WWII Profile: Arthur D. Spatt
U.S. District Judge Arthur D. Spatt, of the Eastern District of New York, was a navigation petty officer in the U.S. Navy from 1944-1946, retiring as a Quartermaster Second Class. He sits in Central Islip, N.Y.
- Served on the USS Sherburne, an amphibious attack transport ship.
- Experienced kamikaze attacks while helping to land soldiers during invasion of Okinawa.
- Received an Asiatic Pacific Medal with Star and Philippine Liberation Medal.
Q. Tell me a little about your life before the war.
A. I grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and I had no plans whatsoever. I had no idea I was going to be a lawyer or anything like that.
Q. Tell me how you entered the military.
A. I was, at early age, interested in the military, and so I joined the National Guard when I was 15 years old. Don’t ask me how I got in, but I was discharged when they federalized the Guard, because I was only 16 at the time. Well, the Navy permitted people to come in at age 17, the Army at age 18, and the Marine Corps at age 17, so I decided rather than the Marine Corps to go in the Navy.
I was ready to participate. In my opinion, the period of World War II was the only period of time in the history of this country that was totally unified. There was only one mission, and that was to win this war.
A. Had you seen much of the country before joining the Navy?
A. Practically none. The ride from Sheepshead Bay to DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn was as far as I got. I didn’t go much anywhere. We were really confined to the Sheepshead Bay area.
After boot camp, I went to navigation school, in Gulfport, Miss. It had a big impact. The train rides were interesting because some of them didn’t have Pullmans. You sat up the whole time, and it was a new world completely. But for some reason, I accepted it, and it didn’t bother me, because as I said, there was only one purpose in the United States. Q. Tell me about your ship. It was an amphibious attack transport. It’s a transport that is specially is designed to carry 24 LCVPs. Those are the small landing crafts. We carry the troops that are going to do the assault. They climb down the net into the little craft, and part of theship’s company are the men who steer and take care of machine guns and so forth on the little craft.
Q. Were you part of any combat landings?
Yes, Okinawa. We had been to a number of the islands before, many of the islands, but not at the time of the landing. But this was the first time, and thank God it was virtually unopposed at that time. The real opposition was with the kamikaze planes, and on our second trip to Okinawa, we were involved in an attack. There were maybe 800 Japanese suicide planes, kamikaze planes. We had brought in anti-aircraft troops for the second time, and there was a terrible attack there.
Q. What were you thinking during the kamikaze attacks?
A. It was like you were in a fantasy world of some kind. They really weren’t aiming for us because they were aiming for the cruisers and destroyers that were still there. And one of them came very close to us and probably dropped a bomb. We didn’t see it, and it hit the fan tail of our ship and damaged it. And then, I saw it land on the Number 2 turret of the USS Birmingham light cruiser that was about a thousand feet away from us. So that was a very scary episode. I was just transfixed by what was going on. I just couldn’t believe that this was happening. And they were all over the place. It was the first time that my ship fired any guns in anger.
Q. Your ship was in Tokyo Harbor the day of the Japanese surrender. What do you recall?
We were assigned to enter in the invasion of the southern island of Japan. We were assigned to the First Cavalry Division. … We were practicing landings. We got the maps for the invasion of Japan. It was just imminent. But then all of a sudden, we got news that this new type of bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and it filtered down to us that many, many people were killed. … About a week later, we got news that they dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki.
Well, they finally surrendered, and we got word that the First Cavalry Division would be one of the first outfits to go into Yokohama to be the occupying force. … Our squadron passed maybe a thousand yards away from the (USS) Missouri. We were told that the surrender was going on, so we had our field glasses, but the perimeter of the ship, the Missouri, sailors in white dress lined the whole deck, so I couldn’t see anything . Here we are in combat gear with masks, and they’re in dress whites.
Q. Did you learn any lessons that had a lasting impact on you?
Two things. One, I couldn’t believe that a kid from Brooklyn who never was more than 25 miles away from his home is here 10,000, 15,000 miles away to another world. We were in such places like Ulithi and the Caroline Islands, the Marianas, Gilberts and so forth, and we saw these beautiful islands, the ones that weren’t hurt by the war, covered with palm trees, beautiful, and I said for a kid from Brooklyn to be seeing this, it was exciting, even though dangerous. Of course, the submarines were always around. …
And the companionship, the camaraderie on the ship was extraordinary. I never had a disagreement with anybody. Everybody was working toward one goal.
Q. How did you decide to enter the legal profession?
I hadn’t slightest idea about being a lawyer. I didn’t know what I was going to be. But a friend of mine was going to go to Ohio State University and so, I decided to go with him. At that time, I had no idea of being a lawyer but here I am, home with my family. The next door neighbor … was a lawyer, and we had porches, so he invited me to come to his porch, and he started talking to me about law, and he had a very successful law practice. So as a result of that, and the fact that I was not very good at math, not very good in science, but pretty good in English and history in high school, in James Madison High School, that I thought maybe law would be good for me. I went to Brooklyn Law School.
Q. What did you like most about the law?
Well, I liked certain courses. I liked evidence. I liked criminal law. And for some reason, I decided maybe I should try to be a trial lawyer. And the trial lawyers at that time and maybe today were in two major divisions, one, criminal law and two, personal injury law. Those were the trial lawyers. So, I got a job with the personal injury firm connected with the next door neighbor. And so, I went into that field, and eventually, I started my own firm.
Q. Why do you continue to work as a judge?
I carry a full load, absolute full load, same as my regular colleagues. This is the most extraordinary judicial position. … I have both civil and criminal cases. I have diversity cases, where a citizen of one state is suing a citizen of another state. Every kind of case, whether it is an automobile accident or an action on a promissory note or a contract. I am so fortunate to be able to have this judgeship. … It’s as stimulating as the first day I was in it. Every case presents new things, innovative things, interesting things, challenging things.
Q. Do you feel you were part of a “Greatest Generation”?
I think the greatest generation was this country as a whole. It was united. Everybody worked toward one goal, whether it was giving up your food, rationing, or becoming an air raid warden on the block to make sure the lights were out at night. Everybody participated, with a full heart and no dissent. So, when in the history of this country does this ever happen?
Q. Looking both at World War II and the following years, what are you most happy with or proud of?
To be an American. I think this country is such a special land of freedom, culture, helpful people, so to be an American, to start off. Having been involved in the war is a great privilege, too. Having been permitted to be a lawyer is also something very extraordinary, in my opinion, and then, being elected as a (state) judge, of course, and, most of all, the appointment to the federal court. It’s so rare that I am just very thankful, so thankful for it.