Category Archives: Individual/Personal History
A note to our readers: This is a follow-up to our piece, A Sinking News Story: World Series Hero Gene Bearden, a Sub-Chaser and the Loss of the USS Helena as new evidence has been brought to our attention.
Accuracy and completeness. Throughout the six years that we have been researching artifacts, teams and players, we have taken great strides to ensure that we bring to bear and exhaust each research avenue that we have at our disposal in order to publish content that is both accurate and complete. In the absence of supporting facts, we have opted to sit on stories rather than to publish something that contains erroneous or unsupported information or to wait until we are able to find substantiating evidence. In six weeks of tireless research and story development, we were satisfied that we had excavated everything about Gene Bearden’s USS Helena story, citing our inability to locate the origin of the narrative. However, within 12 hours of publishing our latest article, one of our readers, Charlie Burrow. located what we were unable to find – the connection to Bearden as the originator of the USS Helena narrative.
Tribe’s War-Mangled Bearden Hid Injuries Behind Big Curve
Making his major league debut as a starting pitcher, Gene Bearden pitched a very good game, lasting 8-2/3 innings on the road against the Washington Senators on May 8, 1948. The Navy veteran limited Senators batters to just three hits while walking four. He struck out five and allowed Washington’s only run as the Indians beat the “Nats,” 6-1. Not only was he marvelous on the mound, but he also got his first major league hit and drove in his first RBI off Sid Hudson as part of Cleveland’s 5-run scoring spree in the eighth inning.
Naturally, the eyes of the press focused upon the Indians’ rookie knuckleball pitcher following his impressive debut. Sportswriter Harry Jones of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a high-quality story about Bearden’s first career win and also something far deeper that would draw the attention of Americans from coast to coast. Whatever was lacking in the October, 1948 narratives about Bearden’s harrowing experience on the USS Helena, Harry Jones’ May 9, 1948, article ensured that no doubts existed about the pitcher being the story’s originator.
Jones reported that Bearden, “was in the ship’s engine room when it was struck by a torpedo” and was given orders to abandon ship. In fact, three Japanese torpedoes struck the ship within a span of three minutes, breaking the ship’s keel, opening the propulsion machinery spaces to the sea and causing rapid flooding. With both engine rooms filling with water, the ship’s propulsion and electrical power were knocked out. Two minutes after the third torpedo struck the ship, the commanding officer gave the order to abandon ship.
Harry Jones described Bearden’s ordeal. “Given instructions to abandon ship,” Jones wrote, “Gene began to climb a metal ladder leading out of the engine room when a second torpedo struck. The ladder crumbled and he was hurled to the floor below.” The narrative continued, “His knee was twisted and crushed and his head was split open by flying fragments and he lay unconscious in the pit of the sinking ship.”
The published accounts of Helena’s final moments do not align with the story written by Jones. Within two minutes of the first torpedo striking the ship, flooding was so massive in the forward engine room that seawater began to reach engine room number two before the second and third torpedoes struck roughly 120 seconds after the first crippling shot. Bearden’s story suggests that he had time to climb a ladder that was subsequently blown apart, throwing him to the deck of the space. However, those spaces were rapidly flooding and the deck was several feet beneath in-rushing seas. With the ladder destroyed, somehow Bearden, 6-4 and 198 pounds, was carried from the depths of the darkened, flooding and sinking ship and led into the waters of the Kula Gulf sometime after 2:00 a.m. as the Helena was breaking apart less than 15 minutes from the impact of the first torpedo.
“Somebody pulled me out,” Gene said. “They told me later it was an officer. I don’t know how he did it. The ship went down in about 17 minutes. All I know is that I came to in the water some time later.”– Gene Bearden, Bearden’s Secret is Out: Torpedo Can’t Stop Him, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 9, 1948
Bearden’s story takes him from being in the water to spending two days adrift in a life raft before being transported back to the States and to a Jacksonville, Florida-area hospital, where he was advised that his baseball career was effectively over due to the severity of his wounds.
“I don’t know how many doctors told me that,” Gene said. “I didn’t know what to do. I learned a trade in the Navy, but baseball was the only thing I had known. Finally, I ran across a doctor who said he might be able to patch me up well enough. I think his name was Wyland. He was quite a guy. He worked with me for months.”– Gene Bearden, Bearden’s Secret is Out: Torpedo Can’t Stop Him, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 9, 1948
The road to recovery, according to Jones’ article, was a lengthy one, with Bearden suffering damage to his kneecap that “had been crushed beyond repair.” The Plain Dealer piece continued, “The ligaments in his leg had been so badly mangled that an aluminum cap and screw were inserted.” Bearden’s skull trauma was so severe that “the aluminum plate was inserted where his skull had been gouged open,” wrote Jones in describing Bearden’s wounds. Following surgical procedures, Bearden reportedly spent the first month in bed. “For two more months, he wore a plaster cast, but was able to maneuver with crutches, then a cane,” the story continued. With Bearden arriving in Florida sometime in August of 1943, it was not until March of 1944 that he was able to walk unaided.
According to Jones, Bearden was not discharged from the hospital until January, 1945, following “a series of leg exercises which gave him full use of the limb.” Weeks later, Bearden was pitching for the Binghamton club, starting an Impressive 8-game winning streak.
Bearden Perfects Knuckler in Bid for Tribe Mound Job
Surprisingly, the May 9, 1948, story was not the initial source of the Cleveland newspaper account of Bearden’s wartime experiences. On April 11, Harry Jones reported a slightly different USS Helena account. “We were chasing a couple of Jap tin cans (submarines),” Bearden relayed.
“Somehow we got right between ‘em and they let us have it, but good. The ship went down in 16 minutes. I was in the engine room and had started up the ladder when we got hit. The next thing I remember I was in the water. They told me afterward that a chief pulled me out of the engine room and got me on a raft just before the ship went under. We were in the water for the next three days and I was unconscious just about half the time. Finally we got picked up and that was the end of the war for me.”– Gene Bearden, Bearden Knuckles Down to Capture Job, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 11, 1948
The variation of details between the two stories told weeks apart would not typically be cause for concern; however, without official Navy documentation to support Bearden’s claims, alterations to the narrative become suspect.
Focusing solely on these two published accounts with Bearden’s commentary, it is clear that the pitcher was responsible for the origin of the USS Helena story. Strangely, another published account accompanied the two 1948 Plain Dealer articles. It leaves us questioning Bearden’s motive behind the false narrative.
Bears Get Bearden, Navy Vet – Twice Torpedoed, Rescued as Ships went Down
Following Bearden’s fantastic season with the Binghamton Triplets, he was sold to the Newark Bears. Seeking to introduce the club’s new pitcher to Newark fans, William Klein of the Newark Star Ledger published Bearden’s wartime account, titled Bears Get Bearden, Navy Vet on September 6, 1945. Aside from a few minor variances from the 1948 story, Klein told of Bearden’s year-long hospitalization in the aftermath of his survival ordeal from the Helena. From this point, the story had a confusing twist.
“After a year’s hospitalization,” Klein stated, “he was assigned to the Elliot and again was fished out of the Pacific when an aerial torpedo sent the destroyer to the bottom.” However, the USS Elliot (DD-146), one of the many destroyers present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was serving as a training ship from August, 1944 to June, 1945. USS Elliot was decommissioned on October 12, 1945 and was sold for scrap in 1946. “Bearden was hardly scratched,” Klein wrote, “except for both legs broken, his right arm shattered in several spots and a severe back injury. After another long hospital siege, he was discharged.”
When the National Military Personnel Records Center (NMPRC) re-opens, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests will be made in an attempt to clear-up the unknown details such as the nature of Bearden’s discharge and to confirm each of his training and duty stations.
