THE GREAT­EST GEN­ER­A­TION OF ATH­LETES

The Covington News - - OBITUARIES - PETE MECCA COLUM­NIST Pete Mecca is a Viet­nam vet­eran, colum­nist and free­lance writer. You can reach him at avet­er­ansstory@gmail.com or avet­er­ansstory.us.

My re­cent ar­ti­cle on Hol­ly­wood’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in World War II cre­ated a tidal wave of emails plead­ing, “What about the ath­letes who served?” In­deed they did, in great num­bers, and this is their par­tial story.

Time and space ham­pers nar­ra­tives of lesser-known ath­letes, like rodeo star Fritz Traun, best all-around cow­boy cham­pion in 1941. The fa­mous mem­ber of the Cow­boys Turtle As­so­ci­a­tion lost his mem­ber­ship but­ton dur­ing in­tense com­bat on Iwo Jima. Risk­ing his life, Traun crawled back over the bat­tle­field un­til he found and re­trieved his but­ton. Traun later lost his life on Iwo.

On Dec. 7, 1941, as the Red­skins and Ea­gles churned up the turf, the fans in the sta­dium knew some­thing was wrong. A voice over the loud­speaker con­tin­u­ally or­dered mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to re­port for work. A flash re­port hit the press box: “The Ja­panese have kicked off. War now!” At­tend­ing the game was the for­mer end for Har­vard’s ju­nior var­sity foot­ball team and a mem­ber of the “great­est fresh­men swim­ming team ever,” Navy Re­serve En­sign John F. Kennedy.

Naval Academy star half­back Gor­don Chung-Hoon was on a weekend pass in Honolulu dur­ing the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor. Stopped by traf­fic and road­blocks, he couldn’t get back to his ship but watched in horror as his ship­mates per­ished aboard the USS Ari­zona. Wash­ing­ton Se­na­tor all-star short­stop Ce­cil Travis suf­fered badly frozen feet dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Bulge which ended his base­ball ca­reer. On April 21, 1945, a B-24 nick­named Black Cat was hit by flak and lost its left wing. Per­ish­ing in the crash were Western Ken­tucky foot­ball great Howard Good­ner, NYU and Queens Col­lege bas­ket­ball star Jack Re­gan, and nose-gun­ner Harry Gre­go­rian, a wel­ter­weight boxer from Detroit. Black Cat was the last Amer­i­can plane lost over Europe.

A foot­ball player from the Univer­sity of Texas named Tom Landry would fa­mously coach the Dal­las Cow­boys in later years, but af­ter his brother was killed pi­lot­ing a B-17, Landry en­tered in the Army Air Corps. Landry flew 30 com­bat mis­sions over Europe. His air­craft crash-landed, but he and his crew sur­vived.

At the age of 15, James Doolit­tle won the West Coast’s ban­tamweight box­ing cham­pi­onship, then pushed the lim­its of fly­ing dur­ing the 1920s and ‘30s as a dare­devil barn­storm­ing pi­lot. Doolit­tle, of course, led the raid over Tokyo in April of ’42. Among his pi­lots, the North­land Col­lege bas­ket­ball star Ge­orge Barr would run out of fuel and be im­pris­oned by the Ja­panese for 40 months.

In hand-to-hand fight­ing on New Guinea near Buna, light-heavy­weight wrestler Frank “Bull­dog” Atkin­son broke the arms and legs of sev­eral Ja­panese with a fly­ing mare, a back body drop, and an Ogasaki dive (a Judo move).

Har­mon’s fighter was shot down twice, forc­ing him to para­chute be­hind enemy lines. ... He saved one of his silk para­chutes to be used for his fu­ture wife’s wed­ding dress.

Leg­endary golfer Bobby Jones joined the Army Air Corps and served as a lieu­tenant colonel with the Eighth Air Force in Europe. Golf­ing great Ben Ho­gan also served in the Air Corps, and “Slam­min” Sammy Snead served in the Navy.

Many Michi­gan Wolver­ines con­sider 1940 Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner Tom Har­mon as their best foot­ball player ever. Dur­ing the war, Har­mon flew P-38 fight­ers in the China-Burma-In­dia The­ater. Har­mon’s fighter was shot down twice, forc­ing him to para­chute be­hind enemy lines. Se­vere burns on his legs, the trauma of two para­chute land­ings, and month-long eva­sion tac­tics in rugged moun­tains and thick jun­gle took their toll on his phys­i­cal prow­ess, ef­fec­tively end­ing his pro­fes­sional ca­reer. Har­mon saved one of his silk para­chutes to be used for his fu­ture wife’s wed­ding dress.

Pre-in­te­gra­tion base­ball saw the cre­ation of the Ne­gro Leagues af­ter World War I. Teams with names like the Stars, Elite Gi­ants, Red Caps, Black Pel­i­cans, Black Crack­ers, and Birm­ing­ham’s Black Barons took to the Field of Dreams. Ex­hi­bi­tion teams, formed to raise money with tal­ent, slap­stick com­edy in the field and in the bat­ter’s box, hit the roads with names like the Ten­nessee Rats, Cincin­nati/In­di­anapo­lis Clowns, Mi­ami Clowns, and the Zulu Can­ni­bals.

