Category Archives: WWII
Locating and acquiring a forgotten photograph that captured a moment in a star baseball player’s wartime service career is quite rewarding. Viewing a moment such as the player’s induction, basic training, or serving in a far-off land (in a combat theater) gives a glimpse into the contrast between his (then) current situation and his previous life of stardom on the baseball diamond. However, discovering photographs (and other treasures) of ballplayers who were dedicated to giving their all on the field of battle leaves us in awe of such men.
In searching for a vintage photo to accompany a future Chevrons and Diamonds article (unaware if anything existed), an unrelated gem surfaced that caught our attention for several reasons. The subject of the photo was three uniformed U.S. Army Air Forces personnel standing in front of a baseball scoreboard, partially obscuring it. One of the men in the photo was a former minor league pitcher (Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League) who went on to enjoy a six-season major league career (with the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals) after the war. Written on the back of the image was an inscription in that player’s hand that identified all three men along with what appeared to be a personal note addressed to one of them. In addition to these attractive elements, everything about the image (the players and the ballfield) pertained to our local region. Lastly, the photo was autographed by one of the men, adding even further interest.
Preferring to research as many details surrounding our artifacts as is possible, we embarked on a mission to fully document the photo once it was in our possession. An examination of the photograph’s elements supplied an excellent foundation to build upon. The (future) major leaguer was easily identifiable: Cliff “Lefty” Chambers is signed across the player shown at the left of the image. Beneath the signature is inscribed in the same handwriting, “Your buddy.”
The reverse of the photo holds a gold mine of information. First, the players on the photo are identified, though the handwriting for the third name was not discernible, leaving it as an unknown pending research. The next section of information is a note that was written by Cliff “Lefty” Chambers to his friend, Bill Brenner.
“I miss those rides in the B-T at Geiger. Hell, I never have any excitement anymore. I am doing O.K. Had 40 strikeouts for two games. One against Geiger and one against Farragut. Haven’t lost any yet. Will write, Lefty.”
Chambers’ note to Brenner mentions the loss of excitement. By the late summer of 1945, many bases had experienced a reduction in training activity with the war in Europe having ended a few months earlier. Still to be determined was the outcome of the war with Imperial Japan. Chambers’ mention of missing rides in the “B-T” could be a reference to the bombing trainers at Geiger Field, which was a training facility under the 2nd Air Force Command for B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber pilots and flight crews.
By June of 1942, Clifford Day “Lefty” Chambers, born in Portland, Oregon but raised in Bellingham, Washington) was just a few credits shy of graduating from Washington State College where he was a star pitcher and outfielder for the Cougars’ legendary coach, Buck Bailey. (His accomplishments earned Chambers selection to the Washington State University Athletics Hall of Fame.) when he signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs and was assigned to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. After seasoning with the Class “A1” Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League, Chambers was added to the Angels’ roster where he finished the 1943 season. In early March of 1943, Lefty Chambers submitted his 1943 season contract to the Angels ahead of reporting to spring training.
Prior to the start of the regular season, Chambers enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, undergoing basic and athletic instructor training at Kearns Army Air Field in Kearns, Utah. Upon completion of his training, Chambers was transferred to Fort George Wright in Spokane, Washington, located 75 miles north of his college alma mater. He quickly found himself added to the Fort George Wright Bombers baseball team, competing in the Army Workers Organized League (A.W.O.L.), which consisted of a combination of military service teams and civilian clubs. The A.W.O.L included service teams from Geiger Army Air Field (present-day Spokane International Airport) and the Spokane Army Air Depot (SPADCA) near Galena in Spokane County (now the site of Fairchild Air Force Base).
Chambers’ impact on the George Wright Bombers team was immediate as the former Angel and Washington State Cougar pitcher’s skills elevated him to the status of a man among boys. In addition to Lefty’s mound dominance, he also led the league in hitting despite the presence of other former major and minor leaguers on his team and in the league. Through 20 games, Chambers batted .344, driving in 20 runs with six doubles and two home runs. With eight pitching starts, Lefty Chambers had a 7-0 record with a 1.36 ERA, notching a 20-strikeout performance for one of his victories as well as tossing two 2-hit complete games. His success against the AWOL teams continued throughout 1943 and into the following seasons. Geiger Field secured the league championship by a margin of one game over George Wright, with Chambers finishing second in the batting title (behind Spokane Air Depot outfielder Short, who had a .433 average) with a .344 average. Chambers led the league in pitching with a 12-2 record and an E.R.A. of 1.26.
Chambers, designated as an athletic trainer, served his entire USAAF wartime career at Fort George Wright, kept the base’s troops in shape and played baseball for the Bombers for all three years he was in the service. Lefty’s excellent batting continued in 1944 as he led the league again with a mammoth .485 average to Short’s .462. During the 1945 season, his dual role (outfield and pitching) was reduced to solely delivering the ball to the plate. In his reduced capacity, Chambers still managed to bat .378 during his rotational starts and his pinch-hitting duties.
While Fort George Wright’s principal purpose was to provide B-17 bomber training to airmen, it was also home to a convalescence hospital for wounded airmen who returned to the U.S. from field hospitals in overseas combat theaters. Athletics played a vital role in rehabilitating recovering wounded to return to duty or to lead productive, post-war lives.
Anthony “Tony” Saso, a California native, was born in Los Angeles to Italian Immigrants. At the time of the 1930 Census, the Saso Family was living in San Jose where Tony would spend his youth. Tony’s father, Frank, earned his living in the region’s rich agricultural industry before establishing his own fruit wholesale business. In addition to playing football, basketball and competing in track and field, Tony honed his diamond skills in his youth including playing from 1939 to 1941 in American Legion baseball. After graduating from high school, Tony Saso was living in Santa Clara and attending San Jose State College but enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on January 22, 1943, at the age of 19.
Following his training as an aerial gunner, Airman Saso was shipped to England and served with an 8th Air Force bombing squadron, completing 31 combat missions in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). With more than 12,000 bombers lost during the air war in the ETO, the odds of an aircrew reaching the 25-mission-milestone (some crews would be eligible to be transferred back to the U.S. if they reached that number) were unfavorable. Of the 125,000 personnel who flew missions over Europe, more than 57,000 were killed as the enemy’s anti-aircraft flak and fighter interception were quite deadly. Saso wrote in 1946 that his “greatest experience” during World War II was during a “mission over Berlin with (the) plane in bad shape due to (anti-aircraft) flak and (enemy) fighters, but we made it back to England safely.”