Today, society can be far too swift to disparage a veteran with accusations of “stolen valor” as it levies attacks on service members who embellish their service careers. While there is certainly enough evidence to point fingers at Bearden as the author of a fallacy, he did serve his country honorably during one of the most challenging periods of our nation’s history. Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c Bearden did serve aboard a Navy ship sailing into harm’s way and was aboard when she was involved in a destructive collision that could have easily resulted in the loss of life including his own.
Note: This is the conclusion of our three-part Pee Wee Reese series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy and part two: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital
The winter months of 1944-45 provided some of the fiercest fighting of the war for American troops in both the European and Pacific combat theaters. The late October battle of Leyte Gulf paved the way for the coming invasion of the Philippines as General Douglas MacArthur was set to deliver on his promise to the Filipino people and to the Americans taken captive by the Japanese. Early January saw that promise fulfilled as the nearly eight-month campaign to wrest the Japanese occupiers from the islands commenced. As the 1944 calendar flipped to 1945, the Battle of the Bulge in Europe was into its third week, with heavy casualties from the enemy that were exacerbated by the harshest winter in decades.
On the home front, both the Army and Navy were dealing with a public relations mess following the Army’s early release of a prominent professional athlete. “The discharge of a well-known professional football player for physical disability,” Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was quoted in Chattanooga Daily Times (February 28, 1945) sports columnist Wirt Gammon’s Just Between Us Fans column, “followed immediately by successful participation by that individual in professional games, is obviously subjected to widespread [public] disapproval.” Speculation among sportswriters was that the unnamed professional athlete who was released from service was the 1942 Heisman Trophy winner and former University of Georgia halfback Frank Sinkwich, who was medically discharged due to pes planus or “flat feet.”
Following the Army and Navy’s very public Service World Series baseball spectacle in Hawaii that was covered in every newspaper from coast to coast, public perspective may have become less than favorable as casualties continued to mount and citizens were growing fatigued from strict rationing. Athletes may have appeared to them to not be lacking in necessities.
The Hawaiian Islands were nearly overrun with professional ballplayers serving in uniform, with more players arriving throughout the fall and winter months. Talk of assembling teams and taking a multi-team contingent of all-star caliber players on tour to the Western Pacific to entertain troops started ramping up and rumors began to circulate among the athletes. It wasn’t long before the scuttlebutt, a Navy term for gossip, became reality. According to author Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book Athletes Away, there was a (then) unverified rumor that he was made aware of years later. “The players heard a story to the effect that when former pro tennis player Bobby Riggs had gotten on the short wave radio one night in Pearl to announce the [baseball] tour to the servicemen in the area, “ Crissey wrote, “the broadcast happened to be picked up on Guam, where Admiral Nimitz, as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, had recently moved his headquarters.” According to the story, Nimitz was unaware of the planned tour and was less than thrilled with Riggs’ radio broadcast. “That’s O.K.,” he supposedly said. “Send those athletes out here, and when they get through with their tour, we’ll put them to work with picks and shovels.”
Multiple stories cycled among the players regarding the genesis of the Pacific tour. In an undated letter written by Pee Wee Reese many years later, he responded to a memorabilia collector’s inquiry surrounding a game-used bat that had been autographed and inscribed with details of the Pacific tour. The collector asked of Reese, “How did so many well-known players come together on a little island in the Pacific?” On Louisville Slugger letterhead, Reese responded, “They got too many in Honolulu and Admiral Nimitz decided to get rid of a few. They selected two teams (baseball) – two fighters – Georgie Abrams and Fred Apostoli – tennis player Bobby Riggs. We more or less just barnstormed all through the Pacific.”
|Mace Brown||P||Red Sox|
|Mike Budnick||LF||Seattle (PCL)|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||RF||Browns|
|Merrill “Pinky” May||3B||Phillies|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS||Dodgers|
|Johnny Rigney||P||White Sox|
|Cornelius “Connie” Ryan||3B||Braves|
|Jim Trexler||P||Indianapolis (AA)|
The 28 men chosen for the tour played a warm-up game in early February that saw the Navy face off against a roster of Army stars. The Navy rotated their players through the order, ensuring that each one saw action. Virgil Trucks started the game and Hal White finished it. Pee Wee played the entire game at short. Despite dropping the contest, the outcome was less of a concern as the Navy wanted to get the players tuned up. The Army fielded a squad that resembled the 1944 Service World Series team and they defeated the Navy, 4-2. Days later, with the 28 players divided into two rosters for a split squad contest, the Third Fleet faced the Fifth Fleet for one last tune-up before heading to the Western Pacific. Pee Wee’s Third Fleet nine blanked their opponents, 2-0.
|Albert (Al) Brancato||SS||Athletics|
|George “Skeets” Dickey||C||White Sox|
|Del Ennis||LF||Trenton (ISLG)|
|Benny Huffman||LF||San Antonio (TL)|
|Frank Marino||P||Tulsa (TL)|
|Glenn “Red” McQuillen||CF||Browns|
|Johnny Vander Meer||P||Reds|
From Hawaii, the two twin-engine U.S. Marine Corps C-46 Curtiss Commandos flew southwest to tiny Johnston Atoll, which served as a seaplane and patrol base during the war. The island was far too small to provide enough space for a baseball diamond amid the 6,000-foot runway, buildings and fuel and freshwater storage, which meant that the personnel stationed there were not able to witness a game. After refueling, the two aircraft departed for the Marshall Islands, where the Third and Fifth Fleet teams provided entertainment to the contingent of Seabees and other personnel stationed there who were suffering from boredom. “You get so you repeat conversations. Jokes get so old they creak,” Constructionman 3/c Joseph C. Ashlock wrote in a letter to his parents. With the arrival of the Navy ballplayers, there was excitement. “There were several major league baseball players, including Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Barney McCosky,” wrote the young CB in his letter, published in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Spokane Chronicle. “I might have lived a lifetime in the States and never seen half of these fellows,” Ashlock continued. “But here we were together on a backyard island in the Pacific,” he concluded.
In addition to three days of baseball, the men on the island with Ashlock were treated to a three-round exhibition bout between Fred Apostoli and Georgie Abrams as well as to “lightning-fast” table tennis matches featuring Bobby Riggs against former teen national ping pong champion Buddy Blattner.
From island to island, the teams followed similar entertainment agendas for troops on the tiny atolls of Majuro, Kwajalein and Roi in the Marshall Islands and to Anguar in the western Caroline Islands. Though it had only been a few months since the cessation of the 73-day battle at “Bloody” Peleliu, the tour made stops on that island along with Ulithi in the Carolines. Unlike games in the major league palaces, those played on the islands were intimate. The men of the Third and Fifth Fleet teams were sailors who happened to be ballplayers. Unlike the massive barrier that sets contemporary ballplayers in a protective bubble on a towering pedestal, the men on the tours were immersed in the crowds of servicemen, joining them in the chow halls and around the bases after the scheduled events. Signing autographs was normal and one can imagine that countless signatures were captured by sailors to be sent home to family and friends.
Petty Officer 1/c H. K. Emmons and his brother-in-law, William H. Bowes, sent home a game program that was autographed by former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, according to Walt Hanson’s Sportsfolio column in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Long Branch, New Jersey’s Daily Record.
