A half century removed, World War II seems but a distant thunder, a storm dark and wild fading over memory's horizon. Several generations have come to maturity since that global nightmare ended with such a terrible bang, and yet it remains the pivotal event of the century, a catastrophe surpassing comprehension. It was also, according to many, "the last good war," a showdown between the forces of good and evil. One thing is certain: It changed all of our lives.
Even athletes, pampered and privileged characters in our sometimes cockeyed scheme of things, could not escape the consequences of that war. They, too, made the expected sacrifices; some, even the supreme sacrifice. In the four years after Pearl Harbor, many sports heroes had their lives disrupted and in more than a few instances, ruined.
On Jan. 16, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave baseball—and by implication, all major professional and amateur sports—a "green light" to continue for the duration of the war. Still, that did not exempt ballplayers from military service. In fact, the Detroit Tigers' Hank Greenberg, a star of the first magnitude, was drafted into the Army in May 1941, a full seven months before the Japanese attack of Dec. 7. Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller, just 23, enlisted in tin-Navy only three days after Pearl Harbor. In rapid succession the players were called, until finally, in 1944 and '45, big league baseball was played only by those too young, too old or too infirm for the military.
The war left baseball fans with a compendium of what-if statistics. If Feller had not missed nearly four seasons, he might well have won 350 games. Ted Williams, who was only 23 when he joined the Navy, missed three full years because of World War II and then most of two more seasons during the Korean War. What if he hadn't missed those five years? Joe DiMaggio, 28 when he went into the Army, was never the same player after the war. What if?
October 15, 1991
Baseball was not the only sport to have suffered from the war, only the most conspicuous. A total of 638 NFL employees served in the war, and 69 earned military decorations. Two of them, New York Giants end John Lummus and Detroit Lion end Maurice Britt, were awarded the congressional Medal of Honor. Lummus, killed leading a platoon on Iwo Jima, received his posthumously; Britt lost an arm fighting in Italy. Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan, survived two plane crashes during the war and credited his "football legs" with saving his life. But those legs were spent by the time he joined the Los Angeles Rams.
On the other hand, there might have been as many athletes who developed their skills in the military as there were those who lost them. For every Billy Conn, who was a postwar shadow of the light heavyweight champion he was before the war, there was a Rocky Marciano, who became heavyweight champion after learning to box in the Army.
At the time, of course, the big fight was out of the ring and away from the ballpark and the gridiron. It is only in retrospect that these stories gain poignance and meaning. And there were so many stories. Here, then, are five such tales from athletes whose careers were profoundly affected, for good or ill, by the war.
THE FORGOTTEN MAN
Cecil Travis lives on the farm a few miles south of Atlanta where he was born 78 years ago. His lather died on that farm at the age of 90. His grandfather was fatally wounded near there, on Kennesaw Mountain, while defending Atlanta from the inexorable advance of Sherman's legions. The Travises have lived in these parts since the Revolution, and they probably always will. The farm is down to a mere 65 acres now, from the 450 or more Travis grew up on, and he keeps only about 35 head of cattle on the land "just to give me something to do."
Cecil Travis is as lean and sinewy today as he was when he sprayed line drives for the Washington Senators before World War II. He was a star almost from the moment that he arrived in the big leagues, on May 16, 1933, a 19-year-old called up from Chattanooga to fill in at third base for the injured Ossie Bluege. He went 5 for 7 that day against Cleveland in Washington's Griffith Stadium. Sitting now in the living room of his farmhouse, he chuckles at the memory of this flashy beginning. "Look here," he says, extracting a yellowing issue of the New York Herald Tribune of May 17, 1933, from its plastic wrapping. "Fellow sent me this for my birthday [Aug. 8]. People send me stuff all the time now. Anyway, just look at this box score. Sure, I got five hits, but so did Joe Kuhel. Fact is, we got 27 hits and Cleveland got 16. Came went 12 innings before we won it 11-10."