In January of 1944, Saso developed inner ear and sinus ailments that reduced his availability to fly missions. By late 1944, Technical Sergeant Saso had been transferred to Fort George Wright from England to the convalescence facility, though not due to trauma-related injuries (reported as “Disease; InjuryType2: Not a traumatism”).
Having recuperated enough by the spring of 1945, Saso found his way onto the Fort George Wright Bombers’ roster as the starting third baseman. Sergeant Saso batted for power as he delivered the long ball against opponents such as the University of Idaho Vandals and also for average as he led the AWOL League with a .361 average. As the 1945 season drew to a close, the USAAF medically discharged Saso due to lingering ailments. Tony Saso attempted to have a career in organized baseball in the following year, appearing in 21 games with the Ogden Reds (March-July) and the Pocatello Cardinals (July) of the class “C” Pioneer League before being given his release. Not ready to hang up his spikes, Tony Saso gave the game another attempt in 1947, signing contracts with the El Paso Texans of the class “C” Arizona-Texas League (April 8-March 10) and the Odessa Oilers of the class “D” Longhorn League (May 20 – June 12), but he didn’t see game action before his release.
On July 25, 1945, the man at the center of the above photograph, flanked by “Lefty’ Chambers (on the left) and Tony Saso (to the right), is Captain Bill Brenner. Just days after being discharged from the USAAF, he signed a contract with his pre-war team, the Los Angeles Angels, as he began putting the war behind him. A veteran of 47 B-17 Flying Fortress missions over Europe, “Bull” Brenner was more than ready to get back to the game after his mid-June discharge from active duty service. Like Tony Saso’s reassignment, Brenner was transferred from the 8th Air Force in England to Fort George Wright towards the end of 1944. No doubt, the presence of a former player from the Los Angeles Angels organization caught the attention of the Fort George Wright Bombers’ manager (and pitcher), Cliff “Lefty” Chambers, who added him to the roster for the upcoming 1945 season.
Bill Brenner was born and raised in Tumwater, Washington (the home of the regional brewery of Olympia Beer) and graduated in 1938 from Olympia High School where he excelled in football and baseball. Following two seasons (1938-39) at the University of Oregon, Brenner was signed to a minor league contract with the Bellingham Chinooks (Class “B,” Western International League) until his contract was purchased by the Hollywood Stars (Pacific Coast League) in September, though he didn’t play for that class “AA” club. In 1940, Brenner’s contract was sold to the Tacoma Tigers, back to the league he left after the previous season. Again, his contract was purchased by a PCL club, this time in Los Angeles after the season concluded. For 1941, Brenner spent most of the season with the Vancouver Capilanos for his third stint in the class “B” league before he was recalled by the Angels that August.
Ten days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Congress’ subsequent Declaration of War, William W. “Bull” Brenner enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on December 17, 1941, one of a handful of professional ballplayers to answer his nation’s call. After more than a year as an aviation cadet, Second Lieutenant Brenner received his bars and his pilot’s wings at Pampa Army Air Field near Pampa, Texas in the Panhandle. Pampa was the USAAF’s site for heavy multi-engine aircraft training, predominantly B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Brenner was transferred to England and assigned to the 8th Air Force. Demonstrating leadership and courage under fire, Brenner and his crew would be designated squadron group leader for 29 of his 47 missions over occupied enemy territory. On four separate missions, Brenner’s plane was so irreparably damaged from flak and enemy fire that it was no longer repairable once he was able to return to base. By the end of his tour with the 8th Air Force, Brenner had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (awarded to any officer or enlisted member of the United States Armed Forces who distinguishes himself or herself in support of operations by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight”) with two Oak Leaf clusters (for each subsequent award) and the Air Medal (awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight) with three clusters.
Due to the points that he amassed while flying for the 8th Air Force, Brenner was discharged nearly three months before the Japanese capitulated in September. Saso, having served on 31 bombing missions, no doubt accumulated enough points to be discharged similar to Brenner, but the disabilities he incurred led to his separation. Chambers, having been a physical instructor with a domestic duty assignment, was not discharged until after Thanksgiving of 1945.
Though our photo of Chambers, Brenner and Saso is undated, it was very clearly taken some time in the early spring of 1945 ahead of the start of Fort George Wright’s baseball season. The three men would play together for most of the season until Brenner’s June discharge. In the weeks following Brenner’s signing with the Angels, Chambers would pitch masterfully, striking out 40 batters over the course of two pitching starts. No doubt, the Army Signal Corps-produced photo was sent by Chambers to his (now) former catcher who was catching for the Angels. The former George Wright battery mates would reunite again briefly in the 1946 season before Brenner was sold once again to the Vancouver club. As Chambers made it to the show with the Cubs, he would have a modest six-season career in the major leagues, continuing on with the Pirates and Cardinals before finishing his professional tenure with the San Diego Padres of the Coast League in 1954. Brenner remained in baseball, serving as a player and manager in the minor leagues until 1958, when he transitioned to front office roles into the 1970s.
Both Brenner and Chambers remained close to their roots in the Pacific Northwest while Saso returned to the San Jose area and settled.
In researching the three men, it appeared that Chambers remained in contact with his friend Brenner until Bill passed away in 1979. We discovered a piece of baseball memorabilia listed at auction that demonstrated Chambers’ remembrance of his friend. It seemed that Lefty Chambers, with a trembling hand, signed a postcard copy of this (our) photo and noted on the reverse the recipient Brenner’s wartime combat accomplishments along with his achievements in baseball as both a player and executive. Lefty honored his friend’s memory and honored his service to our country.
In addition to the note that Chambers wrote to Brenner on the reverse of our photo, he appeared to address the piece (perhaps as a note for what to apply to the envelope) to “Mr. Bill Brenner, care of Los Angeles Baseball Club, Los Angeles, California.” Unfortunately, there is no provenance accompanying the piece to confirm whether Brenner ever received the image from Chambers. Towards the bottom of the reverse, the photo is stamped by the base where it was produced, “Official U.S. Army Photo, Pro-Base Photo Lab, AAFCH, Fort George Wright, Washington.”
Preserving the history of such men who, during the war, experienced the unfathomable horrors of combat (seeing the aircraft of squadron mates destroyed in mid-air over enemy territory or their own crew members shredded by enemy fire) but shared the bond of baseball. Brenner’s and Saso’s combined 78 combat missions and their experiences are unfathomable and with their passing are long-since forgotten. The discovery of a simple, innocuous photo of three men standing before a scoreboard afforded us with the motivation to investigate, research and preserve the history of such men.
