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A Diamond for a Midway Hero

One of my favorite personal accounts of World War II is found in Ensign George Gay’s autobiography, Sole Survivor: Torpedo Squadron Eight – Battle of Midway written by the only person of 30 naval aviators and crew of USS Hornet’s (CV-8) Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) that launched from the carrier to survive the first attack on the Japanese carries during the initial assault. Ensign George Gay would watch the entirety of the battle floating in the water after having ditched his Douglas TBD Devastator after being damaged by enemy fire. The story was harrowing as U.S. Naval air forces from the three carriers, which included the Enterprise (CV-6) and Yorktown (CV-5), executed the initial attack on the Imperial Japanese Navy forces and were devastated in the process.

Lieutenant Commander John Charles Waldron, USN, poses in front of a Douglas TBD-1 “Devastator” of Torpedo Squadron Eight, circa 1942, USS Hornet.

While the Battle of Midway was a victory for the United States and the turning point of the war in the Pacific (placing the Japanese on the defensive until their unconditional surrender in 1945), it was a massive gamble and if things had gone differently, the entire West Coast and what remained of the United States Pacific territories would have been left wholly unprotected from the advancing Japanese navy. Nimitz’ battle paid off as did those of the men who actually carried the battle to the Japanese.

The story of VT-8 would otherwise be one of failure as Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron carried the battle to the Japanese and in doing so, had disobeyed the orders of his commanding officer and that of Hornet’s skipper, Marc Mitscher regarding which heading he was to proceed upon takeoff. Once airborne, LCDR Waldron changed direction (but failed to get the entire attacking force to follow), following his best assessment of where the enemy would be. Once his VT-8 squadron arrived, they were without American fighter protection and were cut to pieced by both Japanese fighters and shipboard anti-air gunnery. However, once the other squadrons of American torpedo and dive-bomber planes arrived, the Japanese fighters were out of position (having dropped down to engage VT-8.  As a result of the lack of cover, the Japanese carriers were exposed for the American dive bombers (from squadrons VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3) to attack with success, destroying three Japanese carriers within six minutes of the commencement of their attack.

There were several men who played key roles in the success of the attack on the Japanese naval forces and there were decisions made with extremely high risk of failure that could have ended up in disaster but the gambles paid off. Many valor decorations were awarded for the actions spanning the dates of June 4-7, 1942 including the Navy Cross LCDR Waldron received (along with the 14 other VT-8 pilots). His citation reads:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander John Charles Waldron (NSN: 0-58825), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane and Commanding Officer of Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8), attached to the U.S.S. HORNET (CV-8), during the “Air Battle of Midway,” against enemy Japanese forces on 4 June 1942. Grimly aware of the hazardous consequences of flying without fighter protection, and with insufficient fuel to return to his carrier, Lieutenant Commander Waldron resolutely, and with no thought of his own life, led his squadron in an effective torpedo attack against violent assaults of enemy Japanese aircraft fire. His courageous action, carried out with a gallant spirit of self-sacrifice and a conscientious devotion to the fulfillment of his mission, was a determining factor in the defeat of the enemy forces and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Waldron’s leadership in trying moments (his pre-flight orders and his decision to attack without fighter cover) was heroic and he was so honored with the Navy’s highest, decoration (short of the Medal of Honor). As a naval aviator, his name was further esteemed when the Navy bestowed the aviator’s name upon a Naval Auxiliary Air Field (NAAF) near Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.  NAAF Waldron was commissioned on April 1, 1943, ten months after the decorated aviator was shot down during the Midway battle. NAAF Waldron was established as a training base to develop, (appropriately) torpedo bomber pilots, continuing the education for naval aviation cadets. In addition to the naval training facilities constructed on the base, the need for these men to enjoy recreational downtime during their intense and rigorous training  necessitated the construction of athletic areas and resources. As baseball was (and still is) our national pastime, fields and diamonds were built and leagues teams were established for active duty personnel as had been established at other naval training facilities (Norfolk, Chapel Hill, Fort Belvoir, Camp Pendleton and in Hawaii).