Travis didn't stop hitting, though. In the nine seasons he played from '33 through 1941, most of them at shortstop, he hit for an average of .327. But he saved his best for what would be, for all practical purposes, his last. In the '41 season, when DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games and Williams averaged .406, Travis batted a cool .359, two percentage points higher than DiMag. Travis scored 106 runs and drove in 101, and his 218 hits led both leagues. But thanks to DiMaggio and Williams, Travis's 1941 season was one of the best that no one has ever heard about. Quietly, the Georgia farm boy was putting together a Mall of Fame career—before Pearl Harbor.
In January 1942, Travis's number came up at the Fayetteville, Ga., draft board. "I did get to play some ball after that at Camp Wheeler down near home and in Wisconsin, where they formed the 76th Infantry Division." The 76th was sent to the European theater in the summer of 1944. That winter, it arrived in Belgium, just after the Battle of the Bulge. The German Army was in retreat when Travis's unit arrived, but it was still mobile and dangerous. "We just followed in right behind the frontline troops. We were moving so fast taking all these towns that we just slept anywhere we could. And there were booby traps everywhere. But it was the cold that got to us. Why, we just shivered all night long. I'll never forget that cold as long as I live."
As the 76th moved on, Technical Sergeant Travis could barely keep up, he was limping so badly on frozen feet. Because two toes on his left foot were severely frostbitten, medics, fearing gangrene, ordered him to return to a hospital in Metz, France. "It was three weeks before I was able to rejoin my unit. By this time, I'd been in the service about as long as anybody. I'd been overseas for about nine months, and I knew my wife at home was pregnant and that maybe she'd already had the baby [she had, the second of their three sons], so I was anxious to get home, at least for a little while." The way to do that, he learned, was to volunteer to "go the other way"—to the Pacific—so, injured feet notwithstanding, he did. "Then, in August, while I was home on leave, waiting to go overseas, they dropped that thang on Japan, and the war was over."
Travis batted only .241 in the 15 games he was able to play in '45, hardly a disgrace for someone who was a few short months off the battlefield. But in 1946, playing full time, he hit just .252, and in '47, he sank to a humiliating .216 in 74 games as a utility in-fielder. No prewar star experienced such a precipitous decline. Travis had always been a popular player, even with umpires, one of whom, Bill McGowan, said of him, "He's the only ballplayer I ever felt sorry about calling out." So he was treated sympathetically. Newspapermen blamed his war injury, bin Travis steadfastly refused to make any excuses. "I just lost my timing, is all," he says today. "That, and I was getting a little older. All I know is that pitches I used to hit the fool out of were getting me out. I figured it was time to go back where I came from, the farm."
The Senators gave him a "night" on Aug. 15, 1947, a week after his 34th birthday. And Travis has been pretty much forgotten ever since. Not that it bothers him. "I never did care much for publicity, anyway. That was always the last of my concerns. And good gosh, after all that happened in those war years, things didn't turn out so bad now, did they? After all, I'm alive."
TODAY IT'S YOU
Angelo (Hank) Luisetti was considered the best basketball player of all time when he enlisted in the Navy after the 1941-42 AAU season. He had been an All-America at Stanford in '36, '37 and '38, the collegiate alltime scoring leader and the bolder of the single-game record of 50 points, scored against Duquesne in January 1938. Mere statistics were no measure of his brilliance, though. He was a revolutionary, the game's first modern player. He shot on the run with one hand, at a time when everyone else was taking the orthodox two-hand set shot. He could fire be-hind-the-back passes, fake while soaring in defiance of gravity, and play any position on defense. And he was such an unselfish player that his teammates had to plead with him to take shots.