Chevrons and Diamonds was founded with the principal purpose to inform and educate readers who are interested in the rich history surrounding the game of baseball and its intertwined history with the armed forces of the United States. Incorporating artifacts such as uniforms, photographs, ephemera and game equipment, we research every possible angle and aspect of a piece in an attempt to share details about players, teams, units or anything that can illustrate and demonstrate each item’s associated history. With many of our readers sharing our interest in collecting baseball militaria artifacts, we end up fielding a fair volume of questions surrounding authenticity, valuation or preservation.
One of the most common areas that readers ask questions about concerns baseball equipment used by troops during World War II. Discovering a common baseball glove or mitt with additional markings such as “U.S.” or “U.S. Army Special Services” at a flea market, estate or garage sale tends to create a bit of a stir for the baseball militaria collector but can leave most other people wondering what they are seeing. Many assumptions are made by both novice and expert alike surrounding the markings as to their purpose and what they may indicate. Perhaps the most common understanding is that all equipment disseminated to each branch bears such markings.
Baseball equipment used by members of the armed forces was not issued to them in the same way that military equipment was provided. Troops were issued uniforms and personal gear along with the appropriate tools that were needed to perform their duties (including weapons and ammunition). These materials were purchased through war department appropriations contracts with dedicated funds allocated through Congress. Every piece of equipment was accounted for through accounting and inventory operational procedures. Though sports equipment was managed through the war and branch departments followed supply department practices, the way that a glove reached a soldier, airman, sailor or marine was far different.
Sports and recreational equipment was not purchased using funds appropriated by Congress (taxes and war bonds). Recognizing the need for troops to maintain physical fitness, athletic agility, hand-eye coordination and dexterity as well as providing for respite from the rigors of combat and operational monotony, baseball men such as Clark Griffith (owner of the Washington Senators) took action to begin raising funds for the purpose of providing baseball equipment for the troops (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved). Besides Griffith’s efforts, major and minor league club owners donated equipment and uniforms, both newly purchased and used, to the troops. Manufacturers such as Rawlings, GoldSmith MacGregor, Hillerich and Bradsby, Wilson and Spalding all got into the game and donated to the cause. Hollywood stepped up to the plate and contributed as they participated in actor and comedian Joe E. Brown’s tremendous fund-raising efforts (see: Service All-Stars Raising Funds on the Diamond for their Comrades in the Trenches).
Ultimately, millions of gloves, bats, balls and bases as well as catchers’ and umpires’ protective kits were acquired and distributed throughout the domestic and combat theaters. Our educated opinion is that, despite the abundance of military-marked sports equipment, only a small percentage of the bats, balls, gloves and protective gear was actually marked before being distributed to the troops. With two examples of non-military-marked gloves in the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection that bear personalization from their wartime owners (see: Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate and An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove), it is a safe conclusion that much of the wartime-manufactured equipment could have been used by service personnel despite the absence of military stamps.
For baseball collectors, game-used uniforms and equipment have significant meaning. Owning a jersey worn by a famous major leaguer provides a connection to that player and to his on-field exploits. Holding a bat that was used to hit notable home runs or the glove that caught the game-ending out of a historical game is the ultimate for baseball memorabilia collectors. For baseball militaria collectors, this principal holds true; however, provenance is far less attainable for a number of reasons. Regardless of the player’s stature as a professional, service in the armed forces is the great equalizer. A private, whether he is Joe DiMaggio or Joe Smith, is still a private. Their uniforms, bats and gloves were not provided to them through their professional channels that they were accustomed to with endorsement contracts. Once a professional player enlisted or was drafted, his contracts with glove and bat companies ceased. Bats used by players were acquired through the same channels for all men and women who were serving with an exception. In 1943, Zeke Bonura requested a shipment of his signature bats to share with players in his North African baseball leagues. See World Series Champions on Two Continents: the 1943 Yankees).
Unless a player brought his equipment home with him (like S/SGT McRoberts or PhM 2/c Gerald Benninghoff) after his service during the war and provenance is attached to the item by that player, proof of personal attribution is nearly impossible on military-used equipment.
Bats and gloves sold to the general public typically bear player endorsements and stamped signatures with the idea that an amateur or youth player would want to use the equipment of his/her on-field heroes. These same “store-model” bats and gloves were the commonly-used consumer examples that were also purchased or donated for service personnel to use. Until we acquired proof, we could only assume that this same equipment was used by the game’s top (former) professionals while playing on wartime service teams.
A few weeks ago, we acquired a type-1 press photo showing Ted Williams (in his Marine Flyers flannels) kneeling next to his former Red Sox and Cloudbusters teammate, Johnny Pesky, (clad in his Naval Air Station Honolulu Crossroaders flannels) at Pearl Harbor’s Furlong Field in 1945. Close examination of the photograph’s details on the bat held by Pesky provided confirmation of our assertions surrounding professionals and the fund-supplied equipment. The bat held by Pesky bears the signature stamp of George “Babe” Ruth with “U.S.N.” stamped directly above the “autograph.” The Hillerich and Bradsby center brand featured the markings that confirm the bat is not a professional model. Rather than the typical “125” placed at the upper center inside the oval (directly above the “Hillerich & Bradsby Co.” word mark that stretches across the oval’s center), Pesky’s bat is clearly stamped with “125BRS” (perhaps indicating “Babe Ruth Special?”), the mark of a consumer bat.
One photo does not prove that all equipment used by wartime active duty major and minor leaguers was fund-purchased but it certainly supports our assertion. Logic would also dictate that actively serving baseball players would be hard pressed to travel between duty assignments bogged down with unnecessary sports equipment in addition to their duffle bags, seabags and flight bags filled with their full complement of uniforms and personal gear. Additional proof along the lines of the Williams and Pesky photo would certainly lend credence to our theory.
As the Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photo archive continues to grow, each image is scanned at the highest possible resolution and corrected to ensure that we have the best possible digital copy preserved for subsequent use in our articles and other related projects. All of our images are heavily scrutinized for details that can help to tell the story of the game or provide useful evidence in support of (or dispel) theories regarding military baseball. A new acquisition arrived in the past day that provided additional support to this idea surrounding professionals and fund-supplied equipment.