The Third and Fifth Fleet teams entertained thousands of troops throughout the Mariana islands including Tinian, Saipan and Guam, from which the B-29 Superfortresses conducted raids on the Japanese homeland. Seabees stationed on each location carved out ballfields in the coral for the teams to play on. With the majority of the athletes being graduates of the athletic Instructor schools that were the brainchild of the “fighting Marine,” Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion boxer-turned Navy Commander joined the men on a few of the tour stops, raving about his players. “About the hottest player right now is Johnny Mize, the old Giant,” the boxer stated. “I dare say he would lift any second division big league team at least two notches in the standings. He is hitting home runs which travel about a mile and never get much higher off the ground than a trolley wire,” Tunney professed. Without fail, Tunney shined a spotlight on the former Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop, “I hasten to add, too, that Pee Wee Reese is at the very top of his form,” said the still very fit 47-year-old pugilist. “He scampers like a rabbit, has lost none of his bounce and still covers a world of ground.” Dan Parker relayed this quote in his March 29, 1945 column in the Camden, New Jersey Courier Post, from a report submitted by Bob Sylvester, who was embedded with the players on the tour.
The ballplayers were loose and playing well together despite the demanding schedule. As is normal for most GIs stationed in far-off locations, spontaneity combined with a lack of foresight of consequences can lead to rather humorous if not dangerous situations. While riding between Saipan and Tinian in a landing craft, returning from a ballgame, “Elbie Fletcher, smoking a cigar, offered to jump overboard for $25,” reported Bob Sylvester. “It was quickly raised. In he (Fletcher) went, after first giving the coxswain $5 to come back and pick him up. As the coxswain came alongside,” Sylvester continued, “Pee Wee Reese, who had contributed some of the $25, leaned over the side and tried to keep Elbie’s head under water by poking at him with an old mop.” Sylvester concluded the tale, “Fletcher was immediately hauled aboard with the (soggy) cigar butt still in his kisser.”
Though the Americans held control over the islands and hostilities had effectively ended, not all of the Japanese soldiers were neutralized when the ballplayers were present. Sylvester reported that some of the enemy combatants, themselves baseball fans and keen on American major leaguers, were keeping a watchful eye on the American activities and would sneak up close enough to watch the ball games.
“After a few more exhibitions as a group, the troupe will be broken up and its members assigned to various Mariana Islands for athletic drills and to supervise rehabilitation training in the hospitals,” reported the Kenosha News on March 27, 1945 in Sports Stars Go Overseas to Play for Service Men.
Nearly two dozen games were played on the tour and true to Nimitz’ word, rather than being sent back to the U.S. or Hawaii, the men were put to work. In the aforementioned Reese letter, Pee Wee said, “When we finished, they broke us up (and) sent us everywhere. I ended up on Guam. I guess you could say we were suppose (sic) to entertain the troops. They seemed to enjoy it.”
With as many as 10,000 troops surrounding makeshift ballfields, the stars not only put on highly competitive exhibitions but also took the time to interact with sailors, marines and soldiers before and after the games. “I saw Pee Wee Reese, Vander Meer and others on an island out here recently,” OAM 1/c David P. Charles wrote in his letter to the Greenville (South Carolina) News, published on May 15, 1945. “The ballpark is a little rough but it serves the purpose.” GIs wrote letters to many hometown newspapers, relaying details about the tours or encounters with players as thousands of them were positively impacted by the players’ presence.
At the end of the tour, Chief Athletic Specialist Reese was sent to Guam, where he was quickly put to work by former Notre Dame tailback and 1943 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lt. Angelo Bertelli as a physical fitness instructor and a coach of the Third Marine Division’s All-Star baseball team. The Paducah (Kentucky) Sun-Democrat reported on May 16, 1945 that Pee was ineligible to play on the Marine All-Star team.
In early May, the Third Marine All-Stars held a “spring” training of sorts in 100-degree temperatures on the island, with Bertelli having been assigned there following fierce fighting on Iwo Jima. Down more than 20 pounds from his playing weight at Notre Dame, Bertelli was not only leading the team with Pee Wee as an assistant but he was also playing in the field. Ineligible to play alongside Lt. Bertelli, who was playing third base, Pee Wee was itching for some game action. “I had hoped I’d be able to get into a lineup now and then,” the Dodgers infielder lamented to Marine combat correspondent Sgt. Bill Ross (published in the May 24 edition of the New York Daily News). “I’ve played just occasionally in the past year and I’d like to get into the game with a fast bunch of boys like this Third Division outfit,” Reese remarked.
Though he relayed no details of the game, Marine 1st Lt. C. E. Williamson sent a note that was published in the May 24, 1945 Nevada State Journal regarding the somewhat incomplete line-ups for a game between the Third Marine Division All-Star team and a Navy All-Star team. In this game, rather than being posted at his normal third base coaching position, Chief Petty Officer Pee Wee Reese opposed the Third Marine team from the shortstop spot in a line-up that included Connie Ryan, RF; Red McQuillen, CF; Del Ennis, 3B; Johnny Vander Meer, 1B-P; Virgil Trucks, LF-P; George Dickey, C; Tom Ferrick, P; and Hal White, UT.
One of Reese and Bertelli’s Third Marine team members, Pfc. Stanley Bazan, a former catcher in the St. Louis Browns organization, was wounded in combat on Iwo Jima while serving as a machine gunner in the 21st Marine Regiment. An enemy round penetrated his right shoulder and after two months of healing, his coaches were skeptical of his ability to play behind the plate. The East Chicago native found approval from Reese after demonstrating his prowess both behind and at the plate. “The Browns have a good prospect in Bazan,” Reese was quoted in The Times of Munster, Indiana. “He handles a pitcher well, has a strong, accurate arm and hits all sorts of pitching.” Bazan was under contract with the Toledo Mud Hens in 1943 when he enlisted into the Marines. Rather than returning to professional baseball and despite Reese’s assessment, Bazan signed with the semi-pro “Autos” of the Michigan State League in 1946.
|Stanley Bazan||C||Pensacola (SEAL)|
|Edmond J. “Ed” Beaumier||P||Trois-Rivieres (CAML)|
|Angelo Bertelli||MGR||Notre Dame University|
|Gene Bledsoe||1B||Mississipi State U.|
|Ray Congdon||OF||Sudbury (ISLG)|
|Harold “Hal” Connors||SS||Roanoke (PIED)|
|Andy Gibson||3B||Allentown (ISLG)|
|Ted Patterson||SS||Southern Association|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||MGR||Dodgers|
|Robert J. Schang||CF||Monroe (CSTL)|
Bazan’s teammate, Corporal Edmund J. Beaumier of Maine, a veteran of campaigns at both Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and a former left-handed pitcher in the Indians organization, was wounded in action on Guadalcanal, taking a hit to his pitching arm. Fully recovered from his wound, the 23-year-old Beaumier was striking out the competition with relative ease. Beaumier returned to his professional career after the war, making it as high as class “A” in the minor leagues in 1949, when he stepped away from the game.
The ballfields on Guam were rudimentary, with simplistic features such as backstops and dirt or coral playing surfaces. Venues such as Gab Gab and Geiger Fields were quite literally carved into the landscape by Seabees using heavy equipment. In the high temperatures and humidity, the sunlight would heat the ground which, in turn, reflected the heat upwards to make play fairly miserable. When Pee Wee Reese wrote home about the conditions, his wife, Dorothy, dispatched a rather heavy care package that took a mere three months to reach her sailor husband on Guam. Inside the box, Pee Wee found 20 pounds of Kentucky blue grass seed. “Pee Wee planted it immediately,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on July 25, 1945. “He waters it daily and has it protected with several ‘Keep off the grass’ signs.”
