NORTH KINGSTOWN – They’re hard at work clearing and grading land at the Seabee Museum, preparing to build a larger space to accommodate the donations of veterans who want to share their personal history as wartime engineer-soldiers.
When plans are approved for the 60-foot-wide by 100-foot-long by 24-foot high structure, Jack Sprengel, a Vietnam-era vet who is the museum’s curator, plans to donate his entire collection of militaria. He estimates the treasure trove contains at least 1,000 pieces, probably more.
As is often the case, Jack inherited his interest in this particular hobby from his father. “My dad grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. during World War II. He started collecting divisional patches from soldiers in the neighborhood and, as I got older, he gave them to me.” His father, he adds, wore a uniform, too. He was a policeman for just under 40 years.
His collection began to grow in earnest when veterans gave him pieces of their own military gear. “The bug had bitten me,” he says, smiling.
“An 80-year-old veteran and his brother still had both of their uniforms” and he acquired them. He collected all the Vietnam gear he could get his hands on and then started focusing on Seabee memorabilia because that was the branch he served.
Jack still owns an M-725 Jeep ambulance, “the first tactical military vehicle I drove in the Seabees.”
A native of Oradell, N.J., 15 minutes outside New York City, Sprengel was stationed in the United Kingdom when he was commissioned a chief warrant officer. He subsequently transferred to Davisville where he was a construction equipment officer. It was the beginning of the end for the one-time hub of sea and air military might.
“All the warehouses were full of equipment,” he recalls. “The Gulf War was about to start and Davisville was on the base closure list. I was ordered to get equipment ready to ship to Saudi Arabia and there were only eight of us [Seabees] left here.”
It was decided to ship from California and Mississippi to Saudi Arabia with Davisville backfilling with all the material that would no longer be needed at the Rhode Island port.
Jack was to become the last man standing – public works officer in charge of closing the building and securing the utilities – water and electricity. He put the base in a caretaker state and, on April 1, 1994, it was decommissioned.
“I handed over the keys to the facility to the state and the Rhode Island Port Authority,” he explains. He now works for the Quonset Development Corporation as a sort of public works director. “It’s the same thing I did in the Navy” maintaining an infrastructure of roads and buildings; overseeing the wastewater system and storm drains.
Twelve years ago the Seabee Veterans of America, organized after World War II, began pushing for property at Davisville. Working with the Port Authority and the Navy, the group was awarded five acres, two Quonset huts, the Seabee chapel and the Frank Iafrate-designed Fighting Seabee statue.
Jack believes, “People don’t really know all the military history between Davisville and Quonset.” Veteran Seabees have been hard at work for years to turn that situation around, acquiring large pieces of wartime equipment, restoring the chapel, creating a memorial trail through the wooded acreage and welcoming school groups and Boy Scout troops.
Sprengel, whose militaria collection includes 300 uniforms hanging in garment bags in his basement as well as hundreds of other archival materials preserved in boxes, footlockers and totes, confesses that he has “an obsessive attention to detail.”
He only includes genuine, original items whose provenance is established beyond questions. From time to time he experiences the ultimate thrill of finding a trunk containing everything that was issued to a single serviceman.
“I have a complete issue from one GI from World War II, everything to the last detail.”
That includes the uniform, belt, socks, and such things as a clothes brush, shoeshine and snakebite kits, dog tags, shaving mirror, rain gear, fabric stops for hanging clothes on the line to dry and various documents.
Jack’s accumulation also boasts a nearly-complete Seabee issue uniform as well as samples of trench art, vintage patriotic hankies, ribbons, a postcard invitation to a 1947 reunion and even a pith helmet from the Pacific Theater.
“I’m going to bring it all here,” he promises.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com .