Place in History
Lieutenant Colonel Ronald C Speirs retired from the Army on 31st March, 1964. He had served 22 years in the military and his career had spanned one of the most turbulent and dangerous periods in human history.
Commissioned into the Army at 22 years of age, Speirs joined the paratroopers – a new concept for an infantry fighting force – which at that time had only been used by the Germans and was originally disliked by US Army Commanders.
The 101st Airborne was activated on 16th August 1942 at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. It’s first commander Major General William C Lee declared to his paratroopers in General Order Number 5, dated 19th August, that ‘the 101st has no history but has a rendezvous with destiny.’
The start of Speirs’ military career was set against the backdrop of World War II – the deadliest conflict in history. It was a global war, fought in Europe, Africa, Asia and on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Over 100 million people served in the military and countries placed their entire economic, industrial and scientific efforts towards winning the war.
It was a war which saw the mass killing of civilians and resulted in over 60 million dead – the equivalent of 2.5% of the world’s population. It can’t be forgotten that it was also a war that included one of the most shameful events in human history – the holocaust. Added to this, World War II was the first and only war in which nuclear weapons have been used.
Speirs was part of that war. He parachuted behind enemy lines, directly into hostile territory on D-Day. He participated in Operation Market-Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and was part of the force that liberated Hitler’s Eagles Nest.
Post World War II saw the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the world’s two global superpowers and then – due to differing ideologies – the start of the Cold War between them. Though the two never fought directly against each other they did fight indirectly by supporting opposing sides in many global conflicts that followed.
America in the 1950s was prosperous with growth in the manufacturing and construction industries, but was a nation highly concerned by the spread of communism – McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare are both terms associated with this period. This decade also saw the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of passing secret information on the atomic bomb to the Soviets, which ultimately lead to the execution of both. This still remains the only time in American history that two civilians have been executed for treason.
The Korean War started on 25th June, 1950 and by 15th September, 1950 Speirs was in theatre. The United States’ involvement resulted from the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 84 which authorized military intervention. China and the Soviet Union backed the Northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is often called the Forgotten War but resulted in 33,686 battle deaths, 2,830 non-battle deaths and 8,176 missing in action.1
Meanwhile, Berlin was a divided city still controlled by the Allies after World War II. Spiers was stationed there first as a Foreign Intelligence Officer in 1956 and then as Director of Spandau Prison in 1957. He left Berlin in 1958.
The 1960s was a decade which would see incredible change and seismic shifts in social attitudes and expectations. The decade began with the election and inauguration of President John F Kennedy on 20th January, 1961. A former United States Senator from Massachusetts – the same state as Ronald Speirs – Kennedy, at 43 years old, was the second youngest president ever to be elected. It was a Presidency which began with an optimistic vision often described as a ‘Camelot’ because of its potential and promise for the future – but ended with the shocking assassination of President Kennedy.
In Europe, the construction of the Berlin Wall by East Germany began on 13th August, 1961 and completely annexed West Berlin from East Berlin. This wall would stand for 28 years – until 9th November, 1989.
Check Point Charlie, a crossing point in the Berlin Wall, was the scene of one of the most dangerous events of the Cold War occurring on 22nd October, 1961 and was second in magnitude only to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It began when East German guards tried to examine the travel documents of a U.S. diplomat and ended with American and Soviet tanks facing each other less than 100 metres apart. The crisis was resolved on 28th October, 1961 but highlighted the on-going and potentially deadly tensions between the US and the Soviets.
In Asia, the Laotian Civil War – to which Speirs was deployed 28th August, 1961 – was another conflict that involved the United States and the Soviets arming, equipping and supporting the two differing and opposing sides.
The world held its breath in October 1962 as the United States and the Soviets began a 13 day impasse due to nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviets on the island of Cuba. This became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis and was the deadliest stand-off yet between the United States and the Soviets. This crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war.
It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis that Speirs – working in the Plans Branch, Plans and Policy Division, Civil Affairs Directorate (ODCSOPS) in Washington DC – would receive a further military accolade. According to his Army Commendation Medal,2 ”Lieutenant Colonel Speirs assumed responsibility for the Plans and Policy Division, Civil Affairs Directorate, in the midst of the Cuban crisis of 1962 and provided the necessary leadership and guidance needed during this critical period.” His Army Commendation Medal also mentions his work during the Haitian crisis in 1963 when marshal law was imposed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti because of the threat of invasion from the Dominic Republic which resulted in the US State Department issuing a warning advising all Americans to evacuate. “Lieutenant Colonel Speirs directed his branch in providing timely and vital civil affairs planning support to the overall effort.” While his Legion of Merit 3 medal states, “In the field of civil affairs he demonstrated a profound understanding of existing politico-military situations and played a major role in the timely civil affairs support provided for military units involved in operations during periods of international crises.”
The sixties will always be remembered and associated with the Vietnam War – a war whose roots can be traced to Indochina and which began well over a decade earlier. Though Speirs did not serve in Vietnam, he did serve in Laos, part of Indochina where in 1961 he was a Senior Military Advisor. US involvement in Vietnam escalated in the early 1960s with an exponential increase of US troops in situ. This war would divide America and cause a fault line which exposed two sides – those for and those against – which ran across social and political boundaries. Continued involvement in Vietnam would lead to mass student demonstration, draft evasion, and distrust in public government.
Speirs continued his work at the Pentagon and was directly responsible for writing several basic civil affairs policy documents on behalf of the Department of Defence which “added new status to civil affairs planning by initiating a systematic and realistic review of civil affairs support of all contingency plans taken under consideration by this Directorate.”4
His Legion of Merit awarded for “exceptionally meritorious service while serving in positions of responsibility from October 1961 to March 1964” further states, “Colonel Speirs’ outstanding effectiveness as a military leader, administrator, and organiser was of great value in furthering military objectives of major importance to the security effort worldwide” and continues, “by his inspiring leadership, professional competence, and devotion to duty, he contributed materially to the readiness posture of the armed forces of his country and to the defence effort of the Nation. Colonel Speirs’ distinguished performance of duty throughout this period represents outstanding achievement in the most cherished traditions of the United States Army and reflects the utmost credit upon himself and the military service.”
Lieutenant Colonel Ronald C Speirs retired from the military on 31st March 1964 after serving 22 years on active duty.
- Rhem, Kathleen T. (8 June 2000). “Defense.gov News Article: Korean War Death Stats Highlight Modern DoD Safety Record”. defense.gov. US Department of Defense. Retrieved 22 December 2011.
- Army Commendation Medal – The full text of the citation can be read in the Citations, Awards and Medals section
- Legion of Merit – The full text of the citation can be read in the Citations, Awards and Medals section
- Army Commendation Medal