When the second annual The Faces of Margraten tribute takes place May 1-5 in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial located in the Dutch city of Margraten, it will feature the photographs of two Champaign County WWII heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country – John R. Emory and John H. Spriggs.
Last year, members of the Foundation United Adopters American War Graves – a Dutch nonprofit organization – set out to honor the U.S. soldiers who died while helping to liberate the Netherlands from Nazi Germany occupation by putting faces to the names of all 10,023 American soldiers buried or memorialized in the Margraten cemetery. During The Faces of Margraten event, a photograph of each soldier is put on display either beside the grave of the soldier or in front of the soldier’s name on the Tablets of the Missing memorial.
While photographs for 4,000 of the soldiers have been located, Spriggs’ had eluded the nonprofit group until April 13, when a Daily Citizen article detailing the search was published. Within 24 hours, three photographs (two identical) of Spriggs in his Army uniform were located in three locations throughout Urbana: on a dresser in a Lafayette Avenue home, on the front pages of various Daily Citizen articles from 1944 on microfilm at the Champaign County Library, and in the charter for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Spriggs-Wing Post 5451 (named after Spriggs and fellow local WWII war hero Joseph O. Wing).
Memories of an ‘all-American boy’
Urbana resident Jenny Cline proudly displays on her dresser an 8-by-10 photo of Spriggs in his Army uniform that was given to her by Spriggs’ parents in 1943 after he had been deployed overseas.
“We lived down the street from each other on East Church Street, and what I remember most about John is having a horrible crush on him,” Cline said. “He knew I was crazy about him, and he would just drop by the house so we could hang out.
“He was five years older than me, but my parents liked John so much that the difference in our age didn’t bother them,” she added.
While the pair spent countless hours together, their relationship ended up being more of a friendship instead of a romance. The two primary reasons, Cline said, were her age and the fact that romantic feelings for one another came at different points for each of them in their friendship.
“I was just too young to date,” she said. “When he joined the Army he was 18 and I was 13.
“We did go steady for one night, but it just wasn’t the right time for anything romantic. It was the kind of thing where when I had a crush on him, he didn’t have the same feelings, and when he had feelings for me, I no longer had the same feelings for him,” she said.
Days before being deployed overseas, Cline said, the two vowed to remain friends no matter what the future had in store.
“I’ll never forget the last thing he said to me. He said, ‘We can still be friends,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely,’” she said.
While Spriggs was overseas, Cline said, they corresponded often, and she still has some of the letters from him.
“Being so young, I had no idea what war was, and I never thought John wouldn’t make it back,” she said. “It was a bad time in history, but the war brought this country together like you would never believe.
“John was just the likeable, all-American boy. In fact, my mother and dad were very fond of him. He was a good, decent young man.
Additional photo, information on Spriggs
Along with the photograph from Cline, Sebastiaan Vonk, chairman of the Foundation United Adopters American War Graves, reported the foundation received a photograph of Spriggs from the Champaign County Library on April 13.
This particular photograph, different from Cline’s photograph, is also a head shot of Spriggs in uniform and appeared in several articles published by the Daily Citizen in 1944.
Gloria Malone, supervisor of Reference & Genealogy Services at the Champaign County Library, came across the photograph while searching online through the library’s digitized microfilm reels.
According to details published in the 1944 editions of the Daily Citizen that contained Spriggs’ photograph, he attended St. Mary School in Urbana. While in high school, he was starting center on the basketball team and participated in several plays. When not in school, he worked for a time at the Grimes Manufacturing Company.
Two months before he was scheduled to graduate from high school, Spriggs was inducted into the U.S. Army on March 8, 1943.
Several Daily Citizen articles from 1944 mention that while stationed in Italy during WWII, Spriggs’ parents, Cecil and Clara, were informed he had been wounded on Oct. 17, 1943, and that he had received the Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained, which caused him to spend four months in a base hospital in North Africa.
An April 20, 1944 article notes that Spriggs was declared missing in action at some point between his release from the hospital on Feb. 15, 1944, and March 1, 1944.
A month after learning their son had been missing in action, the Daily Citizen reported on May 24, 1944, Spriggs’ parents were notified via telegram their son had died in a German prisoner-of-war camp. His official date of death is listed as April 27, 1944, at the age of 19.
Cline said Spriggs died of spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid and membranes around the brain and spinal cord.
Though Spriggs’ name is included on the Tablets of the Missing memorial in Margraten, which signifies the location of his remains are unknown, Cline is almost certain Spriggs is buried in a cemetery in the former Soviet sector of Berlin, Germany.
While she has never visited the grave, Cline said, a friend of hers who visited Berlin informed her that Spriggs’ grave is in the capital of Germany.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.