While baseball was being played on the island, the 20th Air Force was pressing the fight on the Japanese home islands with incessant daytime bombing missions originating from Guam, Saipan and Tinian. For several months, the 20th also dropped more than 63 million leaflets warning the citizens of Japan of the continued raids. With many of the population pouring out of the cities that were potential targets, one of the objectives of the leaflet campaign, Japanese officials ordered the arrest of citizens in possession of the documents. On the morning of August 6, Colonel Paul Tibbetts guided his B-29, Enola Gay, airborne from Tinian. A few hours later, the first bomb, “Little Boy,” was released over Hiroshima. Three days later, the second bomb, “Fat Man,” was dropped over Nagasaki from the bomb bay of Bock’s Car, another 20th Air Force B-29, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. Following the second bombing, the Emperor announced the unconditional surrender of Japan on August 15 and eighteen days later the formal instrument was signed aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
With the end of hostilities, the operations on Guam changed from supporting bombing missions to dropping supplies to the POW camps spread throughout Japan and Japanese-held territories. With the continued operations and with players yet to begin rotating home, baseball continued in the Pacific. Back in Brooklyn, there was already talk of Reese’s job being up for grabs in ‘46 as the Dodgers had players such as Stan Rojek, Bob Ramazzotti, Tommy Brown and Eddie Basinski, whom some speculated could contend for his position. In addition to the prospects in the pipeline, Brooklyn had infielders including young Alex Campanis, Gene Mauch and Boyd Bartley in the service besides Reese. Still serving and coaching the Third Marines on Guam, Pee Wee was far removed from the personnel happenings and rumors in Brooklyn.
Having previously been declared ineligible to play for the Third Marine Division All-Stars, Pee Wee Reese was turned loose to suit up for the team that he had been coaching since the end of the Third and Fifth Fleet Pacific Tour. In his September 27, 1945 Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa) Spotlight Sports column, Roger Rosenblum reported that Reese’s impact on the team was immediate. Not only was Reese the team’s leading hitter, he was “chiefly responsible for the 26 triumphs in 30 games the Stars have registered,” wrote Rosenblum. “Pee Wee is hitting above the .400 mark.”
In the office of the Brooklyn Dodgers, club President Branch Rickey hosted a WWII veteran and former Army officer, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. A 26-year-old infielder who played the 1945 season with the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson publicly signed a minor league contract that was previously negotiated in August. With the Monarchs, Robinson had appeared in 33 games at shortstop, Pee Wee Reese’s natural position, and one at first base. The Dodgers were taking a significant step forward that was about to change the face of minor and major league baseball as well as the Dodgers’ future roster and Reese had yet to learn of what awaited him.
With his duties on Guam completed, Reese, along with Tom Ferrick and other service members, boarded the Bayfield Class attack transport ship, USS Cecil (APA-96), bound for the U.S. mainland. With more than 1200 sailors, Seabees and Marines aboard, there were many idle-handed passengers and one of the ship’s officers took notice. As was customary at the time, finding busy work for the passengers was put upon the two athletic specialist chief petty officers, Ferrick and Reese. They were told to round up men for a working party, which neither of them desired to do. Reese, instructed to round up men as Ferrick was told to wait by a hatch, ditched and hid from the officer. Ferrick soon followed, later explaining to the officer (who discovered him missing) that he had gone to investigate what became of Reese. The two ballplayers had no desire to make enemies among the men, who simply wanted to return home and put the war behind them.
In Roger Kahn’s August 19, 1992 Los Angeles Times article (He Didn’t Speculate in Color), the author detailed a conversation during the homeward bound transit that Reese had with a petty officer. Reese was informed of what was happening in Brooklyn and came to terms quickly with the notion that Branch Rickey was building a team to emerge from a survival-mode operation and truly contend as the club did in 1941 and ’42. He accepted the situation for what it was and attempted to step into Robinson’s shoes in order to see the situation from the newcomer’s perspective. “I don’t know this Robinson,” Reese told himself, “but I can imagine how he feels. I mean if they said to me, ‘Reese, you have to go over and play in the colored guys’ league,’ how would I feel? Scared. The only white. But I’m a good shortstop and that’s what I’d want ‘em to see. Not my color. Just that I can play the game.”
After the Cecil docked in a California port in early November, Reese disembarked and was back on U.S. soil for the first time in nearly two years. By November 13, Pee Wee was discharged and home with his wife and daughter. In a widely circulated newspaper photo, Reese is seen sitting at his wife’s bureau, still wearing his dress blue uniform and exchanging his chief petty officer’s cap for a familiar royal blue ball cap as his wife Dorothy can’t contain her joyful approval.
Reese returned to the Dodgers’ camp for the first time in three years while not too far away, Jackie Robinson was drawing the attention of the press as he arrived at spring training for the Dodgers’ class “AA” club, the Montreal Royals. Following a championship season in Montreal, Robinson was promoted to Brooklyn and would make his debut at first base with Pee Wee playing nearby at shortstop. In a season that culminated with the Dodgers returning to the World Series for the first time since 1941, Pee Wee Reese’s naval service during World War II was behind him as he built upon his Hall of Fame career. It would take winning four more National League pennants before he and the Dodgers captured the franchise’s first world championship in 1955. Reese would make one last trip to the World Series the following season and then make the move with the team to Los Angeles and play in just 59 games in his final season in 1958.
After 16 major league seasons and three years spent in the Navy, the majority of voting sportswriters did not consider Reese as a lock for the Hall of Fame and the election results during Pee Wee’s eligibility run demonstrated that. Needing to be named on 75-percent or more ballots, Pee Wee Reese’s best showing was in 1976, his second to last year on the ballot, when he received 47.9 percent.
Pee Wee Reese was elected to the Hall of Fame by his peers in the Veterans Committee and inducted in 1984.
Author’s Note: We wish to extend our gratitude to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. who, in addition to providing several photographs from his personal collection has been invaluable for his friendship and many conversations and the mountains of research he provided for this series and many others.
During World War II, more than 500 major leaguers and more than 3,000 minor leaguers exchanged their professional flannels to wear the uniform of their nation and to help rid the world of tyrannical dictatorships in Europe and the Pacific. Whether through volunteering or being drafted, these men followed orders and did what was asked of them whether serving in combat, in support or through physical fitness instruction and baseball.
Throughout the war, countless games were played by teams with rosters that contained former professional, semi-professional, collegiate and star high school ballplayers. In some instances, rosters included men whose service careers were well underway in the years and months leading up to the war. Before World War II, baseball was integral across all branches of service with competition for league trophies and bragging rights between units and branches.
Since the beginning of the century, the service academies of the Army and Navy have fought each other on the diamond with the same level of competition that is displayed on the gridiron each fall. From the outset, both West Point and Annapolis have employed former major leaguers as consultants and as head coaches in hopes of gaining a competitive edge over their opponents each year, especially when the two face each other to close out the baseball season.
After finishing his second season at second base with the Boston Red Sox in 1935, Max Bishop was hired as a player-manager for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. A groin muscle injury left him hobbled and unable to play, prompting the frugal team owner to fire him early in the season. After a few months away from the game, Bishop was signed by the International League’s Baltimore Orioles on August 19. In his last professional playing season, Max Bishop appeared in just 24 games. Bishop spent his first full season away from his familiar position at second base serving as a scout. On January 4, 1938, the Eastern Shore League’s Pocomoke City (Maryland) Red Sox owner Arthur H. Ehlers announced the signing of Bishop to manage the club for the season; however, he was seeking to fill the position a month later following Bishop’s departure to manage the Naval Academy nine with a more lucrative contract in hand.
The offseason is often a game of musical chairs for professional baseball team owners and college athletic directors. The Naval Academy was left with a need to fill three vacancies when Marty Karow, head baseball coach and assistant on both the football and basketball clubs, jumped ship and headed for newly incorporated College Station, Texas where he assumed the same roles with Texas A&M. In the 1939 edition of the Naval Academy’s Lucky Bag, commentary regarding the head coaching situation touched upon the bleakness of the 1938 seasonal outlook at that point. “On the eve of the season, the Navy’s hopes suffered a very serious relapse.” The assessment of Karow’s impact on the Midshipmen nine was that he was “one of the best baseball coaches ever seen at the Naval Academy.” However, all was not lost. The signing of the former world champion second basema
Max Bishop solidified his return to Maryland when he assumed command of the Naval Academy nine, commencing a 24-year run that left him with a 306-143 record and quickly assuaging the fears of the Midshipmen and alumni. The Lucky Bag’s commentary focused on the experience. “Capitalizing on his big league experience, Max was very evidently able to impart to his charges some of that fight and ability so necessary to be a successful ball club.” The team responded quickly to his guidance and instruction as they rapidly adapted to Bishop’s training regimen and baseball philosophy. “The wealth of material which Max found here had been thoroughly indoctrinated in baseball lore and was seemingly only waiting for the spark to set them off toward a really successful baseball season.”
