the United States entered into World War II.
His birthname was actually James Ira Spurrier Jr., but he reportedly made a mess of his enlistment paperwork, causing the system to rechristen him “Junior J. Spurrier” by default.
Accounts of his service, by the Army University Press and by the Defense Visual Information Service, show that he was stationed in the South Pacific for more than two years before being wounded in combat, and was later reassigned to duty in Europe with the 35th Infantry Division of the 2nd Battalion.
In September 1944, not long after his only brother was killed in action in Belgium, the then-22-year-old stormed a hill near Lay St. Christophe, France, taking charge of a .50 caliber machine gun atop a tank destroyer as he ascended the slope and leading the way for others. Spurrier’s actions that day brought him the Distinguished Service Cross.
His Medal of Honor would be earned two months later, during a Nov. 13, 1944 raid on Achain, a French village held by the Germans. Spurrier’s company was assembling to attack from the east side of town but, for reasons that vary depending on the account, he was initially absent. Some say he was drinking, others claim he was off snacking on a can of peaches he’d scrounged, but whatever the case, once he realized he was late to the party, he apparently decided to simply rush in from the west end of Achain, completely on his own.
Whether it was canny, spontaneous strategy on Spurrier’s part, or simply a lucky accident, a 1945 account called “Attack: The Story of the 35th Infantry,” put it this way:
“Spurrier shot the first three Nazis with his M-1… then picking up BARs [Browning Automatic Rifles], Yank and German bazookas and grenades wherever he found them, he systematically began to clean out the town. He crumbled one stronghold with bazooka shells, killed three more Nazis with a BAR, and captured a garrison commander, a lieutenant and 14 men. Another defense point was silenced when he killed its two occupants. Out of ammunition and under fire from four Nazis, Spurrier hurled a Nazi grenade into [a] house, killing… four Germans.”
Later in his onslaught, it says, Spurrier discovered another four Germans hiding in a barn, so he set it on fire, then captured them as they tried to flee. He later notched further casualties by sniping from rooftops.
A May 25, 1945 story in “Yank, The Army Weekly” recognized the cinematic flavor of Spurrier’s approach early on: “He finished off the job with a Hollywood touch by riding down the main street on a motorcycle, blazing away at fleeing Germans.”
Spurrier’s Medal of Honor citation concludes that “his proficiency and skill with all types of weapons, his agility and almost unbelievable ability to cover great distances in a minimum period of time” and “his devastating effect on the enemy” “played a major part in the capture of the village.”
“Junior would not have gotten many good conduct medals, because he was a rouser, but he knew how to kill Nazis, I’ll give him that,” Kilgore said.
The “Yank” story, six months after Achain, found him enjoying Paris in the spring, and opens with him strolling into the Sofitel Le Scribe Paris Opéra hotel with “a mademoiselle” by his side, but already bristling under the heat of his newfound spotlight.
“In one way, this publicity deal I’m getting isn’t such a good one,” Spurrier told “Yank,” via Sgt. Dewitt Gilpin, a field correspondent. “These press and radio people start on me in the afternoon and keep me tied up in the evening. And that’s the time I want to take off.”
Asked by Gilpin about rumors of his hard-living ways, and his alleged arguments with ranking officers, Spurrier opined: “Some newspapers try to make every guy who gets a medal a foul-up. A man does a few things that don’t mean anything until they say he’s a hero, and then — blooey!”
That sense of discontent would accompany him for much of the rest of his life.
After returning stateside, he briefly played minor league baseball, pitching for the Galax Leaves, before rejoining the service. According to the National Infantry Museum, he served during the Korean War, but butted heads with authorities and was allegedly busted down from technical sergeant to private before being discharged in 1951. The museum’s account said he went through a turbulent time at home, drinking and serving a few stints in jail before getting sober and finding a trade as a radio and television repairman. He died in 1984, at age 61, and was laid to rest in Johnson City, Tennessee.
For Kilgore, Spurrier’s story is emblematic of the undervalued qualities of his region, of far Southwest Virginia. His own father served in Europe during World War II as well, and was a division marksman, largely because of a rural upbringing similar to Spurrier’s.
“If you didn’t shoot squirrels back then, you had to kill a laying hen, which you didn’t want to do,” Kilgore explained. “I’ve always been told… it was country boys and Appalachian boys that the army preferred out front. Because they could shoot, they respected authority and they were extremely patriotic.”
He recently put his extended thoughts on the subject into a book he’s written and plans to publish, and to which he’s lent an intentionally provocative title: “J.D. Vance is a Fake Hillbilly.”
It’s a reference to the author of the controversial bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance is currently running for a seat in the Ohio senate, and was the recent recipient of the Republican nomination in that state.
Kilgore’s book, he said, “is about J.D. and all the negative stereotypes about coalfield Appalachia, and how we would have been much more accepting of other races and nationalities because the coal companies brought about 20 nationalities here from Western and Eastern Europe” to work the mines.
“We’ve got some of the most patriotic people in the nation,” Kilgore declared, adding: “Had it not been for Appalachians, the Revolutionary War would not have gone so good. And the founding fathers would’ve been hanged.”
Donations to the Junior Spurrier Memorial are tax deductible and can be sent to Mountain Heritage, P.O. 1259, St. Paul, Va, 24283. Checks should be made out to Mountain Heritage, Inc., and donors should enclose a note or write “Spurrier Memorial” on the check memo line. Receipts will be issued for tax purposes.