Twenty-year-old Cleveland Indians rookie Gene Woodling enlisted into the United States Navy following the conclusion of the 1943 baseball season. With just eight games of major league experience (plus four seasons and 462 games in the minor leagues), Woodling was tapped by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets’ manager, Mickey Cochrane, (following the completion of his boot camp training) to play centerfield for the team during the 1944 season (batting .342 for the year). Following his Great Lakes tenure, Woodling was transferred to Pearl Harbor and would play on the Navy’s All-Star team in the Service World Series, facing the Army’s All-Star lineup. Our newly acquired photo shows Woodling kneeling in his two-color, pinstriped Navy flannels with his left hand inserted into what appears to be a GoldSmith MacGregor “DW” Model Elmer Riddle signature glove (see: A War Veteran Who Never Served). The wrist strap is clearly marked with the familiar “U.S.N.” stamp.
With these two examples showing major league professionals with fund-appropriated equipment, our assertion seems to be supported by the visual evidence within each photograph. Collectors may still acquire period-correct equipment for their collections with certain confidence of wartime use despite the lack of military markings. However, gloves and bats bearing branch markings add so much more to a collection and make for fitting accompaniments for both militaria and baseball displays alike.
Related Chevrons and Diamonds Articles:
- Charlie “King Kong” Keller Rattles the Woodshed ending a Yearlong Silence
- Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt
- Hard to Find Military Sticks: “Double-X” Joins My World War II Baseball Lumber Pile
- Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat
- 75 Years Later, WWII Navy Baseball is Still Giving
Independence Day has been recognized as a somber and celebratory event since the letter of grievances (addressed to England’s King), punctuated by a Declaration of Independence, was distributed and disseminated throughout the new nation.
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
July 4th celebrations have many traditions including national patriotic displays, the decorating of public buildings, streets and homes, parades and firework displays in every community. Another public celebration that has been part of the national fabric is the “national pastime”- baseball. Games have been played in sandlots, playgrounds, and minor and major league parks since the game’s inception in the early nineteenth century. It has been played on ice fields, desert sands, jungles and volcanic islands within earshot of small arms and artillery fire. As with Independence Day celebrations, nothing has stopped the game from moving onward.
Baseball has been a vehicle for social progression and for social change. Despite its dark history of systemic oppression (the intentional omission of an entire people), the game has also been a vehicle for righting wrongs as conscious people, such as Morrie Arnovich (see: Morrie Arnovich: Breaking Ground for Branch Rickey’s Bold Move) and Branch Rickey, took moral stands. Aside from social causes, the game has been in the forefront of national health issues, becoming a voice in the fight against polio and other diseases and physical ailments. Beginning in the 1950s, the game’s leadership changed the direction of National Baseball Day (typically held on June 26th), which was formerly used to promote baseball to America’s youth at the end of World War II.
“The National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, the official name of the minor leagues’ organization, will join the majors and amateur baseball organizations in the drive against polio, arthritis and birth defects on National Baseball Day, July 4. George Trautman, president of the National Association, has urged all teams to aid in making the day a success.” NY Daily News, 21 June 1959
The game has been a vehicle for raising funds for many causes. During World War II, countless exhibition games were staged domestically and in the Hawaiian Islands to raise funds to provide GIs with athletic equipment and to finance the Army and Navy Relief Societies. Until a recent discovery and acquisition of a piece of Australian ephemera, the extent of the reach of charitable baseball games was unknown to us.
Baseball’s history in Australia is perhaps the deepest beyond the shores of the North American continent, with the first recorded game being played on February 28, 1857, dating the game down under to only a few decades short of its establishment within the United States. The exchange of baseball between the United States and Australia has been occurring since then with subsequent tours by teams from both nations since the latter decades of the 19th Century and the early 20th (see Australian Baseball: A Brief History by Major League Baseball historian, John Thorn).
Without any hesitation (or pre-purchase due diligence, for that matter), we purchased a program that was listed in an online auction. The photos in the listing showed a two-color baseball program from Victoria, Australia for a game played between a local baseball club and a U.S. Navy team under the auspices of an “International Base Ball Match.” A quick check of the printed rosters inside showed names of Navy players who were, by all accounts, solely servicemen with no professional baseball experience. This decision to purchase was purely for the Naval historical aspect and due to the beautiful cover artwork.
The event was hosted at the St. Kilda Cricket Ground (also known as the Junction Oval) on April 8 but nowhere in the program was a year specified. Ahead of the main event, there were women’s softball-centric field games (fungo batting, base running and long throw), a women’s softball game (local Australian teams), baseball field games and the baseball game itself. The program also included a simplified explanation of baseball rules (for the local newcomers to the game) and a statement of the event’s purpose (raising money for Prince Henry’s Hospital Sportsmen’s Ward Fund for the expansion of a Melbourne hospital.)
With the program in hand, we endeavored to uncover any further details about the game (such as the outcome). A cursory internet search returned an immediate result from the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum (Cooperstown, New York). Listed among the Hall of Fame’s World War II artifacts is a poster from the April 8 event with hand-inscribed notes providing the year (1945) and the baseball game’s score (the Navy defeated Victoria, 3-0).
The information from the Cooperstown artifact provided additional details for a more specific search. A recap of the game, published in Melbourne’s The Age, revealed that the game was even closer than the three-run shutout indicated. The Navy’s starting pitcher, Pat Patterson (shown on the program’s lineup page as the Navy’s centerfielder) held Victoria scoreless but he was touched for seven hits scattered throughout the seven-inning contest. The bat of Navy’s Joe Coyne accounted for all three of the game’s runs while Jim Robey, Henry Marshott and Patterson all reached base and contributed to the victor’s offensive output. Remarkably, spectator turnout for “International Baseball Day” accounted for 12,000 clicks of the St’ Kildare’s Cricket Ground gate, contributing 200 pounds to the Prince Henry Hospital Sportsmen’s Ward Fund.
US Navy Team (reserves in italics)
|G. Tippett||P||North Melbourne|
|R. Howard||C||South Melbourne|
|C. Ingram||CF||St. Kilda|
|E. Lynott||OF||St. Kilda|
Searching dates prior to April, 1945 revealed no preceding International Baseball Day recognition, nor are there references following the Navy versus Victoria event, leading to the conclusion that this was an unrelated, single instance with no correlation to the aforementioned National Baseball Day.
In the years after World War II, Baseball Day was moved ahead to coincide with Independence Day since games were already traditionally played on July fourth. Even during the War, service teams participated in larger Independence Day baseball events (see: Independence Day Baseball Program, 1943 Schofield Barracks). Teams began to promote patriotic events, such as capping off an evening game with a fireworks show, which tended to draw larger audiences. The increased draw made the Independence Day games a perfect opportunity for fund-raising opportunities.