By mid-March of his first season, Bishop built his team from the 1937 underclassman ranks, announcing the starters for the team’s opening tilt against the University of Vermont in a planned 18-game season. All games were played at home with the exception of the season opener and a two-game road trip to the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and Duke University on successive days in early May. Due to an abnormally wet spring, two of Annapolis’ games were rained out, leaving Bishop scrambling to book replacement games.
Heading into the final game of the season, the Midshipmen had amassed a 9-5 record against strong competition that included facing an undefeated Georgetown Hoyas team with a pitcher, Mike Petrosky, who was not only the best pitcher on the roster but at the time was one of the best athletes in Hoya history. The Midshipmen needed only an inning to take down Petrosky as they ran up all four of their runs in the bottom of the first inning. Navy’s pitching ace, Jerry Bruckel, held Georgetown hitless through the first three innings. Both pitchers went the distance as Navy captured the 4-3 victory and were ready to host their fiercest challenger of the year.
|3||James “Jim” Adair||C|
|4||Edward Lee Anderson||C|
|5||Jerome John “Diz” Bruckel||P|
|15||Richard Ellsworth Cady||2B|
|Charles Moore Cassel, Jr.|
|11||R. E. Clements|
|8||Lemuel Doty Cooke||3B|
|Robert Joseph Duryea|
|16||Joseph Cundiff “Jo-Jo” Eliot||P|
|28||William T. “Bill” Ingram||LF|
|2||James Jobe “Jig Jig” Madison||P|
|18||Ralph Carlton Mann||CF|
|1||Walter A. McGuinness||2B|
|14||Richard M. “Dick” Niles||P|
|20||S. R. Noll||RF|
|17||Lucien Cletus “Pete” Powell||RF|
|12||O. F. “Fred” Salvia||RF|
|Alvin F. Sbisa||3B|
|7||Charles “Charley” Stump||SS|
|9||Howard Austin Thompson||SS|
|6||Daniel James Wallace, Jr.||P|
|19||Robert R. “Bob” Wooding||1B|
The West Point Cadets’ seasonal record consisted of streaks. The opening of the 1938 baseball campaign saw West Point drop their first three games before claiming four straight wins. Duke University, four days after beating Navy in a close 2-1 contest, pounded the Army, 12-3. Another four-game win streak kept the Cadets from digging a hole and placed them in a prime position, with an 8-4 record, to take down Navy at Annapolis.
|Milton Bernard Adams|
|1||Wallace Leo Clement|
|8||Richard Daniel Curtin||3B|
|25||Thomas Walker Davis III||P|
|John William Dobson|
|16||R. B. “Jim” Durbin||2B|
|22||Charles Gillies “Charley” Esau||1B|
|7||A. W. Ginder||SS|
|John Robert Jannarone||SS|
|Carter Burdeau Johnson|
|18||Samuel Goodhue Kail||C|
|14||Robert J. “Bob” Kasper||RF|
|20||William M. “Bill” Kasper||C|
|21||A. J. Knight|
|M. J. Krisman|
|4||E. H. “Ed” Lahti||LF|
|15||Andrew A. “Diz” Lipscomb||P|
|W. P. Litton|
|23||Frederick Charles Lough||P|
|24||D. Y. Nanney||P|
|Daniel Andrew Nolan|
|Thaddeus M. Nosek|
|6||Donald Ward Saunders||SS|
|30||Harry Ami Stella||IF|
|13||A. J. “Al” Weinnig||CF|
In the thirty meetings between West Point and Annapolis dating back to 1901, Army held an 18-12 advantage heading into the game. Despite trailing Army by six wins in the series, Navy’s cumulative offensive output was only down by 11 runs (182-171). The most dominant stretch in the Army-Navy series occurred from 1909 to 1916 when Army dominated Navy for eight consecutive games. When the series resumed in 1919 following the end of the Great War, Navy trailed Army, 12 games to three. From 1919 on, Navy had controlled the rivalry, winning nine games and dropping six. Seeking to close the gap further, the Midshipmen were hungry for another win.
Heading into the game against Army, Jerry Bruckel was experiencing his best pitching season at Annapolis; however, the Cadets had faced dominant opposing pitchers all season long and were undaunted. In the top of the first frame, West Point’s second baseman Jim Durbin singled off Bruckel with a drive to left field. Bruckel, with too much focus on the next batter, forgot about Durbin and he swiped second base. Al Weinnig kept the pressure on with a deep fly to left, allowing Durbin to tag and advance to third base. With one out, Bob Kasper singled to right field and drove in the first run of the game. Bruckel, unfazed by the one-run deficit, got the next two batters, Ed Lahti and Charley Esau, out, leaving Kasper stranded at first. The Army men were licking their chops, having struck first and inflicted damage upon Jerry “Diz” Bruckel.
The Navy had no offensive answer to the Army and were held scoreless by Army’s starting pitcher Tom Davis for the first two innings. Bruckel hit his stride in the second inning and set down the Cadets in order. In the bottom of the third, with two outs, Navy’s Howie Thompson borrowed a page from Durbin’s first inning script, singling and then stealing second. Walt McGuinness kept the story moving forward with a deep single to centerfield allowing Thompson to tie the game.
In the bottom of the fourth, Navy’s Lucien “Pete” Powell reached second on a deep line drive to center field but moved to third when Army shortstop Don Saunders bobbled the throw from centerfielder Al Weinnig. Saunders rushed his throw to first on Bob Wooding’s drive for his second consecutive error, allowing Powell to score and leaving Navy’s first baseman standing on the bag at first.
In the bottom of the fifth, Navy capitalized on another Thompson hit, an error by Army catcher Bill Kasper and single by Lem Cooke, pushing Annapolis further ahead with the score 3-1. Bruckel continued to stymie West Point as he set down the Cadets in order from the second inning through the sixth.
In the top of the seventh, Army tried to get things going with a double by Bob Kasper but Bruckel quelled any thoughts of a West Point rally, leaving the runner stranded at second. After Walt French lifted his starter, Davis, relief pitcher Andrew Lipscomb promptly struck out Bruckel. French went to his bullpen once more, sending Fred Lough to the hill. With one out, Howie Thompson sparked the Navy offense with another single (he finished the game with three) and stole second again. McGuinness failed to reach base, leaving Lem Cooke to keep the Navy on the offensive with a one-out single to left. Army’s Ed Lahti bobbled the throw, allowing Thompson to score and Cooke to reach second on the error. Bill Ingram surprised the Army defense by beating out a play at first following his bunt as Cooke advanced to third. Cooke and Ingram both scored on Navy centerfielder Ralph Mann’s single past Army’s shortstop. Wooding kept the offense rolling with a single to center and advanced on Jamie Adair’s deep drive to center. Bruckel bunted but the inning ended at the plate as Mann was tagged out attempting to score.
Bruckel went the distance without allowing another Army baserunner and ended the 6-1 game, allowing just five total hits. Davis struck out six Navy batters and walked two compared to Bruckel, who had a pair each of strikeouts and walks. West Point’s shoddy defense didn’t help as the Midshipmen played with perfection in the field. Navy batters capitalized on six Cadet errors while amassing 10 hits and three stolen bases. With the final out of the game, 1938 came to a close for both teams as the upperclassmen were commissioned in their respective branches and commenced their service careers.