One of the most dom­i­nat­ing pitch­ers in the 1930s and ‘40s, black or white, was Leon Day of the Ne­wark Ea­gles. On June 6, 1944, dur­ing the Nor­mandy Invasion, Day drove an am­phibi­ous land­ing craft called the Army Duck onto the per­ilous shores. Re­turn­ing to the Ea­gles af­ter the war, Day bat­ted an amaz­ing .469 in 1946 and threw a no-hit­ter, al­most un­heard of in the hard-hit­ting Ne­gro League. Day’s ac­com­plish­ments in due course earned him in­duc­tion into Base­ball’s Hall of Fame.

Another Ne­wark Ea­gle, Monte Ervin, was the ob­vi­ous choice to break the color bar­rier and play as the first black in Ma­jor League Base­ball. He served with the Army engi­neers in Europe, but some­thing hap­pened in the war, as it of­ten does. Ervin re­port­edly ad­mit­ted, “I lost my feel for play­ing. I wasn’t the same player when I came out of the war that I was when I went in.”

The man who did even­tu­ally break the color bar­rier, Jackie Robin­son, served as an ar­mor of­fi­cer with the 761st Tank Bat­tal­ion at Camp Hood, Texas. While sta­tioned at Fort Ri­ley, Kansas, Robin­son kept in shape by work­ing out with another sports leg­end, heavy- weight box­ing cham­pion and Army Pri­vate Joe Louis.

A Ja­panese pi­lot shot down near Guadal­canal swam ashore only to be cap­tured by the U.S. Marines. Ob­vi­ously an avid base­ball fan, he asked which team had won the 1942 World Se­ries. The Marines re­ported the Ja­panese pi­lot was stunned to find out that the St. Louis Car­di­nals had beaten the in­de­struc­tible New York Yan­kees. On Saipan, Enos “Coun­try” Slaugh­ter of the St. Louis Car­di­nals served with the Se­abees, build­ing up the cap­tured is­lands, in­clud­ing base­ball fields. Slaugh­ter re­called, “We had plenty of pro­fes­sional play­ers on the field and as many as 15,000 sol­diers watch­ing the games. The Ja­panese would sneak out of their holes and caves in the hills and watch us play base­ball. When the game was over, they’d dis­ap­pear. Those Japs could have been killed watch­ing a base­ball game. Talk about real fans!”

On New Year’s Day, 1945, the 12th Air Force and 5th Army played the first and last “Spaghetti Bowl’”in Florence, Italy. With­out proper gear, the game was sched­uled to be played in olive drab un­der­wear shirts and tanker’s hel­mets. Thank­fully, proper equip­ment ar­rived the day be­fore the game.

Foot­ball par­tic­i­pants in­cluded all-Amer­i­can John Moody from Mor­ris Brown, Univer­sity of Toledo quar­ter­back Eugene Stauber, Mar­quette center Ed Niemi (al­ready awarded for brav­ery in ac­tion), all-South­ern North Carolina State half­back Arthur Fair­cloth, Syra­cuse quar­ter­back Ed Bren­nan, and Florida half­back Frank Buell, among many oth­ers.

The 12th Air Force re­cruited a cheer­leader, U.S. ba­ton twirling cham­pion Peggy Jean Roan, who was tour­ing with the U.S.O. With­out its famed mule mas­cot, the 5rd Army re­cruited an Ital­ian burro. Ap­par­ently hav­ing a pretty cheer­leader wasn’t quite as in­spir­ing as hav­ing a stink­ing burro on the side­lines: 5th Army won the game, 20-0.

With so many pro­fes­sional ath­letes in uni­form, the qual­ity of the games in all sports di­min­ished. The Cincin­nati Reds put a 15-year-old pitcher on the mound named Joe Nux­hall. Two weeks be­fore his de­but, Nux­hall had been pitch­ing against eighth and ninth-graders. Nux­hall re­mem­bered, “I looked up at the bat­ter’s box and saw Saint Louis Car­di­nal slug­ger Stan Mu­sial wait­ing for my pitch. Dang, talk about a scary sit­u­a­tion!”

The war won, the ath­letes came home. One for­mer ath­lete, how­ever, never re­al­ized his Field of Dreams. “I grew up with dreams of play­ing pro­fes­sional base­ball,” he said. “I re­call as a kid be­ing on a fish­ing trip with a boy­hood friend. I told him I wanted to play pro­fes­sional base­ball, and he said his dream was to be Pres­i­dent. Nei­ther of us got our wish.” The wannabe base­ball pro­fes­sional was the Supreme Com­man­der of Al­lied Forces and fu­ture United States Pres­i­dent, Dwight D. Eisen­hower.

Sub­mit­ted photo / The Cov­ing­ton News

Clock­wise from left: Tom Har­mon in front of his P-38 Light­ning fighter; Monte Irvin of the Ne­gro Base­ball League; crew of the Black Cat, last Amer­i­can plane lost over Europe; John F. Kennedy aboard PT-109 in WWII.

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