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A Hidden Military Baseball Tragedy

Not all of the stories surrounding wartime baseball are happy or pleasant ones. I can imagine that many people have negative reactions to the notion that the game was played among active duty service men and women while folks on the front lines were advancing or defending the cause of freedom and the push against tyrants and their ilk. The very thought of a family member was engaged in a battle in either the European or Pacific Theaters while in another part of the world, service members, rather than supporting or backing up their loved one in the fight, were playing a game. A baseball game.

Many colleagues (in militaria collecting) pursue the painful reminders of the prices paid by service members and their surviving families by gathering such items as posthumous medals (including Purple Heart medals) and documentation. The very real suffering and the finality surrounding the death or disfigurement of a man who was struck down by enemy fire can persist for generations. I can image that a family member might have looked upon the games being played in these two combat theaters and domestically as being frivolous and wasteful. Even for Americans who were compelled to ration everything from food to electricity might have questioned the sensibility surrounding the armed forces’ expenditures in support of the game being played by military personnel, especially where team travel might have been involved during extremely restrictive gasoline rationing.

Ask any veteran – who attended a game and saw the service teams (with former professionals on the rosters) playing games for the purpose of providing an escape from the doldrums and tedium of combat –  their personal perspective. Ask a veteran who was combat wounded – and recovering and attended a game during their healing – how these games impacted their emotional state of mind at that time. Ask the veteran who was afforded a break from combat and invited to participate in a game what it meant to be there, if only for nine innings or escape. Ask those who played ball during their training and benefited from the physical exercise, coordination and accuracy that the game required during their transformation from civilians to soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors.

The game of baseball meant a great deal to those in the armed forces before the war and even more during their time in service. The game has been married to the armed forces since both were in their infancy with townball being played by Continental soldiers. Union troops played ball in the Civil War as both soldiers and captives and the game was taken with American fighting men to far off lands such as the Philippines, China, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America and the Caribbean before World War I.

As someone who loves history and strives to preserve both the artifacts and the history of the individuals that are connected to them, digging into the stories is an automatic activity that I have when I receive an addition to my collection. One of my additions – a photo of a nondescript US Army Air Forces baseball player posing on the diamond – has such a personal and sad story that brings together a few different perspectives of wartime experiences: active duty service, baseball and personal and family loss.

Though there is nothing within the image to give away the first baseman’s identity, team or location, I bought the type-1 photograph hoping to uncover hidden details.

Perhaps it is worth pursuing Mrs. Loiffler and the sergeant who sent her this photo of Bill Thomas at some point. I am satisfied in identifying Thomas and the details surrounding his life and the sad circumstances of his death.

It is no secret that I try to add wartime baseball photographs to my image archive and often times I will pursue something that merely catches my eye, not knowing that if there are any details or a story behind the subject. Often, the images lack anything that can help to shed light on the subject or provide facts to make solid determinations as to what is shown. Several photographs in my collection are merely preserved as unknown military baseball players or games and this image was purchased with that mindset. However when the image arrived, the story quickly changed.

On the back of the photo is a hand-written note from an airman to a woman regarding the ball player. The note indicates that the the subject of the image was deceased as the author made mention of the image being “in memory of a good buddy.”

“Dear Mrs. Maud Loiffler, Here is a picture of Bill I am sure you would like to have.

In memory of a good Buddy
Sgt. Jasper H. Shane”

In addition to the handwritten note is a stamp indicating that the photograph, a type-1 silver gelatin, was taken by a US Army Air Corps staff photographer at the airfield located in Victorville, California. A quick bit of research showed that the base located in this area was George Field (later renamed George Air Force Base) which was home to the Advanced Flying School for training for multi-engine pilots on trainers such as the Curtiss AT-9, T-6 Texan and AT-17 aircraft. The flight training would prepare aviators for service in C-47 Skytrain transports, B-25 Michell or B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In addition to training pilots, George Field was also home to one of the USAAF’s bombardier schools.  Besides the note and the official stamp, affixed to the back is a typed notation that reads:

WILLIAM EDWARD THOMAS

BORN DECEMBER 26, 1916
DECEASED MAY 23, 1943
U.S. AIRFORCE
VICTORVILLE, CA

Attached to the back of the photo, this plate provided great clues that ultimately helped to identify the player and to discover what took his life.