To baseball fans the names of the players on each roster are anonymous. None of the men shown on our 1938 Army versus Navy scorecard were listed on a professional roster nor did they take the field in a professional game. Once they hung up their cleats and returned their flannels to their teams’ respective equipment managers, baseball became a pastime or an outlet of recreation. If any of them saw the inside of the halls of Cooperstown, they needed a ticket to do so.
When the scorecard and a pair of tickets from this game were listed for sale online there was no cause for contemplation as we leaped at the opportunity to add these pieces to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection. Once in hand, we scanned the pieces and placed them into archival storage. Knowing that researching the names on the roster would be time consuming, we began nibbling away as we attempted to place first names with the listed surnames. Fortunately, the annuals from each service academy are easily accessible online. With page counts numbering well above 600, the digital files can prove to be cumbersome to scroll through onscreen. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and indexing make searching through the large volumes somewhat easy but the technology is rather clunky and slow due to the size of each publication.
Once the majority of each roster was identified and the names of players not listed on the scorecard were captured, we began researching the seasonal opponents and records for both teams before embarking on the task of researching the individual players. Our traditional research is often spent poring through newspaper clippings, Ancestry and Baseball Reference in order to fully capture the career and life of a ballplayer. However, our research of the 1938 Army-Navy baseball game scorecard began to reveal something entirely different from our norm.
The very first player on the Navy roster that we investigated was First Lieutenant Ralph Mann, USMC (USNA ’39), who while serving with the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines on Corregidor, was captured and subsequently killed by the Japanese at Prisoner of War Camp #1 – Cabanatuan in Nueva Province on Luzon in the Philippines on September 2, 1942. Lt. Mann was just 26 years old. After processing that detail for a moment, we considered that there was the inevitability of a combat loss with the war starting three years after the game. Left fielder Lem Cooke was next on our list. Cooke pursued aviation, earning his wings as a fighter pilot. During the war, Lemuel Doty Cooke flew combat missions with the Jolly Rogers of VF-17, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Commander Cooke was killed in 1950 when his plane crashed. Daniel Wallace, Jr. served as a fighter pilot, flying with the “Grim Reapers” of VF-10 aboard the USS Enterprise (CV6) and later with the “Tomcatters” of VF-31, and was executive officer of VF-14, the “Tophatters” (USS Wasp CV-18) until he was killed during night fighter operations. Wallace was awarded the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross.
A handful of the Navy players were present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, including Bob Wooding (aboard the USS Tennessee BB-43) and Walter McGuiness (USS Sampson DD-394). Howie Thompson served aboard the USS Scabbardfish (SS-397), earning a Silver Star medal as the boat’s approach officer. The ’38 Navy baseball team saw three more men serving aboard submarines during WWII: Robert Duryea on the USS Barracuda (SS-163), USS Seal (SS-183) and USS Plunger (SS-179); James “Jig-Jig” Madison aboard the USS Balao (SS-285); and Alvin Sbisa, who was missing when his boat USS Grampus (SS-207) was lost on March 5, 1943 in the Blackett Strait.
At least five men attained the rank of captain – Edward Anderson, Joseph Cudiff, Walter McGuinness, Lucien Powell and Charles Cassel, Jr. – while Jaime Adair and Bob Wooding both finished their naval careers as rear admirals.
The valorous achievements of these former midshipmen were nothing short of incredible. Edward Lee Anderson flew with Bombing Six from the deck of the USS Enterprise during the Battle of Midway and received the Navy Cross for his actions. He was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944 and 1945. Charles Cassell, while commanding the USS Satterlee (DD-626), risked his crew and his ship under heavy enemy fire during the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
Though we have not been able to confirm any connections, it appears that Navy right fielder Lucien “Pete” Powell was serving aboard the USS Alabama (BB-60) in 1943 as the senior air officer at the same time that future Hall of Fame pitcher and Chief Gunner’s Mate Bob Feller was aboard.
Researching the service careers of the Navy players shed considerable light upon the individual contributions of each man, achievements that would leave any person awestruck. Inspired by our findings, we pressed onward with our research of the West Point men.
Of the 18 men listed on the scorecard and seated in the opposing dugout, we were able to uncover greater detail for seven. However, we found that there were ten additional players not listed on the 1938 scorecard who were on the team during that season. We uncovered the service histories for seventeen of the 28 West Point cadets and were astonished by what we uncovered.
Four of the men who appeared in the game attained the rank of a general before retiring – Major General Richard Curtin and Brigadier Generals Wallace Clement, Frederick Lough and Donald Saunders. In addition, teammates Milton Adams (major general), John Dobson (brigadier general), and John Jannarone (brigadier general) all attained senior officer ranks. There was no shortage of valor displayed by the West Point baseball alumni, with fourteen of the men awarded Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses and Bronze Stars (with combat “V” devices).
Despite not seeing any action against Navy in 1938, one utility player and underclassman, (then) Major Wallace Clement (’40) displayed heroism in April, 1945 while serving with the 804th Tank Destroyer Battalion in the Sasso region of northern Italy and was awarded the Army’s second highest decoration (behind the Medal of Honor) for his action on the battlefield. Major Clement was also taken prisoner and held by the enemy following his actions on that day. Twenty years later, Brigadier General Clement once again displayed gallantry on a Vietnam battlefield and was subsequently awarded the Silver Star Medal. Clement’s career decorations also include the Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit (with two oak leaf clusters) and the Prisoner of War Medal.
Starting pitcher Tom Davis (’39) was assigned to Battery “F” of the 59th Coast Artillery Regiment of the Philippine Scouts when the Japanese attacked in December of 1941. Davis graduated from Vanderbilt University Magna Cum Laude before receiving his appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1935. Davis was commissioned into the Coast Artillery Corps in 1939 and was assigned to the 62nd CAC (anti-aircraft) at Fort Totten on Long Island, New York before volunteering for overseas duty in the Philippines. By May of 1941, with the Japanese enshrouding the Far East in militaristic totalitarian control, Davis sent his wife and young daughter back to the U.S. and seven months later he was appointed commander of Battery Geary on Corregidor after the Japanese began their attacks on the Philippine Islands. When the forces at Corregidor capitulated on May 6, 1942, Davis was taken prisoner by the enemy and subjected to torturous treatment. After initial imprisonment on Luzon at Cabanatuan, Davis was transported aboard a “hell ship” to the Japanese mainland and remained at the Sendai Camp #8 (Akita Prefecture), working as Japan’s slave labor by mining and smelting copper for the Fujita-Gumi Construction Company until the camp personnel were rescued on September 11, 1945. Davis served a full career before retiring as a colonel.
Irrespective of his error in the game, starting left fielder Ed Lahti’s service was nothing short of incredible. With a nickname of “Slugger,” one may instinctively assume that it was in reference to his diamond prowess. However, in reviewing Lahti’s Army career it is readily apparent that the man was hard-hitting on the battlefield. During World War II, Colonel Lahti served with the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment as part of the 11th Airborne Division in the Philippines and was awarded a Silver Star Medal for his battlefield gallantry.
Like the Navy squad, the 1938 West Point roster suffered some losses. Underclassman Captain Carter Johnson (’40) was assigned to an anti-tank company with the 26th Infantry Regiment in the 1st Infantry Division in Tunisia. He was killed as enemy artillery struck him directly, also taking one of his lieutenants, shortly after meeting with his commander, former President Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Quentin Roosevelt.
