A Grand War Story Leads to a Chance at a Career in Baseball
By 1943, many minor league rosters had been raided by the major league clubs as they searched for talent to backfill vacancies as players were called into or volunteered for wartime service in the armed forces. As the major leagues struggled to field competitive teams, the minor leagues that they drew from struggled for their survival. In the lower-level minors such as the C and D classes, teams and leagues either suspended operations or disbanded permanently as players were pulled and the talent pool was greatly diminished due to the priority of service in the armed forces.
It was not uncommon to see a minor league team with players with ages well into their 40s and in some instances it wasn’t out of the question to find a ballplayer over the age of 50. Lefty George, who first saw major league action with the St. Louis Browns in 1911, suiting up with Burt Shotton and Hall of Fame infielder Bobby Wallace and with Nap Lajoie and Shoeless Joe Jackson the following year in Cleveland, pitched 100 innings in 21 games for the 1943 York (Pennsylvania) White Roses of the class “B” Interstate League. At 56 years of age, George was 15 years older than his 41-year-old player-manager, John Griffiths. Joining the near-elderly on the roster was a 43-year-old pitcher, German-born Dutch Schesler, who saw major league action with the Phillies in 1931.
During World War II, newsreels, radio and newspapers were dominated with combat action details and casualty reports. Nineteen forty-two had been a considerably challenging year as the Allies struggled for progress against the Axis forces. Despite the achievements of Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raid and victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway, the losses of men were still mounting. Blue star flags were being replaced by gold stars as parents, wives and children learned of their loved ones’ deaths. The American public was hungry for good news and the press certainly helped to deliver it, even within the professional ranks of baseball.
Lieutenant Robert D. Gibson, a 23-year-old former school teacher at St. Louis, Missouri’s Hancock High School, received the Navy’s second-highest valor decoration, the Navy Cross, for his gallantry while attacking and sinking a Japanese submarine in the Southwest Pacific, according to the St. Louis Dispatch, March 30, 1943. Lieutenant Gibson, in letters to his uncle and brother, “told of sinking a Japanese submarine while on a bombing mission.” The article continued, “He wrote that he sighted it while it was surfaced and dived on it, getting one near miss that apparently disabled it to the extent that it could not submerge,” the article continued. “He kept bombing and strafing its decks until it sank.” The story, though interesting and seemingly detailed, differed tremendously from the aerial combat description in Gibson’s Navy Cross citation. Instead of the Japanese submarine, Gibson attacked a well-armed Nachi-class heavy cruiser and several transports scoring direct hits on the cruiser and on a transport as well as shooting down one enemy fighter and striking a second one. One can only hazard a guess that for reasons of operational security, Gibson’s story differed from the actual events.
The following year, LT Gibson was assigned to the Naval Aviation School at Corpus Christi and found his way onto the Naval Air Auxiliary Station Waldron Field baseball team along with former Philadelphia Athletics outfielder and fellow instructor Sam Chapman (see: A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator Part I and Part II).
LT Gibson’s story of naval aviation heroism was not the only one to reach the nation’s newspapers during the war. While conducting an unrelated search, we stumbled upon another naval aviator whose wartime actions were simply awe-inspiring. Appearing on the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, the story of Lieutenant Junior Grade Donald Lynn Patrick’s heroism was the sort of account that would cause Hollywood screenwriters to openly weep. The published account that appeared in the Friday, May 21, 1943 edition of The York Dispatch, titled “War Hero on Pitching Staff of York Club”, not only spotlighted Patrick’s aerial achievements but detailed his harrowing ordeal of survival when his ship, the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7), was in her death throes as she sank following a Japanese attack. There was hunger for good news amid the disaster which befell a capital warship. The story was certainly uplifting and one that reporters no doubt were nearly starving to hear. “He tells it as though it was something anybody could do every day,” the article stated. “It seems that a bomb explosion had spilled gasoline over the flight deck. There was a fire and about 250 men were trapped below,” the paper detailed. “If they were to escape with their lives, Patrick and a Lieutenant Patterson did the trick. It was that easy.” Staunton, Virginia’s The News Leader published on June 1, 1943 that Patrick, “had rushed down to the stricken ship’s fourth deck and released a hatch locked from the outside.” The trapped sailors, “were loading bombs” at the time. Patrick’s heroism saved the lives of 250 men as the USS Wasp was aflame and sinking on September 15 in the Coral Sea. Patrick’s home at sea, the vessel from and upon which he flew his Curtiss dive bomber, had been blasted by three torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-19 under the command of Commander Takakazu Kinashi.