On this Independence Day anniversary, July 4, 2020, our nation is facing an internal (social) struggle and a health scare that threatens to all but overshadow our most sacred of national holidays. Amid many historical national crises such as a bloody civil war and two global world wars, the anniversary of Independence Day has been recognized with proper ceremony and celebration due to its national importance. However, in 2020, the panic and fear surrounding the current viral outbreak has stirred politicians to reprioritize the national holiday to a mere afterthought. Across the United States, traditional festivities and ceremonies have been cancelled or “postponed.” Major League Baseball announced on June 30, the full cancellation of the 2020 minor league baseball season, leaving the future state of the minors very much in question.
Through this simple, 75-year-old program from a time when the future of the world and mankind was very much in question, we can see that baseball provides a solid reminder that life will go on and that baseball always finds a way to continue.
For More on Wartime Baseball Down Under, See:
Throughout the past decade, autographs were never a central aspect of the Chevrons and Diamonds collection nor have we actively pursued signatures of ballplayers, choosing instead to focus on uniforms, equipment, original photographs and ephemera. In some instances, acquiring a signed item was inevitable, though not central, to the factors contributing to the decision to acquire an autographed piece. However, in the last 18-24 months, as we sought verifiable baseballs from wartime service games, the examples that survived were preserved because they bore signatures.
In retrospect, acquiring artifacts of a particular category seems to happen in spurts. We acquired our first few baseballs in a succession of a few months, starting in the fall of 2017. After a few years of being unable to locate a verifiable service team baseball, we were able to once again add more in a series of acquisitions. Though our search has been focused primarily upon unused or unsigned service team baseballs, we have yet to secure an example for our collection.
A few of the signed baseballs that we have landed are from some of the most notable service teams that played during World War II, including the Navy squads of the 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins and 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets, the rosters of each studded with former stars of the major and minor leagues. While neither baseball was signed by a future member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, several of the signatures on each ball were from star players before their careers were put on hold for war service. The remainder of the inscribed names were placed by former minor leaguers, semi-professionals and regular servicemen. One such serviceman rubbing shoulders with major leaguers was Oscar Sessions of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins squad (see: Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine).
“Between the present and the past there exists no more intimate personal connection than an autograph. It is the living symbol of its author.” Thomas Madigan, author of Word Shadows Of The Great – The Lure Of Autograph Collecting
As the war progressed, service team rosters on Oahu began to be saturated with major league players as they were transferred from domestic military installations to various bases on the island beginning in early 1943. This trend continued into the ensuing year. Following the (Army versus Navy) Service World Series in the fall of 1944, top-tier talent on both Series team rosters were disseminated throughout Oahu bases to compete in the 1945 baseball season’s league play. Also in 1945, both the Navy and Army assembled two squads of all-stars to travel to the Western Pacific to entertain troops with baseball in newly captured enemy strongholds including Guam, Micronesia and the Philippines.
The 1944 season in Hawaii, as it could be argued by many baseball historians, was the peak of both the amassed talent and the quality of competition. The following year, with so many of the top players being pulled from Hawaiian League teams to play in the Western Pacific, the various Oahu commands were left scrambling to fill roster vacancies. The dominant team of the 1944 season, the 7th Army Air Force Flyers, no longer existed and the players were dispersed to other commands and for the overseas tour.
In our search for baseball militaria, we were fortunate to uncover a program (USASTAF Major League Baseball All Stars Program) from one of games of the USAAF Western Pacific tour that provided rosters for two (the 73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers” and 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen”) of the three squads (which also included the 313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers”) that made up the Army Air Forces’ group of ball players. Additional research for an article regarding the USAAF games in the Marianas yielded a roster for the 313th (see: George “Birdie” Tebbetts: From Waco to Tinian).
With our familiarity of the USAAF Western Pacific teams’ rosters, we were rather gleefully interested when a signed, 1945-dated baseball became available. Inscribed on the baseball were 26 signatures that included eleven men who were divided into the three teams. While many of the signatures were easily recognizable, several were difficult to discern and a few more of the autographs were signed by players whom we were not familiar with. The ball was also accompanied by a certificate from Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) that validated the signatures as authentic. We secured the baseball with a reasonable transaction; however, we were unsure of several aspects regarding the names and if the collection of signatures amounted to a specific team.
Among the autographs were some of the game’s best players (including a future selection to the Hall of Fame): Dario Lodigiani (White Sox), Walt Judnich (Browns), Mike McCormick (Reds), Birdie Tebbetts (Tigers), Howie Pollet (Cardinals) and Enos “Country” Slaughter (Cardinals), not to mention the future all-star and two-time American League batting champion Ferris Fain). The initial thoughts of this ball having a correlation to the Pacific teams was dashed with a minor dose of research. With the exception of four names, Walter Judnich (Bellows Field Flyers), Mike McCormick (Wheeler Wingmen), Bill Mosser and Steve Tomko (correlating teams are currently unknown), the players were all members of the Hickam (Field) Bombers baseball team in 1945. Utilizing archived articles, box scores and game recaps from the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star, we were able to assemble a full season roster for the 1945 Hickam team which aided in identifying the more difficult autographs.
There were a few names on the ball that posed considerable challenges in identification. One of the names, “John Murphy,” left us scratching our heads. If we simply placed our trust in the PSA/DNA autograph certification, we would have had to ignore our instincts and deny that our eyes were telling us that there was no likeness to the confirmed signature of the former Yankees pitcher of the same name. With such a common name, we were about to resign ourselves to this particular player being one of several dozen men who shared the name and served in the Army during WWII until we experienced a breakthrough with our research effort.
