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Coaching Cloudbusters: A St. Louis Scholastic Coach Teaches Aviation Cadets During The War

During World War II, more than four million Americans served in the U.S. Navy (according to the Naval Heritage and History Command, between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946, 4,183,466 (390,037 officers and 3,793,429 enlisted) served in some capacity during the wartime period.  The monumental shift of naval tactics that vaulted the Navy from ship-to-ship engagements to over-the-horizon and long-range fighting and the reliance upon the aircraft carrier and naval air forces created massive shortfall and resulting demand for highly trained and skilled aviators. Though the Aviation Cadet program (V-5) was established with the passing of the Naval Aviation Cadet Act of 1935, the program took center stage as the means of converting civilians into naval aviators in late 1942-early 1943. 

Integral in the WWII Aviation Cadet Program were the Navy Pre-flight schools that were hastily established at four college campus locations: University of Georgia at AthensUniversity of Iowa at Iowa CitySt. Mary’s College at Moraga, California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With athletics figuring to be so prominent in the cadet training program, it is no wonder that high-caliber athletes and professional baseball players flourished both on the competitive field and as aviators. Besides sending America’s brightest and best into the seats of Navy fighter, bomber, scout and transport aircraft, these Navy pre-flight schools provided the nation with future leaders in science and exploration, business, sports and government, counting two future presidents, astronauts and members of professional and collegiate sports halls of fame.  

In my pursuit of assembling a robust and well-rounded photographic archive of original vintage military baseball imagery, I have managed to acquire some fantastic pieces that shed light on the game and those who took to the diamonds on military installations and near the front lines.  One of my most recent acquisitions is reminiscent of the three photographs that were part of the estate of legendary Red Sox infielder and WWII Navy Pre-Flight cadet, John Paveskovich, known to baseball fans as Johnny Pesky.  This most recent vintage photograph featured four men posed in their Navy Pre-flight (Cloudbusters) home baseball uniforms, kneeling on the sidelines of Emerson Field at University of North Carolina.  

1944 Cloudbusters Coaching Staff (left to right): LT(jg) Tom McConnell, LCDR Glenn Killinger, LT Buddy Hassett, LT Howie Haak. The photo was inscribed and signed by McConnell, Killinger and Hassett for Howie Haak.

Like the earlier image of Pesky posed with Ted Williams and another Cloudbusters player, this photograph shows three faces from sports that were, at the time, well-known in their profession. Buddy Hassett, a seven-year major league veteran first-baseman and outfielder (Dodgers, Braves and Yankees) who made three appearances for the Yankees in the 1942 World Series loss to the Cardinals is pictured among the four men. Hassett batted .333 and scored a run as he played his last major league games of his career before joining the Navy. The other, more well-known Cloudbuster, the team’s head coach, Glenn Killinger, was a 10-year minor league infielder serving as a player-coach from 1922-32. Killinger, in addition to averaging 111 baseball games played per season, found time to suit up for the Canton Bulldogs and New York Giants of the National Football League and the Philadelphia Quakers (of the first AFL) as a tailback. Killinger, previously a tailback for the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1918-1921 earned All-American honors in his final season along with earning letters in two other sports (baseball and basketball). Not one to sit on his laurels, Glenn Killinger split time between playing professional baseball, football and serving as a head coach at the collegiate level throughout the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, he was a full-time college football and basketball coach. When the need for physical education instructors and coaches at Navy Pre-flight arose, Killinger responded and received a commission as a lieutenant commander, assigned as the Cloudbusters’ head coach in 1944. 