The Waldron team of 1944 included major leaguers such as Johnny Sain (front row, 4th from the left) and Sam Chapman (front row, 3rd from the right). The team is posed in front of what appears to be an SNB-2 Beechcraft (navigation trainer) wearing their home uniforms (image source: Baseballinwartime.com).

As with many other bases during WWII, NAAF (sometimes referred to as Naval Air Station – NAS) Waldron fielded a team of aviation cadets. At least two  filling the roster of the Waldron team were veterans of the major leagues (Sam Chapman, a rising star outfielder of the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Braves’ pitcher, Johnny Sain). As of this publication date, there are no available records to research regarding games, game logs, wins or losses or complete rosters for the duration of the war.

The two-color (red over blue) soutache encircles the collar and the sleeve cuffs.

This gray wool flannel jersey was used by the baseball team from the Waldron Naval Aviation Auxiliary Field (NAAF) near Naval Air Station Corpus Cristi.

My pursuit of military baseball uniforms (especially jerseys) is well-documented on this site. When a jersey bearing the Waldron name was listed at auction last fall, my interest was piqued, prompting me to begin researching the uniform in an attempt to validate the seller’s claims.

RARE Waldron Field Baseball Jersey World War II NAS M-41 M-43 President Bush??

Do you like World War II-era items? Do you like baseball?
Then here’s your chance at acquiring the best of both worlds!
Bid on or buy this EXTREMELY RARE Corpus Christi Waldron Field Naval Air Station Baseball Jersey from the days of World War II 
Old heavy flannel made in Louisiana for the Texas team.
This really belongs in a military or sports museum. Give it a good home.
MORE RARE than a combat-worn M-41 or M-43 jacket
HOW RARE??? There are 20-25 players to a team, plus a handful of coaches = NOT MANY JERSEYS!
GOOD LUCK FINDING ANOTHER!”

Waldron NAAF was built as a satellite airfield in 1943 for nearby Corpus Christi Naval Air Station (National Archives Photograph, 1943).

The listing and the photos were captivating and soon I was performing due diligence in determining of the seller’s claims were valid. Prior to seeing the auction, I had no idea if a “Corpus Christi Waldron Naval Air Station” base in existence or if there ever was one. I seldom get buoyed by the attempts to fuel emotional responses so I immediately disregarded all of the other information that the seller provided. I also took note that there was no mention of any provenance or if it was associated with any estates. One off-putting aspect of the listing was that the asking price was well above what these jerseys typically sell for. Often times, sellers will initially list them at a high buy-it-now and initial bid amount as they are hopeful that there would be a knee-jerk, trigger-pull response to bidding. The lack of interest at such a high price will prompt the seller to enter into a cycle of re-listing, reducing the price each time. In this case, I watched this happen twice and then decided to contact the seller at the end of the second listing.

My researching of the jersey led me to the information about the Waldron Naval Auxiliary Air Field and subsequently, the photo (shown above) of the ball club in uniform. While my research wasn’t conclusive in terms of confirming that the seller’s Waldron jersey was, in fact from this team, I was able to rule out every high school named “Waldron.” Also, the lettering of the auction jersey, made of road gray wool flannel and a two-color (blue and red) soutache trimmed around the placard and the sleeve cuffs. Also, the jersey’s design was representative of the early-to-mid 1940s and the “W A L D R O N” lettering was applied to this jersey exactly as it is in the NAAF team photo (seen above).

Unlike many WWII-era jerseys, this uniform is stitched with cotton block lettering.

Armed with my information and not wanting to tip my cards to the seller that I was really interested, I did pass along to him the sale-price history of similar military jerseys for the last few months and years. After some back-and-forth dialogue, we were able to negotiate a fair price for the jersey but I needed to wait a week to be able to pay the price (this was getting close to the Christmas holidays and my budget was very restricted). When I was ready and the appointed day arrived to execute the deal we struck…nothing. The seller re-listed the jersey for a significantly higher (than the initial listing price). After further correspondence in attempting to ascertain what went wrong, I realized that I was best to simply let go of the transaction and see what would happen with the auction.