Luisetti played AAU basketball after college and was the leading scorer of the 1941 national tournament at a time when AAU ball was the best there was. In 1942 he held an executive's job in Oklahoma with the Phillips Petroleum Company for which he also played basketball. As a father—he and his wife, Jane, had a young daughter—Luisetti was eligible for a draft deferment. Still, be enlisted. His explanation was simple: "My father came to San Francisco from Italy just after the 1906 earthquake. He was a very quiet man, and he worked in restaurants from six in the morning until 10 at night. He was grateful for the opportunities this country gave him. When I was growing up he told me, 'This country's been good to us. If you get the chance, do something in return.' "
Luisetti was assigned as a physical-training officer to the Navy preflight program at St. Mary's College in Moraga, across the Bay from his home in San Francisco. He played two seasons of service basketball there, sparking his team to an undefeated 1943-44 season. He was also the officer in charge of one of the crowded barracks on campus. One day in the fall of 1943, a cadet fell desperately ill in the barracks, vomiting and shivering helplessly. While the boy was taken to the infirmary, Luisetti gathered up his personal belongings. It was a duty that would have fateful consequences.
Luisetti left St. Mary's, first for Memphis and then for the Norfolk (Va.) Naval Base, where he prepared for overseas duty aboard the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard. On a cold November night in 1911, he was going to join some fellow officers for a movie when, on the drive to the theater, he complained of dizziness and nausea. He was barely conscious when he told the driver, "You'd better take me to the dispensary." When he got there, he recalls, "I remember somebody saying, 'He's got spots all over this body.' And that's the last thing I remembered until I woke up 10 days later. They had strapped me down because I'd been thrashing around so violently."
He had spinal meningitis, a disease ordinarily fatal before the introduction of sulfa drugs in the '30s. It was the same disease, he would later learn, that had afflicted the cadet whose effects he had gathered back in St. Mary's nearly a year earlier. Doctors believed he had been carrying the meningitis bacteria since then. Luisetti spent four months in the hospital. His weight dropped from 185 to 140, and he suffered from agonizing headaches. His ship sailed without him to the Pacific.
In the months it took him to recover from his illness, a new pro basketball league was being organized for postwar play. Luisetti received one offer for the then princely sum of $10,000. But even as he got better, doctors told him categorically that he could never play again.
And he never did. He did coach the Stewart Chevrolet team of San Francisco to the AAU championship in 1951, but he had little taste for that side of the game. He quit basketball for good to work in the travel business, retiring nine years ago. Now 75 and a widower for nearly 20 years, he lives quietly in his hillside home in Burlin-game on the San Francisco peninsula. He is still, however, a legend at Stanford, where a huge bronze statue of him—shooting with one hand—stands in the Maples Pavilion on campus.
A small replica of that statue holds a prominent place in his own home. On a warm summer day, he hefts it in one large hand and, smiling, seems to address it. "My father told me something else when I was growing up," he tells his sculpted self. " 'Today,' he said, 'it's you. Tomorrow, it's somebody else.' "
When Mal Whitfield was almost eight years old, he sneaked into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and watched, between the legs of an adult spectator, the finals of the 100 meters in the 1932 Olympic Games. "I saw little Eddie Tolan win over big Ralph Metcalfe, and I said to myself right then, 'If he can do it, so can I.' From that moment on, I knew I wanted to run in the Olympic Games." He had set his course, but for him there would be a few detours.
Orphaned when he was 12, Mai was raised by his older sister, Betty. After a brilliant track career at Thomas Jefferson High School in L.A., Mai had visions of following another Olympic hero, Jesse Owens, to Ohio State. But not long after his graduation from Jefferson in June 1943, he received "an unpleasant surprise from old Uncle Sam." He had been drafted. Eventually, Whitfield was sent to Lockbourne Army Air Base outside Columbus, Ohio, to await shipment overseas with the all-black 477th Bomber Group, commanded by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis. "Here I was al Ohio State," he says, "where I wanted to be. But there was no thought then of track. There was just one thought in our minds: kill or be killed."