List of Signatures on the 1945 USAAF Baseball (major league experience in italics):
|Team||Rank||Name||Position||Former Team (Pre-War)|
|Hickam Bombers||John J.”Moe” Ambrosia||Bat Boy/2B||Unknown|
|Hickam Bombers||John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk||3B/P/MGR||Semi-Pro|
|Hickam Bombers||Leonard Burton||P||Tallahasse (GAFL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Glenn Dobbs||Tulsa U./Chicago Cardinals (NFL)|
|Hickam Bombers||S/Sgt.||Ferris Fain||1B||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Eddie Funk||P||San Diego (PCL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Cpl.||George Gill||P||Browns/Tigers|
|Hickam Bombers||Capt.||Billy Hitchcock||3B||Tigers|
|Hickam Bombers||Cpl.||Johnny Jensen||LF/CF||San Diego (PCL)|
|Bellows Field Flyers/Fliers||Sgt.||Walter Judnich||OF||Browns|
|Hickam Bombers||Geroge Colonel “Kearny” Kohlmeyer||2B||Tyler (EXTL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Sgt.||Dario Lodigiani||2B||White Sox|
|Hickam Bombers||Johnny Mazur||C||Semi-Pro|
|Wheeler Wingmen||Myron “Mike” McCormick||CF/MGR||Reds|
|Hickam Bombers||Roy Pitter||P||NYY Property|
|Hickam Bombers||Pfc.||Howie Pollet||P||Cardinals|
|Hickam Bombers||Sgt.||Stan Rojek||SS||Dodgers|
|Hickam Bombers||Bill Salveson||P||Semi-Pro|
|Hickam Bombers||Frank Saul||P||Semi-Pro|
|Hickam Bombers||Don Schmidt||P||Semi-Pro|
|Hickam Bombers||Sgt.||Enos “Country” Slaughter||CF/LF||Cardinals|
|Hickam Bombers||George Sprys||RF||Appleton (WISL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Tom Tatum||RF||Dodgers|
|Hickam Bombers||Capt.||Geroge “Birdie” Tebbetts||C||Tigers|
Among the dozens of articles throughout the 1945 season in both Honolulu newspapers, we found two that revealed an inaccuracy within our compiled Hickam roster. An abundance of references to third baseman John Murphy, one of the team’s leading hitters and fielders, seemed to indicate the Murphy was splitting time with third baseman John Bialowarczuk, who was also one of the team’s better hitting infielders. However, there were two articles that discussed the management duties falling to a “John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk” who also played at third. Understanding that the two names referenced the same manwe were drawn to focus to research efforts upon Mr. Bialowarczuk which led to our discovery that the two names were referring to the same person.
One of the trends with Chevrons and Diamonds articles is that we enjoy introducing our readers to those players who never enjoyed professional baseball careers, let alone playing in a major league game. John Bialowarczuk was an airman who dreamed of playing in the major leagues after the war. Before World War II, he was making a name for himself with his hometown semi-professional baseball club, the Carteret (New Jersey) Cardinals, where he seemed to be playing shortstop against foes such as the Metuchen Eagles and the East Brunswick Panthers in 1941. Bialowarczuk was born on May 6, 1921, in Carteret, New Jersey, 10 years after future Hall of Fame left fielder Joe “Ducky Medwick. John followed Medwick through Carteret High School. However, instead of signing a professional baseball contract, Bialowarczuk found himself on the local semi-pro Cardinals’ roster, playing from 1938 to 1942 with hopes of being scouted by the major leagues. John’s Cardinals were very competitive, taking on regional semi-pro clubs and even collegiate baseball teams, including Rutgers University. Seven months after Pearl Harbor, 21-year old Bialowarczuk enlisted in the Army on August 17, 1942. By 1943, John was on the north shore of Oahu, stationed at the Kahuku Army Airfield, where he played on the base’s sports teams. His softball team, APO 964, secured the Seventh Air Force championship as they won the Seventh Fighter Command’s 1943 tournament.
By the fall of 1943, Bialowarczuk was establishing a reputation as an all-around athlete, leading Hickam’s Seventh Air Force Flyers football squad as the team’s quarterback. With the steady influx of former professional ballplayers making their way onto the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy and Marine Corps teams throughout the island, the level of competition increased. Corporal Bialowarczuk was now stationed at Hickam and played on the Bombers baseball squad (which did not benefit from additional talent until the following season) for both the 1944 and 1945 seasons. Bialowarczuk was discharged at the end of the war. In the spring of 1946, he may have been working out with a professional club (there is no record of any professional experience) as he had the opportunity to submit an American Baseball Bureau form. On his form, Bialowarczuk stated that his ambition in baseball was, “to be a major leaguer.” He considered his most interesting or unusual baseball experience to be, “hitting a home run off Walt Masterson,” no doubt while playing for Hickam in 1944. He also stated that “playing against major league stars,” was his most interesting experience while serving with the Seventh Air Force. Bialowarczuk highlighted opposing players such as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese and Hugh Casey and Detroit’s Schoolboy Rowe. John Bialowarczuk passed away in 2017 at the age of 96. Though his “Murphy” alias is listed on his American Baseball Bureau profile, the reason for its use remains a mystery.
John J. “Moe” Ambrosia was an active-duty U.S. Army Air Forces airman and was a member of the 1945 Hickam Bombers team. For most of the baseball season, “Moe” served as the team’s mascot and bat boy. Regardless of his official capacity on the team, Ambrosia possessed enough baseball talent and experience that manager Birdie Tebbetts began to utilize him in the field. On one such occasion, Tebbetts sent Ambrosia out to cover second base late in a 15-inning marathon game against the Fort Shafter club. The trend continued for Ambrosia as he began to see more action into July. When the rosters were drained of several players (Fain, Gill, Hitchcock, Jensen, Lodigiani, Mazur, Pollet, Rojek Slaughter and Tebbetts), the managerial reins were handed to John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk, who promoted Moe to an everyday player. Unlike Bialowarczuk, Ambrosia did not have any post-war baseball activity and it is unknown what became of the Hickam Bombers’ mascot. Ambrosia’s signature is rather prominently placed on our baseball, augmented with his “Moe” nickname.
The four remaining names, Bill Mosser (who had a 6-year post-war minor league career), Steve Tomko (who is presently unknown), Bellows Field Flyers outfielder Walter Judnich and Wheeler Wingman centerfielder/manager Mike McCormick, remain a mystery as to their connection with what seems to be a Hickam Bombers team-signed baseball. Regardless of the anomalies, the baseball is truly a cherished addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.
Additional Signed Service Team Baseballs in the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection:
A conversation with an American adult in the age range of 18-35 regarding history would be very eye-opening for any World War II living veteran and possibly alarming. Imagine being a veteran who met the enemy on the field of battle in places such as France or Belgium let alone Morocco, Algeria, Leyte or the Aleutians and discovering that the person you are conversing with has absolutely no knowledge that the battles in which you fought either have no meaning or are completely unheard of. It is a difficult concept for people in my generation (born two decades after the end of World War II) that there are Americans who have graduated from high school and university and are detached from their nation’s history.
Arguably the most tragic American event in the Twentieth Century is the one that catapulted the United States into the Second World War and its memory is slipping away from the consciousness of her citizens. With more than 78 years elapsed since the Day of Infamy, the handful of survivors remaining alive at present are rather few as are nearing their tenth decade of life. They still remember that fateful day. Ninety-seven-year-old Seaman First Class, Donald Stratton, the only USS Arizona survivor to publish a memoir (All the Gallant Men, November 22, 2016), passed away just a few months ago on February 16 leaving just two men, Lou Conter and Ken Potts, as the last living survivors from the battleship.
