He was running to a foxhole with two other U.S. Army soldiers when they were struck by enemy mortar during a fierce battle at Okinawa, Japan, in May 1945.
One of the men died instantly, another died at a military hospital after Paul Speth prayed for him.
Speth was seriously injured and hospitalized for four years. He had more than two dozen surgeries as a result of the injuries. He returned to Indiana with one ankle missing and shrapnel still in his body. It would surface periodically and his wife would pick it out with tweezers. But he was determined to have a normal civilian life, and he did.
Like thousands of other veterans across America, Speth, a resident of North Woods Village in Kokomo, overcame his injury to lead a normal life after the war. Though he fought obstacles, he didn’t let them get in his way.
After returning home from World War II as a decorated war hero, Speth pushed to get a job. It was a push since many prospective employers thought he could not do the work because of his war injury. During an interview at the U.S. Post Office, Speth said a prayer, then picked up a heavy padded wood chair and held it over his head to show the postmaster he could handle far lighter bags of mail and he was hired. He retired after 30 years.
Once captain of his basketball team at Sacred Heart High School in Indianapolis, he played basketball with his son as he grew up. He bowled on a league; taught his daughter how to play tennis; fished; did many things for his church; volunteered with the Knights of Columbus; and drove his own car, a 1949 Pontiac fitted with special equipment, including one of the first automatic transmissions, because his injured foot and leg could not operate the clutch.
“When he first came home with bandages, mother was told don’t do anything for him that he could do for himself,” said Speth’s daughter, Joan Atkinson. “She drove him wherever they went until he got the Pontiac. But even when she drove, he would get out of the car on his crutches and open the door for my mother. People around him would want to open the door for him, but he wouldn’t let them. My father expected to do everything a person could without an injury and do it better.’’
Speth was one of 11 children who grew up on the southside of Indianapolis. He and his siblings and the neighborhood children often played baseball together, and he was always the pitcher. So it was natural that he would become the person who carried the hand grenades during war. He had a belt full when the attack in Okinawa occurred, and it is likely the attack was especially meant for him.
When he was drafted into the Army, he already had a wife and baby son. Many of the men in his unit were much younger. He was about 25. The man he prayed for was 18.
“While on the battlefront, Speth received more than one promotion, but the officers who promoted him were killed before the promotion could be documented,” Peter Speth said of his father.
He earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and was discharged as a sergeant.
“He set some kind of record for being on the front; more than three weeks,” said Peter Speth.
Once home, he never used a cane and made do with a steel leg brace that cradled a specially fitted shoe and strapped onto his leg at the knee. Peter Speth says his father never talked much about the war.
“He didn’t talk about the disability at all.”
His dogged determination helped him recover, said family members.
“They wanted to cut off his leg, but my father said no,” Atkinson said.
He loved his work and worked at just about every job the post office offered, said family members. But he especially liked teaching the new employees.
“He held himself to an extremely high standard,” Atkinson said. “He never considered himself disabled.”