The 1944 Cloudbusters team (source: U.S. Navy Pre-flight School, Chapel Hill, NC)

Both Hassett’s and Killinger’s signatures adorned the photograph along with a third autograph from one of the other players in the pose. More than 74 years of aging, decay and fading have reduced the clarity and visibility of the signatures rendering the third autograph nearly, though not fully illegible. I was able to discern the name “Thomas McConnell” along with the inscription (to Howie Haak, who he, Killinger and Hassett signed the photograph to and is pictured at the far right) which launched a concerted research effort to see if I could learn more about this ball player. A cursory peek into the listings of professional (major and minor league) ballplayers yielded nothing. As I continued my search, I shared my discovery with fellow collector colleagues with the hope that someone in that circle might have a clue. Within minutes, I was directed perform a cursory internet search for a monument at a St. Louis, Missouri high school that bore the same name.  Clicking on the very first link in the results directed my browser to a page on the John Burroughs School site that was created to honor Tom McConnell. In addition to a photograph of the monument was a photo of a middle-aged man who resembled the young man in the Cloudbusters photo accompanied by a brief narrative about the school’s former head football and baseball coach and athletic director who was killed by a hit-and-run motorist in 1970.  

Lieutenant (junior grade) Tom McConnell was part of head coach Glenn Killinger’s 1944 Navy Pre-flight UNC Chapel Hill Cloudbusters coaching staff. McConnell signed this photograph, inscribing it, “To the Scout, Best of Luck and Good Scouting With the Future, Tom McConnell.”

Thomas McConnell (courtesy of University City High School (St. Louis, MO) Hall of Fame).

Not one to stop with the first results, I know had more information to bring to bear in deepening searches. Tom McConnell, was born sometime in 1916 or ‘17 and passed away in 1970 (in St. Louis). Taking this information, I was able to uncover a few more details about the former Cloudbuster ball player.  Thomas M. McConnell was born on Independence Day amid the Great War, July 4, 1916. According to the 1920 federal census, he was adopted by a St. Louis area dentist, Harry R. McConnell (a World War I veteran) and his wife, Katherine G. McConnell. He would be their only child. Tom would excel scholastic athletics, graduating from University City High School in 1935, departing for the University of Illinois.  According to the 1940 census, Tom was still living with his parents (along with his paternal grandfather) while working as an assistant coach in the Normandy Township schools, launching what would become his lifelong vocation.  

As war was raging in Europe and the Empire of Japan was enshrouding the Western and South Pacific in fear and tyrannical rule, Tom McConnell married the former Ruth Funk on July 28, 1941 as he continued his coaching career with Clayton High School in the Clayton, Missouri school district. In less than five months, following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, McConnell would see his country engulfed in war. On the day after Christmas of 1942, McConnell departed home for the U.S. Navy’s V-5 program (having enlisted on December 17, 1942) to serve as an instructor and a coach with the Cloudbusters. On February 6, 1943, Tom McConnell successfully completed his naval indoctrination at Chapel Hill (one of his classmates was future baseball Hall of Famer, LT Charlie Gehringer) and was ready to assume duties, training and teaching young cadets on their way to becoming naval aviators. By March 11, McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) and was serving as a military arts instructor and was assigned as one of Glenn Killinger’s assistant baseball coaches, along with LT Buddy Hassett, helping to guide the UNC Pre-Flight cadets to a second consecutive Ration League title.  In the fall of 1944, McConnell transferred away from Chapel Hill and, as of yet, no records have surfaced that can provide insight on where he served for the remainder of his Naval career. According to the 1951 Naval Register, Tom McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on August 1, 1945, just five days before Little Boy was dropped by the 20th Air Force’s B-29, Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. 

In a career dedicated to teaching and leading young people, McConnell returned to coaching high school athletics in St. Louis, presumably influenced by the wealth of professional talent both on his Navy Pre-flight rosters, coaching staff and fellow instructors. McConnell was, no doubt, heavily influenced by his fellow coaches such as Don Keppler, Glenn Killinger and Buddy Hassett, carrying the newly acquired expertise, teaching styles and philosophy to St. Louis where he coached football, baseball and basketball with Clayton, Normandy and John Burroughs high schools.  

On a spring night, Tom and his wife, Ruth had been celebrating a joyous occasion with the wedding of one of his former students. While walking from the reception, the McConnells were crossing a street, bound for a follow-on function when they were struck by a vehicle, inflicting deadly harm. Ruth was severely injured but her husband, the beloved coach died at the scene. Witnesses of the incident reported that the assailant accelerated from the scene, leaving the two mangled bodies in the street. The crime remains unsolved. 

