THE GREATEST GENERATION OF ATHLETES
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.
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.