Vietnam vet from Shelby County living a charmed life
Hurshal Spurling has survived several perilous moments in his life.
An Army medic combat, he came home safely from two tours in Vietnam – he even managed to escape the wrath of an angry cobra once.
But the most dangerous moment in his life likely came as a Shelbyville teenager trying to deliver donuts in the winter on a rickety, old bicycle.
“I used to deliver donuts early in the morning to all the taverns and restaurants with a bicycle that had a warped front wheel,” explained Spurling. “There was ice on the ground about like this (he pinched his fingers together to within an inch or two of each other). I was holding three dozen donuts trying to ride a bicycle that you couldn’t hardly ride with two good hands. And I had to balance a pan of donuts.
“I fell one morning on that ice ... the donuts went everywhere. I picked them up and blew them off and delivered them anyway (a hearty laugh followed). The next day, every place I had delivered asked what happened to the donuts yesterday ... everybody complained they had gravel in them.”
Spurling can spin a story. I had a chance to talk with him earlier this week. He is in town visiting family. It’s a yearly trek nearing an end he admits, but he said the same thing last year. And here he is, 90 years old, driving 12-plus hours straight through from Columbia, South Carolina, just to be back home.
Spurling’s everyman story is not unusual. He didn’t go to high school in the 1940s, instead working for Pope’s Bakery in Shelbyville.
“I did about everything ... made pies and cakes,” he recalled. “I was a helper. I wasn’t a baker.”
He didn’t need an education to realize he needed a future. So he joined the U.S. Army in 1947.
“I didn’t have nothing else to do. What I was doing had no future in it,” he said.
He was sent to Fort Knox to learn how to be a soldier.
“They was tough on you, I tell you that,” said Spurling with his southern twang. He was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and has called South Carolina home for six decades now. “I got shot in the butt with blanks. They try to teach you to get in a ditch and out without exposing your head ... parallel going in and parallel coming out. I did it a little bit wrong, and ‘sarge’ standing there on the banks shot me in the butt with blanks and said, ‘Get in there and get out like I showed you.’
“Which I did (more hearty laughter).”
In the Army for 24 years and that was the only time Hurshal Spurling was shot. He was and still is charmed – supported by loving sisters and a daughter that has given him three grandchildren to spoil.
He can intertwine military stories with his personal life now and make it seem like life has been easy. According to his sister, Jeanetta Fitz, who lives in Shelbyville on Boggstown Road, only in recent years has he opened up about life in the 1960s in Vietnam. As a combat medic, he has seen men with the worst injuries imaginable.
After basic training, Spurling learned how to jump out of planes and successfully walked away from over 100 parachute jumps. The Army sent him to Germany, where the frauleins were plentiful, and Japan, where he volunteered to go. He joined the military after World War II was over and never got sent to Korea, even though he tried.
“While I was in Germany, I was a small corporal ... two stripes (he touched his shoulder as if they were there). I volunteered to go to Korea in 1952,” he said. “We were watching a baseball game one Saturday afternoon. The regimental surgeon was sitting behind me. I had already changed from infantry to medic by then. He said, ‘Corporal Spurling, you’re request to go to Korea is on my desk. On Monday, I will sign it and you will be gone.’
“I said, ‘Thank you, sir.’
“Then he said if you weren’t going you were next on the list for staff sergeant.
Spurling didn’t have to think too hard about staying in Germany.
“I thought go to Korea where they are shooting at you or stay here where they’ve got good beer to drink and plenty of pretty frauleins to date,” he said with a wry smile. “I said, ‘Sir, will you do me a favor Monday and tear up my paperwork? I will take staff sergeant.’”
A lucky break.
Avoiding Vietnam would not be that easy. His first one-year tour in country came in 1963; the second in 1967. And there could have been a third.
“In 1968, I came back and retired,” started Spurling’s next story. “I was out 17 months and I got a recall back to active duty. They sent me to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to go back to Vietnam.
“I was there reading the manifest everyday to see when I was flying out (to Vietnam). (My name) never did show up. I stayed up there a week, just reading the bulletin board. They called me over to headquarters and told me I was not going to Vietnam. I said, ‘Where am I going?’”
The answer was Fort Collins in Colorado. Spurling explained he would rather go to Fort Jackson considering that’s where his wife and daughter were living. He was told to check back in the morning.
“I went back over there and he handed me a set of orders about like this (again pinching his fingers together to show the thickness of the papers) and asked me again where did I want to go?”
Spurling reminded him Fort Jackson.
“He said sign this and get going,” said Spurling.
Another lucky break.
Spurling spent three more years in service to his country before retiring in 1972 on his birthday. He started an exterminating business rather than continuing on with his medical training.
“In the Army, I saved a lot of people. When I got out, I killed bugs,” said Spurling with his big laugh.
Spurling is proud of his military service, even if it was monetarily motivated (his words). With his medical training, he has helped more soldiers than he cares to count. And he has seen and felt the wrath of war, spending too many nights in thick Vietnamese jungles with agent orange wafting through the air.
When asked point blank if there was ever a night where he thought he would never see home again, his answer was simple: “Yep. A bunch of them.”
Spurling still vividly recalls one night when mortars started exploding around the bunker he was sleeping in.
“Mortar rounds exploded all around me ... a bunch of them but no shrapnel hit me,” he said.
Once sunrise hit, Spurling counted six unexploded mortars around the bunker and five or six more outside in the ground.
“A bunch of them exploded around me but nothing hit me,” he said. “Most of the other people got wounded, but I didn’t get wounded. I don’t know how many pieces of shrapnel went around me and didn’t touch me.”
More good luck.
But the luckiest break of all came in 1958 in Columbia, South Carolina, when he and a friend walked into a 10-cent store.
“She caught my eye,” said Spurling of his future wife, Carolyn. “She worked behind the candy counter. She was the first one I seen. The beacon focused in on her. I thought that’s a pretty girl.”
Spurling’s charm kicked in to overdrive, the same charm that made him popular with the frauleins in Germany.
“I walked over to the counter and she said, ‘Can I help you?’
“I said, ‘Do you have any L&Ms?”
Cigarettes, explained Spurling before continuing his story. Mind you, he did not smoke. It was all part of a plan.
“She said you have to get them over at the cigarette counter. I’ve got M&Ms,” he continued. “I said, ‘Well, give me a dozen.’”
Hurshal and Carolyn stayed together until her passing nearly a decade ago. He spent nearly two years caring for her when her health declined. Now that she is gone, he turned their house over to his daughter and her children while he lives a solitary, simple life where yardwork is the most stressful part of his day.
And once a week, he meets up with them to have dinner.
“He’s going to spoil them,” reiterated Fitz.
That’s the final stage of Spurling’s charmed life.
He survived the icy streets of Shelbyville and the rough-and-tumble world of donut delivery. He escaped Vietnam intact even though health issues followed him home. He created a successful exterminating business that carried his family through his post-military career. And he has a doting family that cares for him as he has done for them so many times.
Thank you Hurshal Spurling. It was my pleasure talking to you.
William Hurshal Spurling’s Military Awards
n Bronze Star Medal, with one bronze oak leaf cluster
n Army Commendation Medal
n Good Conduct Medal, 4th award
n Army of Occupation Medal, with Germany clasp
n National Defense Service Medal, with one bronze service star
n Vietnam Service medal, with three bronze service stars
n Combat Medical Badge 1st Award
n Expert Badge with Rifle Bar
n Parachutist Badge — Senior
n Glider Badge
n Parachutist Badge — Basic