In 2002, McConnell was honored by his high school alma mater, University City HS with an induction into their hall of fame. His citation reads, “McConnell’s coaching style was compared to the style of his former University City High School football coach and later colleague C.A. (Stub) Muhl. Both had well-drilled players who were ‘gentlemen with a ferocious desire to win the game and with a quiet acceptance of it when they did.’ It was with this style that McConnell ‘turned out excellent teams year after year.’” 

Though this former Cloudbuster never took to the skies as a naval aviator, ascended to the highest public office of his nation nor broke the gravitational pull of the earth, McConnell, no doubt greatly influenced countless youth in and around St. Louis, Missouri. 

Thomas M. McConnell (1916-1970):

  • Missouri Football Coaches Hall of Fame (inducted 1996)
  • St. Louis Football Coaches Hall of Fame
  • St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame
  • He served as President of the St. Louis Sports Officials Association and the St. Louis Coaches Association.

Sources:

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Now Pitching for Mickey Cochrane’s Bluejackets of Great Lakes…

Collecting original baseball militaria vintage photographs can be very rewarding, especially when the subjects in the images are of major leaguers (past or future). My collection has grown over the years to not only include ballplayers who reach the highest level of the game but also play their way into Cooperstown while having given away a portion of their career to the armed forces when their nation needed them at the most critical time in history.

In the early months of 1942, the mood of the people of the United States was a myriad of emotions ranging from outrage and anger, fear, great sorrow and loss and of unity. Suffering the tragic loss of thousands of armed forces personnel and a handful of citizens at Pearl Harbor and in the surrounding bases on the Island of Oahu and news of the battles raging on the Bataan Peninsula combined with the surrender of American military forces on Guam and Wake Island, Americans at home had every reason to be concerned about what was taking place and how it would impact the future of our nation. It seemed as though the world was falling under a dark cloud of evil both in the Pacific and across Europe as both German and Japanese militaries were laying waste to every nation they invaded and every military force that attempted to oppose them.

Historians have experience a measure of success in documenting and communicating about the impacts on the game of baseball within hours of the news of the Pearl Harbor attacks reaching the mainland of the United States. For most baseball fans, the knowledge of the quick responses by stars of the game such as Cleveland Indians’ ace pitcher, Bob Feller (enlisted into the U.S. Navy on December 8, 1941) and Hank Greenberg (who made his return to the Army on February 1, 1942, having been discharged two days before the Pearl Harbor attack). Besides these two stars of the game heading off to fight, most players from the major and minor leagues did not rush to join en masse, but rather waited to learn what was going to happen with baseball and the military draft. The two most significant stars of the game in the 1941 season, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had no intentions of rushing into the fight as both reported to spring training for the 1942 season though each player would face criticism for avoiding service (Ted Williams was skewered for his III-A deferment status regardless of being his mother’s sole provider) and ultimately succumb to the vocal disappointment and enlist, joining the throng of young Americans entering the ranks in the waning months of 1942 and early 1943.

Major and minor league baseball experienced an outflow of personnel that reached a critical mass by the middle of the 1944 season that forced many lower level leagues to shutdown operations. Those players who could not serve in the armed forces moved to the higher level leagues to fill their vacated positions. Though the game helped to sustain many Americans by providing them with an escape from rationing, scrap drives and working in the war effort, the quality of play was nothing close to what was seen when the greats of the game was at its pinnacle in 1941 with DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and William’s .406 season.

On May 17, 1942, White Sox starter Johnny Rigney pitched his last game before departing for basic training a few miles north of Chicago at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Facing the Washington Senators that day, the Oak Park, Illinois native tossed a three-hit, complete game (he surrendered a double to Bobby Estalella and a single each to Bob Repass and Mike Chartak), in the 4-3 win in front of 16,229 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. While the White Sox roster still was still full with most of their star players on that mid-May day, they were already 13-2 and 11.5 games out of contention. Rigney, one of the bright spots on the pitching staff since his arrival to the big league club in 1937. By the time of his induction, he had a 56-56 record with an era of 3.63 and was 3-3, having appeared in seven games in ’42.

