SYLACAUGA, Ala. – SylacaugaNews.com will be featuring “Famous People of Sylacauga,” a series on people who were born or grew up in the Sylacauga area who have gone on to do extraordinary things. The first feature in this series will focus on James Michael Sprayberry (Mike), a retired Lt. Col. for the Army who received a Medal of Honor, the highest decoration in the military, for his actions in the Vietnam War.
While Mike grew up in Sylacauga, he was born in LaGrange, Georgia in 1947. His mother was 15 at the time, and decided it was best for Mike to be raised by his aunt in Sylacauga who adopted him when he was 5 years old. His mother and aunt were able to make an arrangement where he spent summers in LaGrange, and went to school at B.B. Comer High School in Sylacauga.”I’m very proud they were able to make that arrangement and never had a cross word to each other. I had the best of both families. It worked out perfectly.”
Sprayberry played in the band while at B.B. Comer, before graduating in 1965.
The farm Sprayberry grew up on was actually in Stewartville in Coosa County. “Sylacauga was our home base. It was kind of my stomping ground. Back then, you could go to school in Sylacauga even though we lived in Coosa County and there were no problems, but I understand there are rules against that now.”
His two younger brothers still live in Sylacauga.
Graduating high school in June 1965, Sprayberry enrolled at Alex City Junior College. Sprayberry said he was “probably having too much fun” when he wanted something completely different. The following April, he enlisted, went to officer candidate school, and was in Vietnam a year later. “It was one of those cases where the party thing in school is nice, but after a while it gets a little tiresome. I wanted something different and still had a sense of adventure, but that was pretty quickly mediated by the realities of service and wartime experiences. The romantic view of being a soldier disappears pretty quickly.”
His last assignment before he retired in 1998, was working for the reserves in Jackson, Mississippi, after he worked in developments for the N1 tank for the armor force in Fort Knox. Mike had two tours in Germany, served combat in the Vietnam War, and had various trips all over the world, but mainly served stateside. He served for a total of 30 years in the Army.
Mike said the most memorable thing about his time serving was the people. “The Army was a great opportunity to meet people I would have never met otherwise. You meet some interesting characters along the way and form a camaraderie with those people. It’s not for everyone, but I really enjoyed that experience.”
Sprayberry was awarded the Medal of Honor for a rescue mission conducted at night to get back some of the company who had been separated by an ambush and suffered casualties. The team he recruited was able to do the mission without any further casualties, but, unfortunately, had to leave behind three men. They planned to recover their bodies the next morning, but the area had been reinforced and were unable to do so. This mission was in 1968 in the A Shau Valley, a mountainous terrain about 30 miles west of Laos.
“Like most awards, especially combat awards, it is a perfect standard. I am far from perfect. I have certainly made every mistake in the book, but sometimes you do well enough or get close enough to get the award. The greatest benefit of it is getting to hang out with some really neat people and fellow recipients every year or so. I admire them all. Sometimes you don’t feel you are worthy of their company, but it’s an amazing feeling to be standing with a group of guys, and think ‘wow these guys are really something else’.”
Mike has no regrets about his time serving, and would do it all again if he had the opportunity.
Sprayberry now spends most of his time trying to work on getting those recovered who are still missing in action at their last place of duty. He has made six trips back to Vietnam, and is planning the next one for spring/summer. There is no date set yet, but the next excavation will be the fifth excavation to try to locate the men to return them to their families.
On his last excavation, they ran into complications. A road was created about 15 paces deep in the area where they think their men were buried. They have to use a track hole to dig to the original surface, which was finished in September. Mike wanted to to go back in November, but the roads were closed for flooding. He went back in December, but did not finish closing the pits because of the winter monsoon season. Many things now have to be rescheduled because of the typhoon in November and December.
“We got one of the local guides to check in the area. There are about 2,000 cases in that local area. One of the biggest problems these days is finding the location. Where exactly are they buried? If you miss by an inch, you miss completely. It’s a lot more detailed than most people think.”
Many of the exact locations have been incorrect for almost 50 years for various reasons. Sprayberry spends a lot of time researching and talking to locals to find these locations. He said the local people are very hospitable and do the best they can to help with what information they may have. Many local farmers are welcoming, and very interested in and admire Americans. Mike says he has never had an unpleasant experience with any of them.
“It’s an interesting thing when you just get invited into an old mountain farmer’s house and they pull out the chairs and rugs and food. It’s a different style of life, they work very hard and are very proud of the benefits of peace brought to the country. They still love Americans, which I can’t really explain, but it’s a good feeling just to get to know the people, and particularly some of the old soldiers back there. They’re very accommodating and you can sit down and talk to them one on one.”
When Mike is researching these cases, he spends a lot of time trying to find out why the locations have been incorrect. “Most of the MIA cases are a matter of location. Their locations have been reported incorrectly originally, or moved from the location. The easy cases have been done. It’s harder to resolve the cases now, but not impossible. That involves a lot of time.” He said one of the issues is when the government does its research, it does not reach out to people who may have information not in the original record. Mike spends time speaking to former helicopter pilots, or similar people, to ask who would have information that is not in the record at the time of loss. He has found that paperwork in the military is often insufficient in providing the type of information he needs.
“We lost a helicopter that was trying to locate the bodies of our three guys a few days later. There were about three guys on that helicopter that was lost about 300 meters south of where our guys were located. “Through talking to old pilots, one of them said ‘Oh, by the way I have an old photograph from back in that area,’ and there was a helicopter in that photograph.”