He was spared that gruesome alternative because while he waited at Lockbourne to get into it, the war ended. Soon he was running again, winning service championships and, in a local meet, "kicking the socks off" the Ohio State track team. Buckeye coach Larry Snyder was so taken with the long-striding airman that he boldly suggested to Colonel Davis that Whitfield be permitted to pursue a dual career as a student-athlete and a sergeant in the newly created Air Force. Davis, who would become the first black general in the Air Force, agreed.
So in the fall of 1946, Whitfield, then nearly 22, enrolled as an OSU freshman. His Herculean daily regimen, which combined his duties as an undergraduate, a runner and a gunnery sergeant, left him with very little sleep—he woke up at 5 a.m. and bedded down at 12:30 a.m. Somehow, Whitfield was able to find the time and the energy to train for the Olympics.
In 1948 Staff Sergeant Whitfield became an Olympic champion, winning the 800 meters in London with a Games record time of 1:49.2. He won another gold medal as anchor of the U.S. 1,600-meter-relay team and a bronze in the 400. He had gone from obscurity to international renown in little more than a year.
He was also still on active duty, and when the North Korean army invaded South Korea in June 1950, his unit was one of the first to be sent overseas. He flew 27 bombing missions to Korea from his base in southern Japan, and at night, already exhausted, be ran up and down the icy air strips, a .45-caliber automatic strapped to his side. Whitfield's indomitable resolve was cruelly tested in those winter months. He had missed one war only to find another. Still, he wanted another gold medal.
He did not reenlist a second time. "I didn't want any more of war. I bad seen too many of my comrades shot out of the air. I came to the conclusion I was a peace-loving man." He competed as a civilian in the '52 Olympics at Helsinki and once again won the 800. And be anchored the 1,600-meter team to a silver medal.
Whitfield worked as a sports ambassador for the United States Information Agency (USIA) for 35 years, much of the time in the emerging nations of Africa. He retired in 1989 and then formed the Mai Whitfield Foundation, which continues the work he started with the USIA. At 67 he is a trim and hyperactive man of the world, traveling constantly, either from his house in Los Angeles or his apartment in Washington, D.C.
World War II set Whitfield only momentarily off his course in life. But ultimately, the military helped him fulfill his vision. He is one of the fortunate ones, and he knows it. "I have had a chance to see what the world is like," he says. "Oh, I may have had to take a detour or two in my life, but I can honestly say that somehow I've achieved everything I started out to do."
THE FLYING DUTCHMAN
There is no Olympic gold in the Fresno, Calif., home of Cornelius Warmerdam, no clippings of Olympic triumphs in the scrapbooks he keeps there. But make' no mistake, Warmerdam was a great champion; it's just that the war stole from him the sort of immortality that comes only in the Olympic Games for a track and Held athlete. On the other and, he lived through it, and for that lie is eternally grateful.
In the history of the event, no one, not even the Soviet champion, Sergei Bubka, has ever dominated the pole vault the way the California farm boy they called the Flying Dutchman did in the first four years of the '40s. Warmerdam was the first vaulter to clear a height. 15 feet, that was considered at one time to be beyond reach. Competing for the San Francisco Olympic Club, the "O," on April 13, 1940, in a three-way meet with Washington State and host California in Berkeley, Warmerdam, using a bamboo pole, almost casually surpassed that barrier on his second try. WINGED 'O' ACE DOES nit-IMPOSSIBLE, the headline read in the next day's San Francisco Examiner. A newspaper cartoon of the time showed a military pilot addressing his commanding officer: "I wish you'd speak to Warmerdam, sir. He insists he doesn't need an airplane."
Overnight, this modest high school teacher from the San Joaquin Valley became famous, even as the war was raging. Afterward 13 feet became merely routine for him, and for him only. In fact, it was not until 1951 that another vaulter, the Reverend Robert Richards, made 15 feet, and Rich-aids was then using the new, more flexible aluminum pole. Warmer-dam's bamboo had all the elasticity of a Doric column, and no one else ever did If) feet with it. "He was.'' Richards once said, "part splinter, part shock-absorber, part acrobat and part strongman. He wasn't human."