After completion of Navy basic training, Johnny Rigney (no relation to fellow ballplayer and Navy man, Bill Rigney) was recruited by the manager of the Great Lakes Bluejackets, Mickey Cochrane to pitch for the service team that he managed for 1942.  Cochrane, a former American League star catcher for Philadelphia and Detroit, following his enlistment into the Navy and assignment to Great Lakes as an athletics director took on the management of the baseball team and quickly began reaching out to draft-eligible major leaguers to encourage them to join up and to get them assigned to fill roster spots on the Bluejackets squad. Rigney followed several big leaguers to the Navy and joined Cochrane’s team which already consisted of Sam Harshaney (St. Louis Browns), Benny McCoy (Detroit Tigers/Philadelphia Athletics), Russell Meers (Chicago Cubs), Donald Padgett (St. Louis Cardinals), Frank Pytlak (Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox), James Reninger (Philadelphia Athletics), Joe Grace (St. Louis Browns), Chet Hajduk (Chicago White Sox) and Johnny Lucadello (St. Louis Browns).

This type-1 photograph has a printed caption affixed to the back that reads: “July 3, 1942 – Johnny Rigney, who until his induction into the Navy a short time ago, was a leading White Sox hurler, got a watch from his former teammates when he appeared at Comiskey Park last night with the Great Lakes naval training station team against Chanute Field. He may hurl against All-Stars at Cleveland Tuesday. Left to right are Dario Lodigiani, Mule Haas, Ted Lyons, Rigney, Thornton Lee and Orval Grove.”

Billed by many baseball historians as the greatest team of WWII, the Great Lakes squads were dominant among all of the service teams. The 1942 squad was considered the weakest among the war years squads, finishing the year with a 52-10-1 record (a whopping .800 winning percentage) which included a 17-game winning streak and not suffering any losses to opposing military teams. Where the ’42 Bluejackets struggled was in exhibition games (fundraising events for Navy Relief and other service member needs) against major league clubs posting a 4-6 record in the 10 games they played that year. Former White Sox hurler was considered the ace of Cochrane’s staff and taking the mound against the most difficult and formidable opponents. Coach Cochrane would also tag Rigney for service in a fund-raising game played between the 1942 American League All-Stars and the Service All-Stars at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942 (the American League squad defeated the service team, 5-0 after Bob Feller’s abysmal pitching performance, surrendering three runs before being relieved by Rigney in the 2nd Inning).

One of the type-1 press photographs in my collection depicts Johnny Rigney visiting his former White Sox teammates at Comiskey Park on July 3, 1942. The image is a high-contrast photograph that is in fantastic condition. One of the more interesting aspects of this print, aside from some minimal surface damage due to the seven decades of aging and decay, is the presence of editing marks made directly onto the surface. Most discernible on the print are the handmade enhancements to Rigney’s uniform in order to distinguish his dress blues from the surrounding features. Other edits on the image surround the upper left portion behind the three players’ heads, extending to the center around Rigney’s dixie cup hat. It is very likely that the wall behind the players was covered with distracting elements taking the focus away from what was happening with the personalities within the main framed area.

A large percentage of the vintage images in my baseball militaria photograph archive depict game action or show players on the field in various manners. However this photo captures an interlude away from the field of play between Rigney and fellow White Sox personalities. Besides Rigney, two of the White Sox players shown in the image would soon be serving: third baseman Dario Lodigiani would enlist into the U.S. Army Air Forces and would eventually be assigned the 7th AAF team in Hawaii along with his fellow San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Coast League (PCL) alumnus Joe DiMaggio and Ferris Fain; Ted Lyons, the (then) 20 year veteran that had pitched himself into eligibility for Cooperstown enshrinement, joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the youthful age of 42.