A large numeral made from the same material as the lettering is affixed on the jersey’s back.

As I predicted to my wife, the jersey did not sell and the auction ended. Weeks rolled by into nearly two months since that latest listing when he made another attempt. This time, the seller included a “best offer” functionality to the listing and I submitted the same price as what was negotiated more than two months prior. The seller countered my offer (it was reasonable, if unethical…but who am I to argue? I really wanted to have the jersey) and I accepted and quickly paid the seller. What happened next perplexed me. The seller sent a message to inform me of the anticipated date of shipment, ” This will ship by Saturday. Enjoy,” he wrote. “And please let me know what you get for this when you re-sell it. I’m curious what you’ve got here,” his closing sentence left me perplexed. Did he honestly think that I spent more than three months of effort and energy just to turn around and flip it for profit – considering he was wholly unable to do this? After follow-up discussion, I informed him of my efforts and he satisfactorily explained himself further but I was still scratching my head. It was the first time that a seller made such a comment to me in more than 500 transactions spanning 17 years.

The jersey arrived as promised and it was fantastic to place this artifact among my (now) eight vintage military baseball jerseys and uniforms.

Author’s Note: World War II was especially difficult for the Waldron Family. Not only did LCDR Waldron’s (ten years-older) sister lose her brother during the Battle of Midway in 1942, but she also lost her youngest son, Major Robert Phillip, USMC, a naval aviator when his aircraft was lost at sea slightly more than a year after her brother was killed. Major Phillip’s aircraft was lost on June 24, 1943 in the waters near Manono Island (Samoa). As devastating as these two losses were, the cost of the war to the Waldron family wasn’t yet finished. Alice Island “Isle” (Waldron) Phillips oldest son, Commander George Phillip Jr. paid with his life during the Battle of Okinawa on 16 June 1945 when the destroyer that he commanded, USS Twiggs (DD_591) was sunk after a Japanese torpedo plane struck the ship with a torpedo then circled back in a kamikaze attack, igniting a mass-conflagration of explosions and flames. The Twiggs sank within an hour and Commander Phillip went down with his ship and 151 other men.

WWII Navy Baseball Uniforms: Preserving the Ones That Got Away

I created this site as a vehicle for me to write about and discuss the military baseball artifacts that I have or am adding to my collection. Rather than to be simplistic in describing the items and sharing photographs of each piece, I prefer to research and capture the history (when possible) in order to provide context surrounding the items as a means to educate readers. I find that I often return to my articles and incorporate their elements or entirety for use in subsequent articles or as a means to authenticate artifacts that I am interested in purchasing.  Another activity that I enjoy participating in is to document those artifacts that I have discovered either too late or was incapable of purchasing due to being outbid, a missed opportunity, too many unanswered questions, cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable for purchase. Losing out on acquiring somethings doesn’t necessarily translate to letting these pieces pass into oblivion simply because they are not part of my collection.

Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets sporting their wonderful flannel uniforms.
Left to right: Walter Masterson, Fred Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Tom Early (source: Hampton Roads Naval Museum).

Left to right: Charlie Welchel, Pee Wee Reese and Hugh Casey of the Norfolk Naval Air Station Airmen baseball team, wearing wings on their uniforms (source: Virginian-Pilot).

I have a soft spot for vintage jerseys and I am constantly on the prowl for anything that would help to make my collection more diverse with uniform pieces from all service teams such as Navy and Army Air Forces teams. In my collection, I now have three different World War II jerseys (two of which include the trousers) from Marine Corps ball teams. This past summer, I was able to locate ball caps that seem to accompany two of those Marines jerseys. In addition to the USMC items, I have two uniforms (jerseys and trousers) from WWII Army teams: one from the 399th Infantry Regiment and the other, a colorful, tropical-weight red-on-blue (cotton duck) uniform from the Fifth Army headquarters ball team (which reminds me that I still need to write an article about this uniform group).  Two years ago, I was able to find another uniform set (jersey and trousers) that I am almost certain was from a Navy ball team, due to the blue and gold colors of the soutache and that the plackard reads in flannel script, “Aviation Squadron” adorning the jersey.