He seems human enough today, a sandy-haired man, still slim and fit at age 76. In retirement after 33 years as a track coach at Fresno State, he golfs and walks for exercise. Past frustrations are forgotten, but the facts remain that Warmerdam, like Whitfield, had dreamed of becoming an Olympic champion and that, unlike Whitfield, he never did get that chance. For once in his life, his timing was off. In HMO and '44, there were no Olympics.
Early in 1943, while Warmerdam was teaching across the Bay from San Francisco, he enlisted in the Navy. I le was assigned duty initially as a physical-training officer and was urged to continue vaulting "for recruiting purposes." He obliged, winning the last two of his six AAU championships. But by 1944, he was the lire-and damage-control officer aboard the escort carrier Matanikau, and his vaulting was abruptly terminated. In the summer of '45 the Matanikau was dispatched to join in the invasion of Japan, and as the ship steamed slowly across the Pacific, Warmerdam and his fellow officers grew more and more apprehensive. They played basketball on the sun-baked flight deck to pass the time, knowing lull well that their ship, slow and vulnerable, would be in the thick of it. "I saw us," says Warmerdam, "as a sitting duck." They were near the Marshall Islands when word reached them that atomic bombs had hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs, Warmerdam is still convinced, saved his life.
His career as a pole vaulter, however, was finished. He was a veteran now, with a family to support, so in 1947, he accepted a coaching job at his alma mater, making him, according to Olympic rules, a professional. Actually, he was still the best vaulter in the world at the time of the '48 Games. "Just fooling around" with the team he was now coaching. Warmerdam easily climbed higher than any of the Olympic team vaulters.
He did, however, compete again. In 1975, he set a new record of 4,328 points in winning the national decathlon championships for competitors 60 years of age and over. "The pole vault," he says, blue eyes glistening, "was my worst event. I'd been doing 12'6" in practice, but couldn't do any better than 11'4" in the meet. I was using a fiberglass pole."
In 1942, Bob Chappuis was a sophomore backup tailback for the University of Michigan in the single-wing offense of coach Fritz Crisler. But Chappuis played in place of the injured first-stringer, Tom Kuzma, in a stunning 9-0 upset of a Great Lakes Naval Training Center team and passed for the only TD of the game. Crisler was soon entertaining visions of a new, razzle-dazzle offense spearheaded by Chappuis. who could throw as well as he could run.
The grand scheme had to be put on hold, however, because Chappuis's campus Army reserve unit was called to active duty in January 1943. After training as a radioman and an aerial gunner, he was sent to the Italian theater as part of a B-25 bomber crew flying off the island of Corsica. On Feb. 13, 1945, Chappuis agreed to fill in for another gunner on a flight over the Po Valley. It was Chappuis's 21st mission, one he-would never complete. Flak from antiaircraft guns knocked out both of the B-25's engines, and the crew had to bail out behind enemy lines.
Chappuis hit the ground just 20 yards from the plane's top turret gunner, Jack Long. Together, they bundled their parachutes and scurried for cover in an olive grove irrigation ditch. They were crouched there, breathing hard, fugitives now with no apparent means of escape, when a young bicyclist stopped nearby. "He came over to us and gave us a thumbs-up sign." Chappuis recalls. They correctly interpreted this as a friendly gesture. Not that they had many options. "We had to trust him because we knew that the Germans were prowling around looking for us."
The cyclist escorted them to a nearby farmhouse, where they dined on noodles and pig's liver and were joined by another member of the (alien crew, tail gunner Art Kropp. There they also met the Italian partisan leader Aldo Comucci. The same age as the Americans, he would be their guide and protector for the next three months. Comucci settled them in a pink stucco house at number 30 Via Torressano, which was the home of the Ugolini family, in the village of Asola. Two doors down the street, at number 35, was the local headquarters of the German army.
