The Star set out to tell the stories of 10 hometown heroes. Here is one of them.
The story of Joe Specker is the classic tale of the American hero.
Farm boy. Ballplayer. He kissed his girl goodbye and went off to war. His last words — right out of Hollywood.
Those came during the night of Jan. 7, 1944, on Mount Porchia in Italy. Specker, an Army sergeant from Odessa, Mo., told his buddies to stay put while he lugged a machine gun up the mountain — getting shot along the way — to get the high ground on German snipers.
Boy, he let them have it. And they gave it back.
At a lull in the shooting, one of his men yelled up to ask how he was doing.
“OK,” Specker hollered back, “but I’m running out of these damn jerries.”
The next morning, his men found Joe Specker dead at his gun. He was 22, three days shy of 23. Six months later, his family and fiancee in Odessa got word that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor.
According to the citation:
“Though so seriously wounded that he was unable to walk, he continued to drag himself over the jagged edges of rock and rough terrain until he reached the position at which he desired to set up his machine gun.
“He set up the gun so well and fired so accurately that the enemy machine-gun nest was silenced and the remainder of the snipers forced to retire, enabling his platoon to obtain their objective. Sgt. Specker was found dead at his gun.
“His personal bravery, self-sacrifice, and determination were an inspiration to his officers and fellow soldiers.”
When word of the medal hit Odessa, the whole town was invited to a service in the high school gymnasium to honor the local boy. The newspaper invitation said: “Every citizen of Odessa and community should be present at this time. You will probably never be privileged to attend another such meeting.”
Probably as much as anyone around today, Linda Gillis, a reporter and columnist at The Odessan newspaper, knows about Joe Specker. She’s not official family, but she shares her life with someone who is, and that was good enough to be made official family historian.
She’s collected stories, photos, old letters and memories.
“In most of the photos, he’s wearing his overalls,” Gillis said. “People say Joe was a hard worker. The little spare time he had he played baseball or he went to town to see Mary Margaret, whom he planned to marry after the war.
“His mother kept that Gold Star in the window. She was very proud of him.”
Gillis also has a letter Joe wrote home to his sister, Oneita, in 1943. As he wrote it, the letter reads in part:
“I may not get to answer all your letters but keep writing anyway. I am feeling fine an not doing much so I like it all right but would rather be home, but like it here as good as I did in the camps back in the States.
“I sent home a $100 money order today. There is no place to spend it here so there was no use in me carrying it for I may loose it. Is Bill (brother-in-law) feeding lots of steers an hogs know? I can’t tell anything about myself so all I can do is ask questions. Did Bill put in lots of wheat this fall? Who is working for him know?
“I guess he will have lots of corn to pick for I hear it is pretty good. How is the folks making it?”
Gillis, from what she’s learned, doesn’t think Joe would have thought himself a hero.
“I think he would say he was just doing his job — taking care of his men,” she said.
Nonetheless. Head into Odessa on Interstate 70 and there’s a sign touting the “Sergeant Joe C. Specker Memorial Highway.” Anyone ever based at Fort Leonard Wood in southern Missouri probably remembers Specker Barracks.
Things on other military bases are also named for Joe, who fought in North Africa before Italy.
“Around here the older people know him as a war hero, but the younger people don’t know who he is,” Gillis said. “I’m trying to change that.”
Seventy years after Joe died, those who remember him are nearly gone. But there are still plenty of relatives. As Gillis poetically put it: “You can’t swing a dead cat out here without hitting a Specker.”
Three are Joe’s nephews, the sons of his brother, George. Don Specker was 2 when his Uncle Joe died.
“So I don’t remember him, but I remember the stories from over the years and I always go when they have something out at the cemetery for him,” he said.
He remembers men from Joe’s outfit contacting the family years after the war ended.
“They said they wouldn’t be here if not for him,” Don said. “He took that machine gun and went up that mountain. He got shot and left blood all the way up there. They found him the next day, sitting there dead.”
That part of the story cracks his voice.
“He wouldn’t be outdone by anyone.”
On July 21, 1944, The Kansas City Star told Joe’s story. How he volunteered to go up that mountain and was told he didn’t have to. He was a combat engineer.
“Hell, I’ll go,” he insisted. “There’s business up there.”
He was buried in Italy but brought home after the war. He rests next to his parents at the cemetery in Odessa. His tall stone marker includes an etching of the Medal of Honor.
The first sentence in that story in The Star?
“It wasn’t Joe’s job, but he did it anyway and died at his gun.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182
Specker’s Medal of Honor citation
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty, in action involving actual conflict. On the night of 7 January 1944, Sgt. Specker, with his company, was advancing up the slope of Mount Porchia, Italy. He was sent forward on reconnaissance and on his return he reported to his company commander the fact that there was an enemy machine gun nest and several well-placed snipers directly in the path and awaiting the company. Sgt. Specker requested and was granted permission to place 1 of his machine guns in a position near the enemy machine gun. Voluntarily and alone he made his way up the mountain with a machine gun and a box of ammunition. He was observed by the enemy as he walked along and was severely wounded by the deadly fire directed at him. Though so seriously wounded that he was unable to walk, he continued to drag himself over the jagged edges of rock and rough terrain until he reached the position at which he desired to set up his machine gun. He set up the gun so well and fired so accurately that the enemy machine gun nest was silenced and the remainder of the snipers forced to retire, enabling his platoon to obtain their objective. Sgt. Specker was found dead at his gun. His personal bravery, self-sacrifice, and determination were an inspiration to his officers and fellow soldiers.