William Richard Spates, Jr. was born September 8, 1939, in Washington, DC to a family with a long history of service to the United States. An avid history buff, he enlisted in the United States Army in 1957. Upon completion of basic training he went to Airborne School at Ft. Campbell, KY, prior to his assignment to 48th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division in Germany, in August 1959.
His brother James, who also went into the US Army and retired after 23 years, remembers, “We were very close, what you call Irish twins, as he was only 10 and a-half months older. He had three brothers and all four were in the Army, and our Dad was a World War II Marine.'”
In September 1963, he was assigned to 1st Battalion (Reinforced), 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). In 1964, he was assigned to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (TUS) as 1st Relief Commander. He served with distinction and was awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal (Second Award) and the Tomb Guard Identification Badge (TGIB) # 33, which is the second least awarded badge in the US Army.
Former Sentinel Paul Frinstahl (1965-67) remembers that, “As a new guy I often wondered what I was doing there. To myself I would say ‘these guys are beyond any goal I might set…they are good!’. When I first saw SSG Spates I considered him the “Ideal Guard.” He had the look and the walk and the skills that made him a leader and example for all those at the Tomb…especially the new guys.”
Former Sentinel Richard Azzaro (1963-65), who was acting 2nd Relief Commander, remembers “When Bill came down he asked me to teach him the inspection. We worked very hard on this and I shared with him all that I knew. That came very easily because he was as intense as I was and he never let up. He was a quick study. He was new, but very much wanted to be at the Tomb and wanted to be among the best. He was totally committed to the Army and the Tomb Guard.”
Former Sentinel Charles Shacochis (1965-67) remember that “He had a great sense of humor. He used to tease SOG Eldredge about putting their “steel pots” on and sitting around a campfire telling war stories. SSG Spates knew SOG Eldredge was a combat vet and POW in Korea.”
Former Sentinel James Woods (1964-65) remembers his Relief Commander as “A fun loving guy, a regular military person. But he had a great sense of humor, and was supportive of everything we did.”
Former Sentinel Raymond Homyk Sr. (1963-65) remembers that, “SSG Spates was my relief commander, and he assigned SP4 Benny Higdon as my trainer, along with himself. There was not a stricter trainer, or more knowledgeable pair, that knew the history of those interned in Arlington National Cemetery and all the history…except for the Sergeant of the Guard Allen Eldredge, at that time. If I wasn’t standing back against the wall or walking hours on the mat in the catacombs, or doing the manual of arms over and over (which had to be perfect), they kept me studying the facts of the cemetery. Because they were the best of the best, they put me on the path to be my best.”
SSG Spates requested an assignment in Vietnam, and was stationed with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) Advisors as a Light Weapons Infantry Specialist. Upon arrival to Vietnam in May 1965, he was detailed to the 23rd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion in Pleiku, Vietnam.
Former Sentinel Richard Azzaro (1963-65) remembers, “Bill had orders to Viet Nam just as I was leaving the Army. I remember vividly our talking about his leaving in the Tomb Guard quarters (on North Post) and how I cautioned him to take care. We were very solemn in our parting.”
Former Sentinel Charles Shacochis (1965-67) remembers that, “He as a happy, positive guy. He had requested reassignment to Viet Nam and was excited by the prospect of combat. I’ve always felt he had a true Warrior’s heart.”
On October 25, 1965 at the age of 26, SSG William Spates was killed in action defending the base and its occupants during a brutal attack. The base was overrun with enemy, who had been practicing for the assault for over a year, and SSG Spates was killed in a foxhole by a direct mortar strike. SSG Spates became the first Tomb Guard to be killed in action.
Staff Sergeant Spate’s award and decorations include: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Good Conduct Medal (2nd Award), National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam (RVN) Gallantry Cross, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Date Palm Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman Badge, Tomb Guard Identification Badge, and Vietnam Ranger Badge.
Former Sentinel Charles Shacochis (1965-67) remembers hearing the news, “I was in the catacombs, on duty. We were all stunned for a bit, but then we went into Tomb Guard gear and immediately set to planning out what we needed to do for the funeral & family.”
Arrangements were made for his funeral, and subsequent burial in Arlington National Cemetery. SSG Spates had requested that if he were killed in action, he wanted to buried close the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Army honored this request.
Former Sentinel Robert Woodruff (1964-65), a pall bearer, remembers helping the Sergeant of the Guard pin the Tomb Guard Identification Badge on SSG Spates at the funeral home prior to the viewing of his body: “It was very unsettling. I noticed one thing at the time and said something to SOG Eldredge, that he had no shoes on, but black socks with a ID tag around his big toe. We pinned the badge on his chest, and it was the first and last time I ever saw SOG Allen get emotional. SOG Eldredge, in his usual stern manner, cautioned him ‘to pin it on straight’ ”.
Former Sentinel Charles Shacochis (1965-67) remembers that the Sergeant of the Guard “Decided who would be the pall bearers. Back in those days the platoon was smaller, and each relief had no more than 5 on a relief. Including the Sergeant of the Guard, we were considered fully staffed at 16 soldiers.”
SSG Spates was laid to rest in Section 27, close the Tomb and the Unknown Soldiers he stood watch over. Former Sentinel Charles Shacochis (1965-67) remembers, “First Relief was on duty that day so the funeral was handled by 2nd and 3rd Reliefs. I was part of the pall bearer team, which was led by Staff Sergeant Morris Moore. My one vivid memory was of Sergeant Moore, as he and SSG Spates had been very close. We realized how close when the mourning SSG Moore signaled to begin folding the flag DURING, rather than after, Taps. We made it looked planned, though, by completing the fold right at the last note.”
Former Sentinel Raymond Homyk Sr. (1963-65) remembers, “I am humbled to have known him. To this day I believe I am who I am, because of SSG Spates and SOG Eldrege”
SSG Spate’s strong reputation as a leader, have influenced younger generations of Tomb Guards, even though they never met him. Former Assistant Sergeant of the Guard Kevin Welker (1997-2001) mentioned, “I have always prided myself on being the Relief Commander of First Relief based on his position as the same. Many times I visited his resting place in ANC. In a gesture of respect I placed roses on his grave after my final walk.”
Former Sentinel John Gouldin (1984-85) remembers as that Sentinel’s from the eighties that “An on-going tradition was to take a handful of flowers from the many wreathes lined up just off the plaza, make a bouquet and take it down to his grave. I remember after many longs hours on duty to happily walk the flowers through the dewy grass and say “good morning” to SSG Spates”.
SSG Spates’s name can be found on the Vietnam Memorial Wall on Panel 2E, Row 134.
Written by Gavin McIlvenna, SHGTUS Vice President