Army back-up catcher Sam Kail (’39), spelling starting backstop Bob Kasper, entered the 1938 game with the hope of sparking an offensive rally that never materialized. A career intelligence officer, Kail served on the War Department’s intelligence section (G2) staff from 1942-1944 and was assigned to the 13th Airborne Division as the Assistant G2 before taking the G2 position as well as G3 (in charge of plans and operations for the division). During the Korean War, Colonel Kail was the executive officer of the Seventh Infantry Regiment, Third Infantry Division. Kail led the Second Battalion during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir during the fierce winter fighting between November 27 and December 13, 1950 and received the Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in connection with military operations against the enemy. Kail worked with the CIA during his later years and was stationed at the American Embassy in Havana, Cuba in 1959 as the communists were plotting. William Alexander Morgan, an American citizen and one of communist fascist dictator Fidel Castro’s murderous lieutenants, falsely accused Kail (to a Chicago Tribune reporter) of warning the revolutionaries about the Cuban government’s knowledge of their plots. Kail also received the Legion of Merit (with an oak leaf cluster).
Starting shortstop Don Saunders was commissioned shortly after the 1938 Army-Navy baseball game and attended flying school at Randolph Field near San Antonio. He advanced to four-engine flight training and soon qualified on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. By the spring of 1943, Saunders was in command of the 333rd Bomb Group as they darted for England. He was detached to return to Texas, where he assumed command of the XXI Flying Group. By March of 1944, Saunders, in command of the 847th Bombing Squadron, 498th Bombardment Group of the 73rd Bomb Wing, departed the United States for the Western Pacific, flying missions over Japan from Saipan. Saunders earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (with two oak leaf clusters) while with the 847th. Brigadier General Saunders was one of 15 airmen killed in a 1958 crash of a KC-135 tanker near Westover Air Force Base shortly after takeoff when the plane struck power lines.
Shortly after this game was played, the world was dramatically altered and the innocence of a baseball game played in the spring of 1938 became a footnote for these men. One wonders if they even thought back to the two hours spent on Lawrence Field at the Naval Academy. The lives of the players listed on this scorecard were greatly impacted and some were devastatingly altered by the war.
Our scorecard is part of a group that includes two tickets from the game. The photograph was acquired separately from the scorecard group. It shows Samuel Kail, Tom Davis and their coach, Walter French, and was taken the following year as the West Point baseball team was beginning its spring training. Preserving this scorecard is crucial despite its being a small piece of sports history. The significance of each of the players’ lives and how they served their nation has great importance and yet they are all bound together by a few hours on a Saturday afternoon at Lawrence Field in Annapolis.
For most of our lives, we have been surrounded by people who were our neighbors, letter carriers, doctors, dentists, nurses or even grandparents or parents. They were ordinary people who lived ordinary lives. We encountered them every day and were entirely oblivious to the extraordinary lives they lived decades before. They didn’t dwell upon the things of the past as they sought only to pursue careers and raise families and leave their world better than it was when it was handed down to them.
“The Greatest Generation” is a term that has fallen out of favor in the last decade. Often overused to describe the men and women who were born following the Great War and spent their adolescence immersed in the Great Depression, the term spoke to their experiences that were brought to bear following the end of the Second World War when the United States saw its largest economic (and generational) boom. Most Americans didn’t recognize these aging men’s and women’s resilience, determination, patriotism and service to their communities and families as anything outside of normalcy until the last decade of the twentieth century, when they began entering their eighth decade and their rate of passing started to rapidly increase.
The kind-hearted, soft-spoken, gray-bearded gentleman was a favorite teacher among the students, year after year. He taught eighth-grade science at your junior high school and his style was anything but boring as he walked you through the basics in chemistry, light waves, refraction and reflectivity among many elementary principles. In ninth grade, many of the scientific elements that he previously introduced you to were foundational in the course that he taught in which his artistic passion was transferred to you through the world of photography.
It was in ninth grade during that photography class that you noticed something different. As you worked through an assignment with your classmates, the gray-bearded man sat at his desk that was positioned at the head of the classroom and adjacent to the counter that contained the Bunsen burners and petri dishes. Upon his desk was a deformed metallic object, heavily oxidized with dirt caked into the recesses of the twists of what appeared to be aluminum. The shared curiosity among your classmates wasn’t enough to stir anyone to action; so you decided to approach the teacher, gesturing toward the object as you posed your simple question, unprepared for the emotion-filled story that he was about to bestow upon you.
In a matter of moments, you were transported from simple childhood ignorance to the 8th Air Force and B-17 Flying Fortresses on bombing missions over Third Reich targets, with a tale of bailing out over enemy-occupied territory after sustaining heavy enemy fire. The tears welling up in your teacher’s eyes provided a painfully obvious sense of loss as he described himself and one other crewmen as the only survivors from that flight as the others were too badly wounded and incapable of bailing out before the aircraft crashed. He told you that the pilot ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft as he kept it at altitude long enough for the two survivors to make a safe exit. That harrowing story of survival decades earlier transitioned to the present day as your teacher shared with you his summer vacation of traveling to Europe and visiting the newly discovered crash site of his Flying Fortress. The remains of the crew who had been unable to escape the crash were among the wreckage when the site was discovered. Of course they had been removed before he visited. The piece that sat upon the teacher’s desk served as a reminder of the sacrifices made so that he could live his life in peace and share the stories of what made his generation truly great.
Seventy miles northeast of Detroit, Michigan, lies a small city on the shores of Lake Huron where the St. Clair River empties into the lake. Port Huron lies on the western bank of the river opposite Sarnia, Ontario. The two cities are connected by the Bluewater Bridge on Interstate 94. Three miles southwest of the bridge on 24th and Court Streets lies Port Huron High School, which today looks nothing like it did in January of 1943 when Jack Dobratz, a multi-sport star athlete, graduated.
Born to Charles G. and Minnie C. Dobratz, Jack was the third of five children and the third son born to first generation German-American parents. Jack was a stellar athlete in football, basketball and baseball, earning 10 letters with the Port Huron High School Reds, the first student to do so in twelve years. His departure from the school in the middle of winter left a gaping hole in two of the school’s sports rosters. The starting center for the basketball team graduated in the middle of the season and weeks later was wearing a different uniform.
Seeking Jack’s inspiration for participation in athletics, one need look no further than his father Charles, who clearly had a passion for sports. His August 6, 1951 Port Huron Times Herald obituary said that Charles’ love of sports was widely known. “Mr. Dobratz’ interest in every type of sporting event was carried over to the athletes who participated in them.” Charles left his imprint on the following generations with his involvement in Port Huron’s sports community. “Youngsters particularly, beginning to play softball, basketball and baseball, received invaluable counsel and encouragement from him.” The elder Dobratz was a member of the Port Huron Old Timers Association, whose members included notable baseball men such as Fred Lamlein, Frank Secory and Bill Watkins. Charles Dobratz also served as an umpire in industrial, city and church basketball leagues, no doubt influencing his son Jack.
There were no doubts about Jack’s post-graduation destination as he registered for the wartime draft on June 30, 1942, leading him to enlist in the U.S. Army on February 16, 1943. At that time in the Pacific theater, the ground offensive on Guadalcanal was pushing the Japanese off the island. With the Axis stranglehold across Europe, Operation Torch, the Allied offensive in French North Africa against German and Vichy units, was in its third month as the planning was well underway for what would be known as Operation Overlord – the Normandy Invasion. Camp Wheeler served as an infantry replacement center and Dobratz was trained for future assignment to replace a combat casualty as the need arose.
Once his training was completed at Camp Wheeler, the six-foot-three, 182-pound private pitched for his unit’s baseball team before he was transferred to England in July, 1943. His athletic abilities were apparent to his unit upon his arrival overseas and he found himself continuing his mound duties on foreign soil through for the remainder of 1943 and into the following year.