A week after the ordeal, Patrick awoke to find himself in a hospital in Sydney, Australia, with no recollection of the circumstances that took him from the ship and brought him to his bed, nor was he aware of what led to the disabling head wound that led to his discharge. In his hospital bed, “he learned that the torpedo had hit the ship’s ammunition magazine. He was only 60 feet away from the explosion that blew him against a gun turret.” The York Dispatch article states that he sustained a skull fracture when the back of his head impacted the gun turret. Through speculation and supposition, Patrick believed that he had either been thrown into the sea by shipmates or had somehow managed to semi-consciously crawl over the side to escape the sinking carrier. Despite learning the details of how he sustained his head wound, he had no recollection from that point forward.
After LT(jg) Patrick spent a month recovering in Sydney, he was transported back to the States and was given his discharge from the Navy. Word of Patrick’s heroic actions reached the commander-in-chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, who met the 23-year-old aviator in San Diego in December, 1942 to present him with his well-deserved Navy Cross Medal as the wounded veteran was in the process of being discharged.
Patrick was born on November 13, 1920 in Cedarville, a small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Patrick family, according to the York Dispatch, relocated to Detroit, where Donald graduated from Southeast High School. He excelled in basketball, track and baseball and following graduation, he carried his athletic talents to the next level at the University of Detroit.
Apparently, Patrick’s diamond prowess caught the attention of Detroit Tigers general manager Jack Zeller, who, according the York Dispatch, contacted the young college graduate. Patrick was, “overjoyed when Jack Zellers (sic) of the Tigers told him he could report to spring training camp ‘for a look.’” However, fate disrupted Patrick’s baseball plans just weeks later. Answering his nation’s call, the college graduate enlisted into the U. S. Navy thirteen days following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Fate would thrust Patrick into some of the most challenging events of World War II. “Thirteen days after he finished his training,” the York Dispatch reported, “he was in Russia, having helped convoy some ships there. Outside of seeing a few subs, there was little excitement in the Atlantic.” Patrick’s lack of excitement in the Atlantic was decidedly surpassed once the Wasp transferred to the Pacific theater of operations.
As with LT Robert Gibson’s aerial combat, LT(jg) Patrick carried the fight to the enemy as he, like millions of Americans, sought retribution for the Pearl Harbor attack. Despite his comments regarding the lack of excitement, Patrick, according to several news sources, was credited with sinking a submarine during the Atlantic crossing in mid-January of 1942. Patrick told the Daily Press of Escanaba, Michigan, “If I could throw like I once dropped bombs or fired a machine gun, I’d be rolling right along in this game.” He made this comment as his professional baseball career was getting started (Hero of Wasp Tries Baseball: Donald Patrick Pitching for York Team in Class C League, June 1, 1943).
By the spring of 1943, now a civilian, Donald Patrick was working towards his major league career goal in the minor leagues. Still suffering from the effects of his war wounds, the young hero was hopeful that he could parlay his dive bomber training into becoming an effective pitcher. He was working to eliminate his wildness on the pitching mound. While in the seat of a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, Patrick’s aerial effectiveness was noteworthy. According to Wilmington, Delaware’s The News Journal, LT(jg) Donald Patrick was “credited with shooting down three Zeros” while fighting in the Pacific. During another mission, when faced with five-to-one odds, Patrick recalled seeing “the Japs machine-gun American fliers who had to bail out,” prompting him to take evasive action. “He scrammed out of there (the cluster of five enemy aircraft),” the York Dispatch relayed. “The Yanks will take them on in twos and threes but not in the half-dozens. Anyway, he was short of gas and ammunition,” in his heavy dive-bomber.
