WASHINGTON — Roy John Spencer died when his bazooka blew up. He left behind a teenage bride and some unfinished business.
Sixty-five years after Spencer's death, Anna Heinrichs of Coarsegold, Calif., reclaimed a wartime debt Tuesday. With some congressional help, the retired educator secured the medals for which her first husband paid dearly.
"I just can't fathom it," Heinrichs, 83, said Tuesday. "It's almost like it isn't real, after so many years."
Accompanied by family members — including her second husband, World War II Marine veteran Wes Heinrichs, 86 — Anna received her due Tuesday morning on the Speaker's Balcony of the U.S. Capitol. A combat-proven Army officer presented her with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and other medals that Spencer earned long ago.
"I've got chills going down my spine right now," said the soldier, Army Col. Timothy McGuire. "We are so proud, our generation, of the sacrifices you all have made."
A staffer for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., helped Anna Heinrichs track down the missing medals. This is standard-practice constituent service, though made more pressing as World War II veterans fade away.
Spencer, when he died, was a private in the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the original 82nd Airborne.
On Jan. 12, 1945, the Colorado native was advancing with his company through the woods outside Flamizoulle, Belgium. Shrapnel ripped his bazooka, rendering its use potentially suicidal. Nonetheless, his fellow soldiers reported, when German tanks appeared, Spencer fired.
The bazooka exploded, killing Spencer, 26, and his teammate.
His wife was kept in the dark. Married at 16, she was working in a Colorado munitions factory while her husband was overseas. She wrote him. After a time, he didn't write back.
She finally learned of her husband's death several weeks later from her sister, who'd been notified. Roughly a year later, she met Wesley Heinrichs for the second time.
Their first meeting was when she was about 12. She was at a rodeo. She made such an impression that Heinrichs said he kept thinking about her through the battles of Saipan and Tinian.
"I didn't remember him," Anna Heinrichs said, "but he remembered me."