Private First Class Dobratz reported to the 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division on July 18, 1944 and was assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion. He was promptly appointed to the rank of sergeant. His arrival at the 115th was as a replacement. The regiment was in need of personnel, having sustained 3,700 casualties in the The Battle of Saint-Lo. Sergeant Dobratz’ military occupation specialty was 729 Pioneer (construction and engineering); so he was more than likely assigned to the support platoon.
The 115th Infantry Regiment saw action in the August-September battle for Brest during which Dobratz spent three days hospitalized for a non-battle injury. On September 30, the regiment crossed into Germany during the Rhineland Campaign, which saw the 115th along the Roer River. Due to the region’s heaviest rainfalls in more than three decades combined with heavy enemy resistance, the men of the 115th got bogged down in the very harsh conditions. The troops lacked personal foul weather gear to protect them from the wet conditions, resulting in an increase in non-battle casualties (NBC) for issues such as trench foot. In early December, Sgt. Dobratz came off the line and reported to the hospital for an NBC that ultimately saw him dropped from the 115th Infantry’s muster rolls. By February 10, 1945 he had been released and reported back to his unit. Two weeks later, the 29th Division launched their offensive on February 23, attacking the enemy across the Roer River towards their objective, the German town of Jülich, which fell on the first day of the assault. The Division pressed onward toward the Rhine, linking up with the British 21st Army Group, led my General Montgomery. Having seized München-Gladbach, just 32 kilometers west of Dusseldorf and the Rhine River, the 29th was relieved on March 1 for a much needed period of rest and recuperation as well as resupply and refit.
The 29th Division’s Central European Campaign continued for several more weeks of mopping up pockets of German resistance, leading up to the May 2 surrender of Third Reich forces. The 115th Infantry Regiment began transitioning from combat to occupation duties. In the weeks that followed, idle troops across the European Theater began to form baseball leagues with more than 100,000 participants. Dobratz was an obvious choice for the 29th Division’s team as the search for the most talented players netted a mix of former professionals, semi-pros and star high school players in order to field a highly competitive roster.
The 29th Division’s Blue and Grays worked their way through the season and captured the Seventh Army Championship (details of the games and opponents have yet to surface) and gained entrance into the ETO (European Theater of Operations) World Series semifinal games against the 71st Infantry Division Red Circlers. The Red Circlers were well rested following their early August five-game series in which they captured the Third Army championship by defeating the 76th Infantry Division’s Onaways. Former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Ewell Blackwell had tossed a 7-0 no-hitter in the second game and 5-0 two-hitter in the fifth and deciding game.
40,000 GIs and WACS witnessed the 71st Division defeat the 29th at Nuremberg Stadium on August 26, 1945. “This was baseball’s biggest spectacle to date as pennants of all major league teams flew from the rim of the stadium and Red Cross vendors climbed up and down, peddling beer, soft drinks and peanuts. Two thousand cases of beer, mostly American brands, were sold during the day as shirt-sleeved soldiers reveled.” (Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, August 29, 1945.)
The 71st carried their momentum forward as they faced the Blue and Grays of the 29th Infantry. Ewell Blackwell’s pitching was dominant in the first game as he captured the 2-1 win. Bill Ayers, victorious pitcher from the 12-innnng, 2-1 Game Three in the Third Army Championships, followed Blackwell with a two-hit, 3-1 win that put the 29th on their heels for the make-or-break Game Three. Ken Heintzelman, former Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher, entered the game with the score knotted at 3-3 in the top of the eighth inning and held the 29th hitless. In the bottom of the frame, Heintzelman’s bat ignited a three-run rally that broke the game open. In the top of the ninth, the ex-Pirate set the side down in order to seal the three-game sweep of the Blue and Grays. Dobratz and his teammates were eliminated from the series, falling three wins short of the ETO World Series and being forced to settle for the Seventh Army Crown. The 29th Infantry Division members were presented with engraved German-made medals that commemorated the Seventh Army title at Mannheim, Germany in August of 1945.
After acquiring the medal awarded to his teammate, Earl Ghelf, a year earlier (see: European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)), we were keenly aware of the significance of the piece when a second medal appeared in an online auction listing. The engraving on the medal’s reverse was an identical match to our medal, prompting us to place a bid and hope for the best. When the auction closed, we were astounded at the minimal competition as our bid closed the deal. Upon its arrival, we were already challenged in researching the inscribed name as our attempts continued to reveal nothing. “J. DEBRATZ” was an absolute mystery and we were resigned to waiting and hoping for a research breakthrough.
Days after publishing our article regarding “Debratz’s” medal (Metal Championship: Two 7th Army Victors of the 29th Division), we were contacted by a board member of the Maryland Museum of Military History who was an actively serving U.S. Army colonel. Col. Drew Sullins, along with historian Joseph Balkoski, author of several 29th Infantry Division books (see below), had been researching the 29th Division’s 1945 Blue and Gray baseball team and had uncovered significant details. Sullins researched the Division’s archive within the museum on our behalf for “DeBratz” among the morning reports. He soon discovered that the name as it appeared on our medal was misspelled, “Those Army clerks weren’t always perfect.” Colonel Sullins said. The colonel’s research yielded significant details, opening the doors for us to pursue other directions into Jack Dobratz’ military life.
“Jack Dobratz is having a good time ‘abroad’ in spite of being in the service of his country,” the September 23, 1945 Port Huron Times Herald read. “He does some pitching on a team that lists former major league players like Whitey Moore, former Cincinnati pitcher, and Jack Calloway [Don Kolloway] of the Chicago White Sox.” The article made mention of the team’s championship. “The 29th claims the Seventh Army baseball title, winning it on a field built by German labor.” Uncertain about his return home, Dobratz made plans for the winter athletic season in Germany, as he “sent for his basketball togs,” the article concluded.
By early December, Dobratz was back home in Port Huron and resumed his athletic competitiveness. He signed onto semi-professional basketball teams, first with the Mueller Brass club followed by Chrysler, and dominated his teams’ offensive statistical categories. By the spring, Dobratz was back in flannels, pitching for the Marine City semi-pro club and leading the team into the Blue Water District League finals.
During his World War II service, Sergeant Jack Dobratz was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, two Bronze Star medals, the Army Presidential Unit Citation ribbon and the Army Good Conduct, Europe-Africa-Middle East (EAME) Campaign (with three bronze star devices), American Campaign and World War II Victory medals.
Nearly two years after returning from Germany, Jack Dobratz married Ruth (Jensen) Smith, who was widowed when her husband’s C-109 Liberator Express was lost on December 16, 1944 in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. First Lieutenant Walter J. Smith was serving as the converted B-24’s navigator at the time of the aircraft’s loss.
The Dobratz couple later moved to Kalamazoo, where Jack worked as a floral designer until he passed away at age sixty-six on September 29, 1989. Almost three years later, his wife joined him in death. The couple had no children. Throughout the 44 years following his return from Europe, how many people who encountered Sgt. Dobratz had any concept of his actions during the war? Did he ever speak of the horrors of battle or did he fondly recollect his four months on the diamond with the 29th Division Blue and Grays? Perhaps our medal with Dobratz’ misspelled name served as a pleasant reminder of the months following V-E Day while the rest of his war artifacts were pushed aside, never to be seen again. While we are grateful for the opportunity to preserve Sgt. Dobratz’ 1945 Seventh Army Championship medal, we are left wondering what became of his service decorations.
Related Chevrons and Diamonds Stories:
- Metal Championship: Two 7th Army Victors of the 29th Division
- European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)
- Third Army – Baseball Championship Series
29th Infantry Division History (by Joseph Balkoski)
- From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th Infantry Division at Brest, August-September 1944
- From Brittany to the Reich: The 29th Infantry Division in Germany, September – November 1944
- Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy
- Last Roll Call, The: The 29th Infantry Division Victorious, 1945