When recalling service memories, most veterans refer to the moments that bring a smile. Donald Patrick relayed his story of connecting with his cousin at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, “on the day the Marines took it from the Nips.” The York Dispatch continued, “The planes from the carrier had gone out for several hours to soften up the enemy. Later, some of them landed on the field, and who should he run into but his cousin” who had enlisted with him the previous December.
LTjg Patrick’s wartime service was nothing short of incredible and it was clear that this man was, by all accounts, a war hero deserving of recognition. His exploits in battle defied the odds as he rose to meet the challenges of each circumstance he faced. After his discharge from the Navy and following additional recovery time, Patrick recalled the spring training invitation from the Tigers’ general manager, Jack Zeller, and hoped to pick up where he left off before the war. Patrick spent several weeks at Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana, working out with the Tigers club. Clearly in need of seasoning, the Tigers shipped him off to the Buffalo Bisons of the class “AA” International League, according the York Dispatch.
After finding a listing for a vintage type-1 photograph of Patrick that was captured in May of 1943, showing the pitcher posed in his York White Roses pinstriped flannels, we secured the item and launched into our investigation of his story by first checking Baseball Reference. Patrick’s profile, though absent many personal details, showed the pitcher with the club. His record, though brief, was what one would expect for a player beginning his baseball career with more than a year away from the game and dealing with the residual effects of being wounded and his ship sinking beneath him. Appearing in 13 innings in four games, Patrick’s win-loss record was 1-2 with one complete game. He had six strikeouts but his wildness was apparent with seven walks. He surrendered 18 hits and 14 runs, showing that he had a lot of work ahead of him if he wanted to advance through the professional ranks. Something didn’t quite add up regarding his progression from the Detroit spring training camp to landing at York. Turning to the Sporting News Baseball Player Contract Cards Collection, we were able to validate some aspects of his reported career.
The York Dispatch article states Patrick was shipped to Detroit’s AA-minor league club in Buffalo but there is no record that reflects this transaction. Instead, his contract card shows him with the Detroit Tigers class “B” affiliate Hagerstown Owls of the Interstate League, but he never entered a game before he was released in May. Shortly after his release, the York club, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, signed the pitcher. After his limited appearances with the White Roses, he was once again released in June. Patrick’s last chance in the game was with the Hornell Maples, the Pirates’ class “D” affiliate in the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League. Without taking the mound for Hornell, Patrick was released shortly after being assigned to the club, bringing an end to his very brief professional baseball career.
With no further baseball details to chase down, we turned to Patrick’s naval career, seeking details of his heroism. Our trail began to hit dead ends immediately as we sought the citation for the Navy Cross medal. Searching the most comprehensive database of U.S. Armed Forces valor medals, we were unable to locate any records pertaining to Patrick’s Navy Cross medal. In addition, we searched the Defense Department’s published list of WWII Navy Cross medal recipients and had the same result. Turning to Ancestry’s enormous databases, we were able to secure more details surrounding Patrick’s service but were left with even more questions.
Reviewing artifacts such as the Veterans Administration’s Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) file, researchers are able to obtain verified service data that includes the dates of service along with dates of birth and death. The files are created in response to the beneficiary’s reporting of death to the VA. Other valuable information is obtained through Selective Service Registration (draft) cards, enlistment records (for Army veterans) and muster sheets (Navy and Marine Corps). Ancestry has made incredible strides in digitizing hundreds of millions of these public records, though they are still quite incomplete due to the sheer enormity of the project.
Our searches within Ancestry yielded Patrick’s draft card, BIRLS file muster sheet and a link to his Findagrave.com memorial page. The memorial page included a photograph of Patrick along with one of his VA-provided grave marker and his obituary text. Analyzing each piece of information and overlaying them with historic timelines, we started to see inconsistencies with Patrick’s published newspaper accounts. Also inconsistent with the historic timelines and the official records was Patrick’s obituary narrative. In our efforts for due diligence and the desire to validate Patrick’s story, we laid out a timeline of the available facts.