In my pursuit of military baseball uniforms, I have been working to document the ones that got away (or simply were not available for purchase) in order to create a record for comparative analysis in support of research or to assist in authentication of other uniforms. Unlike professional baseball, the major leagues in particular, there are very few surviving examples of uniform artifacts from the 1940s and earlier. By creating an archive, I am hoping that not only will I have a resource available for my own efforts but will also help others in understanding more about what our armed forces players wore on the field during their service.

This close-up of Ted Williams shows him in the Navy baseball uniform that he wore while attending naval aviation training and playing for the Chapel Hill Cloudbusters ball team.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by an author who was seeking information on what became of the baseball uniforms that were used by the naval aviation cadets who were attending U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School (The V-5 Program) at Chapel Hill. The cadet baseball team (the Cloudbusters) at the V-5 school included some professional ballplayers (such as two Boston Red Sox greats, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams, Boston Braves’ Johnny Sain to name a few). In addition to the baseball team, Chapel Hill also fielded a cadet football team whose coaching roster included college legends Jim Crowley,  Frank Kimbrough, Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught and even a future president, Gerald Ford. The uniforms worn by the Cloudbusters baseball team were trimmed with a double soutache surrounding the collar and the plackard that matched what was worn on the cuffs of the sleeves. Across the front in block lettering was N A V Y reminiscent of baseball uniforms worn by the Naval Academy ball teams at that time. In my response to the person who contacted me, I told her that I had not seen anything resembling the Cloudbusters uniforms nor did I have any knowledge of what became of them after the War. I can imagine that a team with a roster filled with professional ballplayers that they would have multiple uniforms (a few sets each for both away and home use), similar to what the Norfolk Naval Station Bluejackets ball team had.

Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky entertain a group of youngsters while in their Navy baseball uniforms of the Chapel Hill Cloudbusters team (source: Baseball Hall of Fame).

See Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot video series regarding the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team featuring an interview with former major leaguer, Eddie Robinson:

 

The left sleeve of the Navy baseball jersey is adorned with patch bearing crossed flags. The U.S. flag shows the pre-1959 48 stars. The British-esque flag might help to identify where, when or who wore this uniform (Vintagesportsshoppe.com).

While looking through my photo archives for images of artifacts in support of another article that I was writing, I discovered images of a Navy baseball jersey that had been for sale at some point by a small, regional business that specializes in vintage sports equipment. I saved the image of the jersey for future reference due to the unique patch on the left sleeve. The patch bears two crossed flags – one is the U.S. flag and the other, a red flag with the British Union Jack in the left corner and an indistinguishable symbol in the red field. The jersey has a singular blue soutache trim and possesses the same block-lettering (as seen on the Cloudbusters jerseys – which have no sleeve patches). In searching through extensive volumes of historical Navy baseball photographs, no image has surfaced showing this uniform in use, keeping it a mystery for the time-being.

This Navy baseball uniform is unique with the zippered front and single, navy-blue soutache on the sleeve cuffs and the uniform front. The well-known Chapel Hill Cloudbusters uniforms had button-fronts and double-soutache trim (source: Vintagesportsshoppe.com).

Wool flannel numerals in navy blue adorn the back of the jersey (source Vintagesportsshoppe.com).

I am hopeful that I can continue to gather a useful archive of uniform artifacts in order to provide a sufficient military baseball uniform research resource. Aside from articles such as this, I think that I will organize the uniform images into a proper archive that will be organized and searchable. By capturing and cataloging the artifacts that do not make it into my collection, I can still maintain a “collection” of artifacts that will be helpful to me and other collectors and researchers.

 

 

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