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Gratitude transcends history, connects families

Denny Spinner, former mayor of Huntingburg who now serves as the director of the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, holds an image of the home where his father, Harold Spinner, and two other American soldiers hid from the German SS. Photo by Alfred Reemer.

The myriad of emotions overwhelmed Denny Spinner as he held a photo of the hotel in his hand.

It was just an old postcard featuring a prominent building on what could be considered the main street of the small town of Woerth in France. 

But the postcard had been given to him by 93-year-old Anna Wagner. It was a photo of her father’s home, where Denny’s father had hidden from the German SS as they searched for him and two other American soldiers in 1945.

Ms. Wagner had been standing with the assistance of some crutches when she met with Denny. After speaking briefly, she handed her crutches to Shari, Denny’s wife, and began rooting around in her purse to pull out the postcard. Before handing it to him, she pointed to an upstairs window and said that is where Denny’s father, Harold Spinner, had been.

The reality of the moment, even his existence, came to a sharp point of awareness in the 66-year-old Huntingburg man’s mind. He teared up. The moment still brings the same overwhelming wash of emotions – gratitude, joy, amazement.

Denny and Shari traveled to France with friends in May. The trip was originally planned for 2020 when he was still serving as mayor of Huntingburg, but it was postponed due to the pandemic. In planning the trip, Denny knew he wanted to retrace some of his father’s footsteps. He worked with Tours by Locals, a company that specializes in providing these types of tours.

“I was going to be in France – probably for the only time in my life – and I just felt I needed to go and be where dad was,” Denny said. 

When he told the tour guide, Jean-Yves, about his father’s connection to Woerth and his infantry unit, the guide simply said, “If he was with the 103rd (Infantry Division), we’ll take care of it.”

Harold Spinner, bottom row, third from left, posed with the members of Company E.

Harold Spinner didn’t share much about his service with his children. Much of what the family learned came from research his grandchildren did after he passed away.

Mr. Spinner volunteered for service with several of his friends in 1944 before the end of his senior year at Huntingburg High School. He had enough credits to graduate and decided to join the Army.

The 19-year-old landed in Marseilles, France, in November 1944 assigned to Company E, 411th Regiment, 103rd Infantry Division. The 103rd is renowned in France because of its efforts to free many of the French towns from German occupation as the American troops progressed through the country toward the French/German border on the Rhine. 

Woerth is located in the northeastern area of France, less than 30 miles west of the French/German border. Over the centuries, the region has transferred back and forth between the two countries. After World War I, the area had become part of France, but when Germany conquered France in 1940, they reclaimed it as part of Germany.

As the 103rd was working through France, they pushed Germans out of the French towns through various pitched battles. The account of what occurred in Woerth was recorded by John McBurney, who was also assigned to Company E. His record of the event is on file at the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle, Penn.

Harold Spinner

According to the file, Company E came under fire about a mile southwest of Woerth after a night patrol on December 10, 1944. McBurney wrote that surprisingly in the midst of the gunbattle, the German soldiers retreated into the town of Woerth. 19-year-old Harold Spinner, McBurney, and another soldier from Company E, William Chick, gave chase, but when they entered the town, they found they had been led into a trap.

When McBurney rounded the corner onto the town’s main street, he was met with a demand to surrender from the German soldiers stationed there. McBurney said he ran back around the corner into the garden of a nearby home, where he bolted the gate to the high wooden fence surrounding it. He then hid inside the house, where Spinner and Chick joined him. 

This happened to be the mayor’s home. The three took up a position on the second floor with a clear field of fire and avoided capture for more than 20 hours. McBurney wrote in a letter to Denny that his father had held the enemy soldiers off with a sniper rifle from the second floor until Chick, the BAR operator, was able to kill the German commander with a burst of automatic machinegun fire. McBurney credited their actions as preventing them from being captured.

“I was worried about Harold since he was a newly arrived replacement without combat experience,” McBurney wrote. “But throughout the night, he was totally calm. My worries were unnecessary.”

On the morning of December 11, the mayor came upstairs to tell them the Germans had left the town overnight. 

Denny embraced Ms. Wagner after telling him about her father’s involvement in helping hide his dad. Photo by Alfred Reemer.

Anna Wagner, who was 15 years old in 1945, told Denny that her father, Mayor George Kuhn, had warned her that he had hidden the three American soldiers in a room on the second floor of their hotel during the incident. 

Meeting Ms. Wagner was the capstone moment for the day that had been one surprise after another for Denny and his group. It began when they arrived in Woerth with the tour operator. To their surprise, they were met by the current mayor of Woerth, Mayor Alain Fuchs, and a group that included a local historian and a club of World War II Jeep enthusiasts.  

After meeting with the mayor and Ms. Wagner, the group enjoyed a reception with wine and hors d’oeuvres before the entire entourage was taken by Jeep over to the house where Harold Spinner and his fellow soldiers held off the estimated 2,000 German SS. 

“It exceeded everything I could imagine,” Denny said of the day in Woerth. “I just wanted to come and see where he was.”

He didn’t expect to meet someone who remembered the incident and was there when it had happened. “And can say, ‘Yes, your father was right here,'” Denny added. 

Denny met with the mayor of Woerth, Alain Fuchs, and a group of military Jeep enthusiasts during his visit. Photo by Alfred Reemer.

The family recently got together to celebrate his sister’s 50th wedding anniversary. The Spinner siblings, Denny, David and Suzanne, were there with all of their family. Still reeling from the magnitude of the moment in Woerth, Denny made everyone gather for a family photo. 

There are 41 people in that photo: Harold and Helen Spinner’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

And in large part, they are all there because of Ms. Wagner’s father. His decision to not tell the German soldiers where the three Americans were hidden. 

“I’ve thought about it in so many different ways since then,” Denny said. “To think about what her father did. It was not an easy thing to do.”

He likely put his entire family in danger.

And that moment 78 years ago brought the two of them together last month.

“I am going to send her that photo,” Denny said. “And I am going to tell her, ‘This is my family. This is the family that exists because of your father.'”

7 Comments

  1. My father (John McBurney) recounted these, and other, 103rd Infantry Division exploits to me many times. As grateful as he was for the courage of civilians in Woerth that December day in 1944, he unfailingly credited his brothers in arms – specifically Harold Spinner – for getting him through the war, and for getting the job done.

    1. Without information from your father we would never have had this story. Thanks to you and your dad.
      Suzanne Spinner Stovall (Harold’s daughter)

    2. Thanks from me also, if your father had not documented this event, we would have never known and my brother would not have been able to experience what he did.
      David Spinner

  2. Without my niece, who found your dad’s connection and your dad’s communication with our mother we would never had this story. Thanks to you and your dad. Words cannot describe our gratitude
    Suzanne Spinner Stovall

  3. We knew this trip was planned and the potential existed to “touch” family history.
    However, this outcome is astounding for the Spinner family.

  4. on est content d’avoir pu vous honorer et de pouvoir vous montrer que l’on ne vous oublie pas et que vous avez toute notre gatitude

  5. wonderful article! Thanks much for sharing it. Congrats to the Spinner family, for being able to reach back through time and touch their Father’s tour of duty.

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