Searching for anyone with such a common name as William Thomas can be exhausting but when there are multiple details such as birth and death dates, narrowing the results is exceedingly simplified. One of the top results that surfaced was a link to a player profile page from, perhaps one of the two most helpful military baseball research sites (baseballinwartime.com and baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com) on the intranet. Aside from the confirmation of the dates of birth and death, the fact that the airman listed on the page was stationed at Victorville and played for the base’s team, the Victorville Bombers. Where this story took a bit of a turn was in the account(s) of his tragic end.

Victorville Bombers – 1943 (source: Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice)

  • 2/Lt. Harold B. Dobson (P)
  • Sgt. John A. Lowry
  • Sgt. William E. Thomas (1B)
  • Dougherty (P)
  • Stock (C)
  • Porter (P)
  • S/Sgt. Anson Gaston (C)
  • Charles Crum
  • Sgt. Gary Carbone (P)
  • Capt. Clifford Papik
  • Sgt. Edward Stelmach
  • Corp. Milton Ruyle

Sergeant William “Bill” E. Thomas’ profile provided two separate stories of the tragic event surrounding the former semi-pro ballplayer’s death and perhaps the reason for the official (read: cover-up) story may have been to soften the blow to his family (he was a newlywed) and to keep wartime baseball from being publicly scrutinized.  The official account detailed that the aircraft, a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan on which Thomas was embarked, collided with another AT-11 that was on a practice bombing run (training pilots and bombardiers) and inflicted heavy damage to his aircraft sending it plummeting to the ground near Silver Lake, California (in Los Angeles), approximately 90 miles southwest of George Field in Victorville. Losing a husband or a son is unfathomable but certainly a possibility during such a crisis as World War II was. Training losses were certainly not uncommon and were, perhaps even more difficult for surviving family members to stomach than a combat-related death. One can imagine that the actual events of May 23, 1943 would have been considerably more upsetting once the details were made public.

This WWII-era and restored Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan looks very much like the aircraft that crashed taking the lives of three Victorville Bombers players image source: YouTube/sniperjdp).

According to Gary Bedingfield‘s research, rather than a mid-air collision occurring during training, the two AT-11 aircraft hade departed George Field en route to  Las Vegas with the Victorville Bombers team embarked (which also included former semi-pro ball player Sgt. John A. Lowry and former minor leaguer 2nd LT. Hal Dobson) to play a baseball game. During the flight, the pilots of each plane were engaged in unsafe, playful close-in maneuvers that resulted in one of the planes crossing paths with the other leaving Thomas’ Kansan without a tail and utterly uncontrollable. Along with the three ballplayers, their pilot 2nd Lt. William S. Barnes perished when the aircraft crashed (the other plane landed safely). My inquisitiveness leaves me wondering why the aircraft were over Silver Lake when Las Vegas was 275 miles in the opposite direction (190 miles northeast of Victorville)?

Sergeant Thomas’ life was over at 26 years of age. He had only been married six months and had only served in the Army Air Force for just over a year. If he had dreams of playing professional baseball and having a family after the war, they ended in the horrible crash. Thomas’s remains were sent home to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was laid to rest at Saint Peter’s Cemetery.

Perhaps it is good for Military Baseball that the actual details about the collision of the George Field AT-11s didn’t reach the public as it could have been the cause for curtailing or cancelling what had been up to that point in the war a great boost to the morale of the armed forces. By the time of this crash, there had been 33 deaths suffered by former professional and semi-pro ball players 18 were accidents or non-combat-related) and yet the game continued in the service. Perhaps I am only guessing at the reason for the omission but the question remains unanswered.

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