The two other White Sox shown in the vintage photo are Rigney’s fellow pitchers Orval Grove and “Lefty” Lee, neither of whom would serve in the armed forces and George “Mule” Haas, the 12-year veteran outfielder (with the Pirates, Athletics and White Sox from 1925-38) who was part of manager Jimmy Dykes‘ coaching staff from 1940 to ’46.

The photo itself is a large, non-standard size (8.25 x 7 -inches), silver-gelatin print that is borderless. It is possible that the newspaper photo editor (who prepped the image for publication) trimmed the borders off as part of the editing process. One element of this image that adds to the interest is that the White Sox players are wearing their (home) white uniforms with red and blue trim marking the first season in which “White Sox” appeared in script lettering across the chest and the only use of such a design until 1987.

Photos of professional ballplayers in their armed forces uniforms (whether their flannels or military) are getting increasingly difficult to find but I keep scouring my sources to further build my archive.

Struck Out Swinging: Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Mize and Fred Hutchinson on Tinian

Missing out on pieces that would fit perfectly with what I collect is becoming too common of an occurrence for me lately. I am not one who spends my weekends scouring garage and estate sales in search of these precious artifacts but perhaps there might be something to that activity. The problem with taking that approach is that there is a considerable time commitment required just to make it worthwhile and to afford chances to find such treasures. Another challenge is that these military baseball artifacts are so hard to find due to the small population of service members who played the game during their time in the armed forces. I find that it is best to take my chances with the collections, personal items – pieces that are listed by veterans, family members, collectors and pickers.

It is not secret that my tendencies in collecting, both with militaria and in military baseball are towards the Navy and I work harder to land those related items that surface within the marketplace. Often, there are pieces that are of little interest to other collectors or they are listed in such a manner that they elude people who might be using a few different (yet limited or too specific) search criterion or formulas. Even I have missed out on pieces because I was too lazy to search beyond my normal, standby perfunctory methods.

Sometimes, I make discoveries of items that perfectly fit my collection and line up with everything that interest me but are discovered because I was exploring a tangential interest. One example of this was when I was seeking a specific rating badge (a WWII-era bullion Radarman version), I discovered a binder filled with shipyard modernization work orders that belonged to a Chief Electrician (a warrant officer) who used for the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes (CA-44) that would later be sunk in the Battle of Savo Island in August of 1942.

My collection of Navy baseball artifacts, despite my best efforts, are scantily few. It seems that besides the there being so few pieces in existence, the competition for those items can be quite fierce.

Vintage military photographs are something that I collect. In addition to my naval ship and military baseball photograph archive, I also have several images that were part of a veteran’s photo scrapbook from his service in the 20th Air Force. Among those images of ground activities, bombing missions, wrecked aircraft and airmen enjoying downtown between missions, there are images of several B-29s and their nose art.

This rare color photograph of the B-17 “Going My Way” with Bugs Bunny is very typical of what was seen on many WWI bomber aircraft.

Nose art, especially what was seen on B-17 an B-29 bombers, has considerable following for collectors and historians alike. When the number of just these two types of aircraft (12,731 B-17 and 3,970 B-29 bombers) are considered coupled with the notion that the majority of them (that were deployed to their respective theaters of the war), there would be thousands of differing paintings and illustrations to be documented. In recent years, there have been several undertakings by historians who are seeking to locate photographs of every example of nose art for each aircraft. If the photograph exists, these folks want to have it.

This jacket, combined with the above image of the Goin’ My Way nose art photo would work together for a fantastic display.

In terms of collectors, those who pursue painted bomber jackets in particular, to possess both the jacket and photographic artifacts from the same ship help to make a great display. I have never actually purchased a vintage photo of a bomber or other Air Force aircraft.