Whether it was the first of several visits to the USS Arizona Memorial or the most recent one, standing above the hulk of the ship that was at the epicenter of the start of World War II (for the United States) is incredibly emotional to consider the violence that engulfed the harbor and very somber realization that one is immediately above the final resting place for the 1,177 men who perished that day. Looking down into the water to see the rusting twisted steel covered in sediment and marine growth as bunker fuel oil slowly seeps to the water’s surface, one can imagine the enemy planes flying in low for torpedo runs or looking into the skies to see high-altitude bombers overhead releasing their deadly destruction. Picturing men being blown over the sides of exploding ships or jumping into the inferno of burning oil atop the water’s surface amid the cacophony of machine gun fire and screams of burning and wounded men, isn’t difficult to envision from the decks of the memorial structure.
“Remember Pearl Harbor” and the sneak attack has been a fading klaxon call for Americans over the last few decades with a brief reminder when the United States was surprise attacked again on September 11, 2001.
A visitor to the USS Arizona Memorial will be initially introduced to Pearl Harbor’s history in the shore-side visitors center which includes a fantastic film about the attack. The center is filled with artifacts (many of which belonged to individual crew members) from inside the ship allowing visitors to see a more personal side of the carnage.
For many collectors of antiques and military artifacts (militaria), items from a veteran or pieces that are attributable to December 7, 1941 are highly sought after. Photo albums, medals or uniform items obtained from a veteran who was present on that day provide historians and militaria collectors with a tangible connection to this considerably pivotal moment in history. No doubt, there are dome concerns regarding the ethics and morals surrounding a private citizen possessing an unrelated veteran’s medals which is a topic of separate discussion (see: The Merits of Heart Collecting). Those visits to Pearl Harbor both as an inquisitive historian and as an active duty Navy veteran left this author inspired and on a perpetual quest to secure a Pearl Harbor-connected artifact for our collection.
The attack on Pearl Harbor along with several key military installations throughout the Island of Oahu would seem to provide an ample field of artifacts from which to source over the course of a decade.
With 100 ships present (and thousands of service men and women) around the harbor that day, it would seem to make sense that an artifact of note would surface in that time. Sadly, the timing never seemed to work and if it did, the bidding-competition was far to fierce and would drive cost (to acquire) the item out of the range of possibility as was the case for the pre-war USS Arizona enlisted man’s flat hat, including the ship-named Talley (see: A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?).
One Saturday morning in early May, I awoke to find a private message from a colleague (a fellow Red Sox fan) who has an extensive and incredible baseball memorabilia collection. The tone of the message was an excited urgency from my friend who told me about a baseball jersey that, rather than pursue it himself, remarked that he thought of me immediately. It seemed that one of his local colleagues came across the jersey in the course of his business and texted his baseball-collector friend with the details and a few photos. What was relayed to me certainly held my interest and I wasted no time in responding.
Armed with a phone number, I reached out to the man with the jersey, who then mentioned that he obtained the the artifact along with a few Navy uniforms. The man was contracted by by the surviving family of a recently deceased elderly WWII Navy veteran to remove what remained of the decendent’s personal effects from his home. Over the course of carrying out his cleanup tasks, the man discovered the aforementioned jersey and service uniforms left behind to be disposed of (either through sale or other means). Understanding the historical nature of the pieces, he retained them and reached out to our mutual colleague. Our conversation was brief as the man described the items and mentioned that he would send the photos of the jersey and take (and send to me) additional pictures of the veteran’s dress uniforms when it was convenient to do so.
Even though the jersey was described to me, I was quite moved to see the photos of the heavy wool flannel with the lettering spelling out, “U S S P H O E N I X” arched across the chest. Internal questions as to the age of the jersey and the validity of the verbal story regarding the veteran’s connection to the ship swirled around in the sea of excitement surrounding the possibility that we were on the verge of acquiring artifacts from a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Over the next few weeks, conversation regarding the arrangements ensued as research was performed on the veteran to validate the information regarding the uniforms and jersey. Not only did we verify the details within the veteran’s obituary, but also the service details before making the final decision to acquire the group.
Due to mismatching schedules, it took some coordination to make the appropriate arrangements to bring the Phoenix jersey home (along with the veteran’s sets of dress blues and his flat hat (see: An Old Bluejacket Tradition Long Gone: Tar Hats to Flat Hats). After nearly a month since we initially spoke and a lot of nervousness during the shipping transit, the package arrived safely. The anticipation to open the package required restraint (to avoid damaging the contents with the knife) as the box was very securely sealed.
The very first garment withdrawn from the packaging was the road gray jersey that was somewhat dingy and clearly aged (and in need of cleaning). A thorough inspection and assessment of the baseball shirt showed that there were no personal markings, names or other inscriptions and that the overall condition was excellent (save for a lone moth-nip). All of the stitching seemed to be quite strong with no signs of separation or failing threads. Each of the athletic felt letters show no signs of decay or moth damage (they are commonly a target of insects). The condition of the lone numeral on the back matched the front lettering. The Wilson manufacturer’s tag matched the period of the veteran’s naval career showing that the jersey dates from as early as 1942.
As each successive garment was withdrawn from the package, it became apparent that there were more Navy dress uniforms in the box than was expected. Each jumper top bore the sailor’s rating badges and service stripe (“hash mark”) indicating that the veteran served for at least four years. A fourth uniform in the package differed from the first three. Instead of the fire controlman rating badge on the left sleeve, this one and the rating badge of a first-class electrician’s mate (EM1/c). The garment tag bore the same last name as the other three but with differing initials for the first and last name. A cursory research check showed that this uniform was issued to the veteran’s older brother who also served during WWII (though he enlisted nearly two-and-a-half years later).
Laying out the entire group, I considered all that this sailor, Fire Controlman Second Class Vincent Gunderson witnessed and experienced during his naval career. According to our research, Gunderson was born in Wisconsin in the year 1922. In July 1940, the 18-year-old Gunderson left his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin (this small city, less than 23,000 residents in 1940, is the home of seven Medal of Honor recipients) and traveled 90 miles to the east to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Upon graduation from boot camp, Apprentice Seaman Gunderson reported on board the 2-year-old Brooklyn-Class light cruiser, USS Phoenix (CL-46) on October 5, 1940.