Despite this unnerving proximity to the enemy, the Ugolini residence had its virtues as a hideout. Mama Ugolini (Chappuis never did learn her first name) and her two daughters, Gina and Wally, were seamstresses, so there was a diverting daily flow of traffic in and out of the house, the perfect cover for the comings and goings of Comucci and his partisans. And Papa Ugolini ran a local market, so food was plentiful.
Nevertheless, the airmen were obliged to remain in one upstairs bedroom and to sleep, miserably, side by side on two tiny beds pushed together. Even in such precarious circumstances, boredom weighed heavily on them. Their room became both a refuge and a prison. The war, for all they knew, could last for years more. "We got a little antsy," says Chappuis.
The ordeal of confinement was relieved only once, on Easter night, when, dressed as peasants except for their GI shoes, the three were taken by the Ugolinis for a walk in the village. There, in ill-fitting clothes and telltale footwear, they walked the narrow, cobbled streets for an hour as Mama Ugolini sustained a diversionary "line of chattel." Whenever a German would pass, says Chappuis, "she would grab my arm and affectionately call me 'Roberto,' as if I were a member of the family."
There would be an even more Suspenseful moment later on. One night when the three were being served dinner, daughter Gina's boyfriend, a local fascist, dropped by unannounced and spotted them in the upstairs room. "He asked Gina, 'Who are these men?' And she told him the truth. He told her he had no choice but to turn us in. Then she said, 'Go ahead. They will be taken prisoner, but my family and I will be shot. Go ahead.' He did not turn us in. But after that, I don't think I've ever wanted a relationship to succeed more than that one."
One night in May, Comucci burst into the Ugolini house to announce, "The town is ours!" With the Allied armies only a few miles away, the armed partisans had driven the Germans from the village, "We will dance all night!" Comucci shouted. And so they did. "Suddenly," says Chappuis, "we were heroes. Until that night, there were only about seven people in the whole town who knew we were hiding there. They had me raise the American flag from the church steeple."
Chappuis got word at last to his family in Toledo that he was alive. He was back on the Michigan campus for the fall semester of 1946, but he was not at all certain he wanted to play any more football. He had scarcely exercised at all in the nearly three months of his confinement. He was just beginning to gain back the 20 pounds he had lost. The returning war veterans had swelled the list of varsity candidates to 125. He didn't see a place for him in such a throng. But he went out anyway.
Good thing. In 1946 he broke the Big Nine record for total offense, running and passing for 1,039 yards in eight conference games in Crisler's "multiple offense." In "47, he led Michigan to one of its greatest seasons, an undefeated one in which they outscored their opponents 345-53. In the Rose Bowl the Wolverines crushed USC 49-0 as Chappuis set records with 279 yards total offense and 14 pass completions.
He was a consensus All-America selection that year, and he finished a close second to Notre Dame's Johnny Lujack in the Heisman Trophy voting. For his career at Michigan, he gained a total of 3,517 yards (2,256 passing, 1,261 rushing) to surpass Tom Harmon's school record of 3,438. After two years in the old All-America Conference, Chappuis quit pro football to enter business. He retired in 1982 as vice-president for labor relations for the Central Soya Company in Fort Wayne, Ind., and then ran his own consulting business in Fort Wayne for six more years before retiring for good. He corresponded with the Ugolini family for years and still maintains a close friendship with Aldo Comucci. It is a friendship, he says, for life.
He is 68 now, white-haired and a bit heavier than the Wolverines' sleek 184-pound tailback, but he has an inexhaustible reserve of energy and good humor, lie knows better than most that so much of life is simple luck. "I often reflect back on what happened to me in the war," he says, relaxing over coffee on the veranda of the Fort Wayne Country Club. "And I know for sure that I would never ever want to go through that again. But I'll tell you one thing." He leans forward. "It was such a great, great experience."