Typo holds the key in a woman's search for her father

Rosie Capehart’s father, Gordon Spickelmier, died before she was born. Capehart, 58, recently learned — through an odd twist — that the naval aviator had been flying as part of a secret military mission near Korea. His plane was never found. 
Rosie Capehart’s father, Gordon Spickelmier, died before she was born. Capehart, 58, recently learned — through an odd twist — that the naval aviator had been flying as part of a secret military mission near Korea. His plane was never found. 
Published March 23, 2013

Rosie Capehart had spent much of her 58 years wondering about her father. It took a typo to open the floodgates.

"I went looking for a picture of him,'' the retired school cafeteria worker said last week, "and I found out he was a hero.''

Capehart had pieced together bits of information about Gordon Spickelmier. She knew from her mother that he had fought in World War II and Korea, that he bore a scar across his chest from a Japanese bayonet. She knew he had disappeared on Jan. 4, 1954 with nine other Navy aviators near Korea.

But until Capehart's daughter misspelled his name a few months ago while searching for information on the Internet, she had little idea of his sacrifice or how much of it had been kept secret.

Tara Makanast, 31, typed "Spickle­mier'' into a Google search and found several websites that mentioned her grandfather. She ran to her mother with the news. Capehart stared at her computer screen and scrolled. All she could say was "Oh my God, oh my God.''

She saw her father's misspelled name on a memorial dedicated in 2008 to airmen who flew reconnaissance patrols off China and Korea during the Cold War. They were stationed at the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island, Wash. The memorial is at nearby Oak Harbor.

She read detailed accounts by Satch Beasley, a Tennessee man whose father, Lt. Jesse Beasley, had piloted the armed P2V-5 Neptune on which Spickelmier was in charge of securing weapons. The plane went down in the Yellow Sea. Spickelmier's body was never recovered. He was 28.

Beasley concluded these airmen were casualties of secret operations and, as such, were never given proper recognition for their duty. On the contrary, he said, officials covered up their activities. Noted historian and author William Burrows examined many of these operations for his 2001 book By Any Means Necessary: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War. He noted that 163 airmen died in the reconnaissance missions and most often their service went unnoticed.

• • •

Rosie Capehart stood in her kitchen last week in Zephyrhills and held a folded American flag. One of the memorial organizers had mailed it to her with a note. "I hope this will help you remember your father,'' Dave Bowen wrote. "We will never really know what happened that day back in 1954 . . . but rest assured, those men were indeed heroes.''

Gordon Spickelmier left on his mission not knowing that his wife of 11 years, Margie, was pregnant. Rosie came along exactly nine months after Christmas.

"My mother was alone in Seattle with a new baby and very little money,'' she said. "She fell apart; smoked too much, drank too much.''

Margie moved to Chicago and had four more children, although she never remarried. They moved to Dade City when Rosie was 12.

"We were always poor,'' Rosie said. By the time Margie turned 39, she suffered from emphysema. She died at 58.

Rosie had only seen one picture of her father. Others were destroyed in a fire. Her mother had always remarked that Rosie had Gordon's curly blond hair. And since she had never been given details about her husband's last mission, she was never entirely certain he was dead.

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"We thought he might have been captured,'' Rosie said. "On my first day of ninth grade at Pasco High School, I was in civics class and saw a tall blond man in the hall. I vividly remember thinking, 'That's my dad! Daddy's come to get me! He's found me!' It turned out to be a teacher next door.''

• • •

Rosie and Larry Capehart have been married for 32 years, raising three children. She retired in 2009 after 25 years working in school lunchrooms, the last 13 as manager at Chester W. Taylor Elementary where Larry is an art teacher. They haven't had much time to travel over the years, but now are planning a trip to Washington. "I can't wait to see the memorial,'' she said. "We'll drive. I don't like flying.''

Meanwhile, she has ordered copies of William Burrows' book and plans to present one for a book drive in memory of Susanne Tyler Broadbelt, a veteran reading specialist in Pasco County who died in October in an ultralight airplane crash. The staffs at Chester W. Taylor Elementary, Woodland Elementary and West Zephyrhills Elementary are gathering about 2,300 new or gently used books for each of their students.

"Sue was a wonderful teacher,'' she said, "and I can think of no better way to honor her and my father.''

Rosie wonders how different life would have been had her father survived and completed a military career, "but I guess God has a plan,'' she said. She is grateful to finally have answers, but she hopes for one more thing.

"He must have earned some medals,'' she said. "I would like to have them.''