Though we were unsuccessful in locating artifacts or articles that would lend insight as to the ship’s baseball team roster configuration, we were able to find a few news stories about the squad. In the spring of 1941, the USS Phoenix nine embarked upon the season of play within the Oahu National League. On March 31, the ship’s “Phoo- Birds” team faced the Primos in a 10-inning 5-4 loss. A few days later, the Phoenix battery of Joe Simone and Hal Crider went up against the Richmond Ramblers, dropping the game, handing them a 3-1 loss. Simone pitched a two-hitter as offensive support came from six Phoenix hits (two each by Sandman and Carpenter’s Mate 3/c Bill Lindsey).
The USS Phoenix was a state-of-the-art light cruiser (“light” indicates that the main battery or principal gun bores were less than eight inches) assigned to the Pacific Fleet’s Cruiser Division Nine under the direction of Admiral H. Fairfax Leary. Of the division’s five cruisers, the USS Helena (CL-50), USS St. Louis (CL-49) and the flagship, USS Honolulu (CL-48) were at anchor in Pearl Harbor along with the Phoenix. USS Boise (CL-47) was off the Philippine Island of Cebu having completed convoy escorting duties.
“Phoenix saw planes proceeding to Ford Island at 0755. She got underway at 1010, temporarily returned to its moorage as ordered, but eventually joined other cruisers at sea. The ship fired eighty rounds of 5-inch between 0900 and 0915 on planes dive-bombing Ford Island and the battleships.” – “Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal” by Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, USN (Retired)
On the morning of December 7, 1941, just before 0800, the lead Japanese aircraft of the first attacking wave appeared over Pearl Harbor, men working topside on the USS Phoenix spotted them. Laying at anchor a half-mile to the north of Battleship Row (just off the shoreline of Aiea’s McGrew Point), the men of the Phoenix had a front row seat to the carnage that was unleashed upon the Navy’s capital warships. With bomb and torpedo explosions amid enemy aircraft machine gun strafing, USS Phoenix’s commanding officer, Captain Herman E. Fischer, commenced with getting his ship underway in order to clear the harbor as well as prepare to repel an enemy landing. Ordered to return to moorage, Captain Fischer followed the order as the gunners battled the attacking aircraft.
Vince Gunderson recently promoted to fire controlman 3/c was most likely operating the directors for the guns in order to target the aircraft. Though he was trained during peacetime conditions, he was now learning his job in ways that he never previously imagined. From that day on, the Phoenix was continually operational and often at the tip of the spear.
During the battle of Surigao Strait, the closes that Phoenix came to any real danger was when two American torpedoes passed close astern (they were inadvertently launched by one of the sinking DESRON 24 destroyers. Later, while screening USS Nashville (CL-43), a kamikaze struck the Nashville while just missing the Phoenix. The Phoenix continued to skirt damage elsewhere. En route to Lingayen, Phoenix warded off multiple kamikaze attacks and was bracketed by four enemy torpedoes (two passing astern and two raced ahead of the bow). Her avoidance was becoming noteworthy as she again dodged shore-based artillery fire that straddled the ship near Corregidor and Balikpapan. Her reputation for evading enemy targeting was continually building among the fleet and back home. The moniker, “Lucky Phoenix” was becoming commonly used when discussing the ship’s exploits.
In every campaign, operation and battle, Gunderson was there manning the targeting directors for the ship’s guns, ensuring that every round fired would find its mark. When the ship came off the line for refit and resupply, at times the crew may have come ashore for recreation. Though we have yet to uncover any documentation regarding specifics for the men of the Phoenix, narratives from shipboard-serving players such as Seaman First Class Duke Snider and Chief Gunner’s Mate Bob Feller include periodic instances of R & R on American-held Pacific Islands where highly competitive baseball games were played (often with significant bets and bragging rights on the line). It is a safe assumption to consider that Gunderson saw game-action in similar fashion. Following the Phoenix’s support of the retaking of Bataan and Corregidor during the latter half of February 1945, Gunderson was detached from the ship (on March 24) to proceed to advanced fire control school in Washington D.C. for training. He made his way back to the states riding first the USS Boise and the carrier, USS Wasp (CV-18); the latter was returning for repairs following damage sustained in the Ryūkyūs campaign. Gunderson arrived at Puget Sound Navy Yard (Bremerton, Washington) on April 13, 1945 for further transport to the nation’s capital.
For Fire Controlman 2/c Gunderson, the war was effectively over in terms of combat operations. He completed his training and returned to the Phoenix (nearly six months later) on November 2. However, following Gunderson’s departure, the Phoenix continued operations in support of removing enemy strongholds in the Philippines for the next few months.
During break from action in early May, the Phoenix lay at anchor in Subic Bay affording the crew some much needed rest. While attending a baseball game on May 10, one Phoenix’s crew members, 24-year-old Radio Technician 2/c Aaron Abramson suffered a fatal head injury when he was struck by a baseball. On May 11, the crew mustered for funeral services to honor their fallen shipmate. RT2/c Abramson of Brooklyn, New York, left behind his wife of nearly four years, Shirley.
Phoenix continued supporting operations surrounding the Philippines until she was directed to the waters surrounding Indonesia and Borneo to support landing operations in June. By early July, Phoenix was back in Philippine waters. In need of overhaul the Phoenix was directed to proceed to San Pedro, California reaching home by late August (the atomic bombs were dropped during her transit). After a short visit in port, the ship was ordered to the Philadelphia Navy Yard (by way of the Panama Canal). Prior to transiting the canal, Phoenix anchored at Acapulco for a port visit during September 1-2. During her visit, Japanese officials signed the instrument of surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri.
The war was over. Gunderson was still attending school as the Phoenix was on her way to the East Coast. Rather than undergoing an overhaul in Philadelphia, the ship received minimal upkeep. When Gunderson returned to the ship from school, he found the Phoenix transitioning to a modified decommissioned status as crew were being discharged and sent home. Gunderson remained aboard the ship until she was officially decommissioned on July 3, 1946. Two days later, on July 5, Fire Controlman Gunderson was discharged from the Navy.
After a long life, 97-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor Vincent Gunderson passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Saturday, December 7, 2019.
Acquiring the Gunderson group provides us with the opportunity to share with our readers as well as our local in-person audiences who can see the artifacts during our public showings. With the addition of the Gunderson Navy uniforms, our militaria collection is wonderfully enhanced affording us the ability share a Pearl Harbor veteran’s story. As to our collection of service baseball uniforms, Gunderson’s USS Phoenix jersey is truly a centerpiece in telling the story of the intertwining histories of baseball and the armed forces.