A few days ago, while I was browsing through some listings of B-29 photographs taken on Tinian and Saipan (the two principle bases of operation for bombing missions to the Japanese homelands during the latter years of the War), I spotted a vintage photograph that was listed as a “nose art” image. In the thumbnail of the photo in the listing, I could see that there was a large gathering of men posed beneath the aircraft, which wasn’t unusual. What was out of the norm from what I have seen in other images was the sheer number of people lined up in multiple rows. Something about the men also caught my eye as it appeared different from all the photos that I had seen. The Superfortress looked normal though the nose art, from what I could tell, was quite diminutive compared to what was commonly applied to these massive planes.

In this undated photo, the U.S. Navy team poses with airmen in front of the Superfortress known as “Flag Ship” (serial number BA 42-63504). Among the players in the image are Pee Wee Reese, Fred Hutchinson and Johnny Mize. Flag Ship would be damaged on July 24, 1944 by a crashing “Thunderin’ Loretta”(serial number 42-24913) when she went down on take-off, killing 10 men. The crash damaged seven other parked B-29 bombers (serial numbers 44-69841, 42-63506, 42-93992, 44-69844, 44-69972, 42-63504, and 44-69859).
Flag Ship has the distinction of being the first B-29 to land on the Island of Tinian (source: eBay image).

I decided to open the auction listing and I was immediately astounded. There, in the formation ranks were a few recognizable faces – Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese and Fred Hutchinson to name a few – among the 43 visible service members. Twelve of the men in baseball uniforms were wearing the road gray navy flannels while 14 were decked out in the pinstripes and blue home togs. Other men posing in the image are in the Army Air Forces and Navy military uniforms. The image appears to be a type-1 (defined as first generation photograph, developed from the original negative, during the period – within approximately two years of when the picture was taken) and the clarity is impeccable. It is obvious that the photograph was snapped by a professional war correspondent, judging by the exposure and composition, regardless of the cropping out of men on the edges of the group.

I really wanted to land this photograph. Not wanting to risk being outbid, I set my amount for more than twice the highest price that I have ever paid for a vintage photograph. I could see that there were some new-to-eBay folks (those who place bids very early after an item is listed) which gave me a little bit of concern as these people tend to drive prices unnecessarily high (my bid won’t show until just prior to the close of the auction). I waited the remaining five days for the close of the bidding and hoped for the best.

I wish that I could say that my bid amount was enough to bring this photograph home to me but someone else with deeper pockets and, very obviously in possession of the knowledge of the significance of this rare photograph took the same actions as I did and placed a higher bid at the same time (just seconds before the auction’s close) that mine was made. Losing and missing out on this image was a painful lesson to learn. If the item matters this much, I had better step up to the plate and take a real swing.

At least I was able to grab a digital copy (albeit, low resolution) for posterity.

 

Barbary Wars, Naval Heroes and…Baseball?

Baseball history is perhaps one of the most fascinating studies in that the sport has been played in some form or fashion within the United States since the colonial times if not earlier. Some aspects of history shared between the two can be directly connected while others are more Baconesque (I am showing my age with that reference) in their degrees of separation. I suppose that today’s article is in the spirit of the latter in terms of connection but there are certain specific details that are decidedly of the former. Bear with me…

The bonds shared between the U.S. Armed Forces and the game might have been formed well before the pre-American Civil War as noted in the writings of Henry Dearborn, a major general in the Continental Army (having served under General Benedict Arnold), made mention of what some baseball historians as the earliest military-baseball reference:

“In the spring of 1779, Henry Dearborn, a New Hampshire officer, was a member of the American expedition in north central Pennsylvania, heading northwards to attack the Iroquois tribal peoples. In his journal for April 3rd, Dearborn jotted down something quite different than the typical notations of military activities: “all the Officers of the Brigade turn’d out & Play’d a game at ball the first we have had this yeare. — “ Two weeks later he entered something equally eye-catching. On April 17th, he wrote: “we are oblige’d to walk 4 miles to day to find a place leavel enough to play ball.” On the face of it, the two journal entries might not seem all that startling, but to baseball historians they should be sort of front-page news. For Henry Dearborn was one of several, if not more, soldiers who played baseball, or an early variant of it, during the Revolutionary War, a good sixty years before another military man, one Abner Doubleday allegedly invented the game in the sleepy east central New York village of Cooperstown.”