When investigating a veteran’s service, one of the first pieces that we review is the draft card as it typically precedes his entry into the armed forces. Our veteran’s draft card was dated September 16, 1942 and signed by both the registrar and 21-year-old Patrick in Mackinac, Michigan. Donald Lynn Patrick was born on November 13, 1920 in Cedarville, Michigan. At the time of his draft registration, he filled in “unemployed” for his employer’s name and address and wrote that he resided in Cedarville at that time.
Navy muster sheets provide details such as unit assignments, service number, rating and rank, dates of reporting, disciplinary actions, training assignments, promotion, dates of entry into the Navy, dates of reporting to the command and dates of transfer. Muster sheets were used as an administrative accounting for each person assigned to the unit. Only four muster sheets that reveal Patrick’s naval career are presently digitized and indexed. The January 14, 1942 sheet from USS Wasp (CV-7) confirmed a few of our subject’s published accounts. Donald Lynn Patrick, service number 622-19-69, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on December 15, 1941 in Detroit, Michigan. He was received onboard the USS Wasp on January 11, 1942 from U.S. Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Illinois, and was listed as an Apprentice Seaman, V2 (V2 indicated that he was assigned to the Navy’s aviation branch). According to the January 31, 1942 USS Wasp muster sheet, Apprentice Seaman Patrick was reassigned to Scouting Squadron 72 (VS-72 was a Vought SB2U-2 Vindicator patrol squadron aboard the Wasp) on January 16, 1942. According to the Navy, Donald Patrick not only was not a commissioned officer, he was also not an aviator.
The information contained within the muster sheets may prompt readers to counter the facts with the idea that he could have received an acting assignment or “battlefield commission” that promoted him. While that is certainly a possibility, Patrick’s timeline does not accommodate another aspect of his story, which is the absence of the required 18 months of flight training.
Patrick’s VA BIRLS file confirms his date of entry (12/15/1941) and shows that he was discharged on August 31, 1942, which reflects a duration of 8 months, 17 days or a mere 260 days. When we factor in that he was in Mackinac, Michigan, on September 16 (17 days after being released from the Navy) to sign his draft card, we have two official records that cast significant doubt on the newspaper account.
According to the national newspaper accounts, Lt(jg) Patrick was aboard the Wasp for its North Atlantic convoy service. According to the muster sheets, Patrick was aboard in January and was assigned to Scouting-72 but that is the extent of the facts that we have available. However, what we do know is that the Wasp served in the Atlantic Fleet and participated in two Malta convoys that delivered British Spitfires to the region. As the Battle of the Coral Sea was taking place in the Pacific, the Wasp was headed to Norfolk. With news of the loss of the carrier USS Lexington and the heavy damage sustained by USS Yorktown, the Pacific Fleet was in need of more airpower and another carrier. Wasp was hastily refit and dispatched to the Pacific, departing Norfolk on June 6 as the Battle of Midway was taking place in the Pacific Theater.
By early July, USS Wasp was headed for the Solomon Islands in company with the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise. After arriving in the South Pacific area in the vicinity of Guadalcanal and following several pre-invasion exercises. Wasp aircraft participated in the pre-invasion bombardment of Guadalcanal on the morning of August 7, 1942, ahead of the First Marine Division’s landings.
With Patrick’s BIRLS record reflecting his August 31 discharge date, he would have been detached from the ship with enough time to have been transported back to the United States as service separations did not happen overseas in a combat theater. Two weeks after Donald Lynn Patrick was discharged from the Navy, the USS Wasp was torpedoed and sank, making impossible the heroic actions for which he was alleged to have been recognized with the Navy’s second highest medal for valor.