At the time, they could not reach the helicopter which was shot down, but in 1971, one of the pilots saw the helicopter and snapped a photo of its exact location. They have been able to forward the photo to DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency), and Sprayberry is hoping to get an excavation on that site next summer.
“You have to be fortunate in some regards. When we went back to look at the helicopter site, in addition to our site, we ran into a local guy. We were looking for some of the losses they had in 1971, and we asked him about one of their losses. He took us to a place that we knew was the wrong location. You normally have to say ‘who knows better,’ so he took us down about 500 meters where a farmer and his family were, and they pull out chairs and food. Then the farmer said, ‘I think it may be in my backyard,’ so we look around his backyard. He said to come back tomorrow to see if we could come up with some of where they had disassembled the aircraft for sale (things were pretty stark there after the war with people starving, so they would cut up the aircraft and sell the metal). It turns out this location had not been identified since 1971, and his backyard is the crash site for that aircraft. We were able to forward that to DPAA. They have to send out an investigative team to work on that, and hopefully get a recovery mission schedule. It depends on a lot of luck and who you talk to. Unfortunately, the government (at least in that area) does not have the resources to get out there. They have so many cases that it’s difficult to concentrate on one case. I think the people are more forthcoming when an individual goes over, than when they are talking to a government official. We’ve been very fortunate. We’re hopeful some of these will get results and some family will at least get some closure, or be closer to recovering their loved ones. The effort, as far as our government goes, has been expanded now to Europe and Korea, so more intensive efforts to return some of the MIAs. There’s been success with that. It’s an ongoing effort, and it’s what we owe the soldiers that we lost and left all over the world.”
Sprayberry says one of the positives of these experiences is how many people want to help. Sometimes, it comes down to money, but he has only taken contributions from local people. This money pays for local guides and information at the sites. Many people want to help, but it is a situation where they cannot just go dig a hole somewhere. It is much more involved than many people realize. He says the biggest way people can help is to help inform everyone the MIA situation is alive and ongoing. “The issues are only in the public view when something is controversial, most of the time. For the thousands of Gold Star families across the country who still want their lost loved ones returned from their last place of duty, it is a constant issue. It is essential for both the families and the public to understand there are people and government agencies still working on a daily basis to resolve individual cases.”
The cases Sprayberry works on most are the Vietnam casualties. He has friends who work more in Europe, and has had an invitation to look at their work, but he has never been able to go there. He says all the work they are doing is paying off.
When working on these cases, Mike has to have cooperation from the Vietnamese government. He said they are extremely helpful and positive in working on this. Mike said he realizes this is not for everyone, and would not recommend it for just anyone. He has a difficult time with the 13 hour flight to Vietnam. It is taxing because he has a vertigo problem when flying. That does not stop him from still going and doing what he can, so, hopefully, he can bring some of the men lost back home. He plans on continuing until he is no longer able to do so.
Mike’s only hobby is finding the MIAs. He spends up to 14 hours on the computer every day researching information regarding the cases. Currently, he is searching for an elderly woman in south Georgia who lost her brother in 1968. Very little information was given to the family, and it is very important to Mike that she gets information. “I’m having a lot of difficulty nailing that one down, but I think we did come up with a few key clues as to where that may have happened to her brother. I think she’s very pleased with that. They just want to know the facts. Unfortunately in those days, about all the family was told was ‘here’s your son, bury him, he died from a gunshot,’ or something to that effect. Most of the time they want to know how they lived more than how they died.”
When working with the Gold Star families, many people are reluctant to bring up their losses even if they know about them. The families are not told very much about their losses, so when someone asks what their son or brother was like, it is often times the first time their name has been mentioned in public. Mike says they get something therapeutic out of being able to talk about these experiences, and people should know it is not a taboo subject. The Helicopter Pilots Association has a Gold Star breakfast where many families come from all over the world to tell their experiences with their losses. It gives them a chance to say a few words about the wonderful people who had their lives cut short. “That in itself is a wonderful experience for families and people who knew and served with the guys who were lost.” If they do not want to discuss the subject, they will let you know.
Working on these cases to bring comfort to the families is an extremely rewarding experience for Mike. Being able to resolve the cases and see the enthusiasm of the families is a pleasure to most people who are dedicated to this work, especially for Mike, who has been to numerous funerals in Sylacauga for people who died in World War II. “The good thing that comes out of our three missing guys, especially in our unit, not to mention all the ones we have expanded our searches for, is getting to know the families. There seems to be a common characteristic that runs through the families of the adversity of that experience, particularly when they weren’t told very much about how their loved ones were killed. There’s something about that experience that just makes them better people.”
Mike tries to come to Sylacauga once a month. He still has property in Coosa County, and he says it is nice to just walk around. His brother-in-law takes care of the farm. Sprayberry likes to come down to visit people, particularly if they are not in the best health. He described his life growing up as a ‘Huckleberry Finn type existence’ before there were computers or game systems and you just enjoyed each other’s company, and he would not have it any other way. “To me, there is nothing more beautiful than a fresh cut hay field.”
To people considering serving, Sprayberry said it is an individual choice. Unfortunately, some people’s lives are ruined because they realize they are not suited for the military after enlisting.The military works with people who may not be a “perfect soldier” to use them to the best of their abilities. “It’s a big decision. Those who are suited for it will enjoy it, have a wonderful life, and be proud of their service. If you try it for a while and decide it’s not for you, you can get out and still be proud of your service, then find what suits you best.”
“I’m just fortunate that I’ve so far been healthy enough to do what I do.”