– Excerpt from “A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball”: Baseball and Baseball-type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic by John Thorn from his blog, Our Game.

Reuben James saving the life of Stephen Decatur, engraving by Alonzo Chappel, 1858 (public domain).

With early baseball and Town Ball being played within the newly-established United States (which also included the English game, Rounders), it isn’t too difficult to imagine young American boys embracing the game in the late 18th century in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York or Delaware, the home state of the Reuben James. History looks back on this man, who enlisted into the U.S. Navy aboard several ships, including the USS Constellation (one of the Navy’s first six frigates). Some readers may recall this sailor’s name as three American warships have carried his name in the 20th Century. The Navy chose to honor James for his service during the Barbary Wars while he was under the command of Stephen Decatur. The action that the young boatswain’s mate is honored for took place during a gunboat battle on August 3, 1804 and Decatur led a boarding party aboard the enemy vessel. The hand-to-hand combat that ensued was a bloody affair as sabers and edged weapons clashed. Decatur was engaged with an enemy sailor when James, seeing his commander about to receive a deadly blow from the Barbary sailor, heroically placed his own body in the way, allowing the blade to strike him and sparing the intended target. Decatur was spared and though the blade struck James, he would survive the battle, living into his 60s before passing away in Washington D.C. in 1838.

USS Reuben James (DD-245) on the Hudson River, New York (USA), on 29 April 1939 (U.S. Navy photo).

The first USS Reuben James (DD-245), a four-pipe Clemons Class destroyer, was commissioned 97 years ago on September 24, 1920. The Reuben James spent the majority of her career serving in the Atlantic Fleet. One of the most notable events of her service was as the USS Olympia‘s (Admiral Dewey’s Spanish American War flagship) escort in returning the Unknown Soldier home from France in March of 1921.  In 1939, Germany, having commenced with hostilities in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt having agreed to supporting the allies by supplying the British against the forces of the Third Reich. Reuben James had been engaged in protecting the supply ships in the early convoys from the Eastern Seaboard to England. On Halloween morning, 1939 while escorting Convoy HX-156, Reuben James was torpedoed by U-552.

A few years ago, while searching for vintage photographs depicting baseball in the armed forces, I found a pair of images that depicted a game being played in Europe in 1921, featuring sailors from the USS Reuben James (DD-245). These two images (one of the actual game and the other a posed team photo) bore handwritten inscriptions on the reverse of each.

A USS Rueben James (DD-245) batter at the plate and a catcher read to receive. The field is lined with sailors in their service dress blue uniforms. The inscription on the image reverse sates that the game was played in Pola, Italy (94 km SW of Venice) in 1921. — at Pola, Italy.

It was my hope that with the specific information contained within the inscriptions that I would be able to discover details of at least their port visit in Italy or to uncover operations in connection with the dates and service within the Mediterranean Sea. Considering the DD-245’s escort service with the USS Olympia in March of 1921, it is possible that this game was played prior to the James’ participation in the return of the Unknown Soldier to the United States.

In February of 1921, the USS Gilmer (DD-233), was undergoing emergency repairs to her starboard screw and shaft having suffered damage from an unseen, submerged object. Their ship in drydock in Pola, Italy, it seems that the crew could most-likely be available for a game against a team from a sister ship. However, according to the inscriptions on my photos, the game was held in Briolini which is nearly 400 kilometers away from where the Gilmer was being repaired. Given the timeline of both ships, it seems that the game would have been held between February and March of 1921.

This photo shows sailors from the USS Rueben James (DD-245) in their team baseball uniforms along with sailors in nondescript baseball uniforms as well as sailors in service dress whites.
The image caption mentions a game played against the USS Gilmer (DD-233) a sister ship of the Clemson class.
The game was played in Brioni, Italy (about 76km from Venice) with Rueben James downing the Gilmer, 27-14. — at Brioni, Italy.

If I am afforded the opportunity to access records within the National Archives, perhaps I can better document this game between these two ships.

 

 

 

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