The only way to validate Patrick’s service claims is to obtain his Official Military Personnel File (OPMF) from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC); however, such a request will take 2.5-5 years to fulfill due to the 12-month virus shutdown and the 25-percent skeleton staff. With a backlog of requests that was nearly 24 months heading into the closure, the additional request submissions have piled on multiple years of waiting time. Unfortunately, we are left to interpret the available data and speculate as to the incongruence between Patrick’s narrative and the publicly available records.
Also up for speculation is the reason that he was released by the York White Roses and the Hornell Maples. His York manager, John “Bunny” Griffiths, said that Patrick was as “cool as a cucumber” while on the mound. In a game against the Lancaster Red Roses, Patrick was “a bit unsteady in the first (inning), allowing two runs,” the York Dispatch disclosed. “As the game continued, Patrick “settled down and did not permit another score until the ninth.” For a team that was in need of talent and that rostered a 56-year-old pitcher, Lefty George, cutting loose a young, developing hurler seemed to make no sense. Why was Patrick abruptly released? We were unable to source any details to answer our questions.
We concede that obituaries are often inaccurate as grieving family members struggle to write a brief narrative and often mistakes and inaccuracies are included. In Patrick’s obit, he was listed as playing for the Detroit Tigers from 1939 to 1940 when he enlisted into the Navy and sadly, this information is quite a stretch from the facts. No mention was made of serving as an officer, naval aviator or of heroics and decorations, which is more in line with our research findings. His grave marker merely indicates that he served in the Navy during World War II.
We can only speculate as to reasons why Donald Lynn Patrick was reported by the media to be a hero. Rather than speculating too deeply on the circumstances that led to the widespread distribution of the grossly inaccurate story, instead we remain focused upon the discoverable facts. At a time when Patrick was working to gain a foothold with his baseball career, the outcome of the war was still in doubt. After seven long months, enemy resistance on Guadalcanal ceased. Japanese air and naval forces were routed in the early March Battle of the Bismarck Sea and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s aircraft was intercepted and shot down on April 18, 1943, killing the perpetrator of the Pearl Harbor attack. Hungry for a scoop, writers at the York Dispatch may have embellished the veteran’s story as Patrick worked out for his new team.
Though eight months had passed since the ship was lost, perhaps in discussing with the press that he had served on the Wasp, the (fantastic) story began to take flight. It could be that the narrative evolved from Patrick being assigned to Scouting Squadron 72 and developed into something that was beyond his control. While seeking to focus on building his baseball career, Patrick was ill prepared in managing his interactions with the media and could not gain control to steer the story back towards reality. It would have been regrettable if Donald Patrick had knowingly perpetrated the false narrative as it would have brought about a rapid end to his professional baseball career.
It is very common for veterans not to dwell on the past, especially in reflecting upon service during wartime. For children of World War II veterans, questioning their fathers about their time in uniform is often met with conspicuous silence if not evasion as the men seldom reflect upon such difficult subject matter, especially not in the presence of their families. Donald Patrick was no different. Patrick’s son Robert Patrick of Cedarville, Michigan, told us during a recent phone call that his father did not speak about his naval service at all. Donald merely mentioned that he played baseball for the Tigers but without any specificity. The only detail that Robert could recall his father discussing was that following his discharge from the Navy, he mentioned that he was eligible to collect a disability benefit. When Donald discussed the disability payment with his father, Curtis Patrick, “his father asked him if he needed it,” Robert recounted during our brief conversation. Robert continued, “But years later, he did need the disability (benefit) and got it.”
With wartime enlistments lasting the duration of the war, separations ahead of that time were typically due to medical disability or poor conduct. In light of the absence of official documentation to address the question of the characterization of his separation, we can only surmise that Donald Lynn Patrick received a wartime discharge from the Navy as the result of a physical injury that he sustained while serving. Patrick did recover enough to make a brief attempt to pursue a career in baseball for parts of May and June of 1943.
With a subsequent request to the NPRC, we hope to give this veteran his due as well as to focus more attention on researching Patrick’s brief baseball career as records become available in the future.