My grandfather fought in WWII on Guadalcanal, won a Silver Star, Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, and enough decorations to smelt down and make a spittoon. He wasn’t the only one of his, or other generations to serve their country in time of war.
Even professional athletes, those who have been accused of being the epitome of self indulgence, have answered the call to arms. Some were famous and utterly dominant at their respective sport, others were just good enough to cling to their spot on the sports landscape. Regardless, these wonderful athletes made a supreme sacrifice, all for honor & country. These impossibly brave few are symbols of all that is great about the human condition.
What follows is a salute to some sports figures who served in the military in time of war.
Tom Landry-Head coach of the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-1988 and inducted into to the Hall of Fame in 1990, Landry served in the Unites States Army Air Forces with the 860 th Bomber Squadron that was attached to the 493 rd bomber group out of Debach, England. Landry survived 30 missions as a co-pilot, including a crash landing in Belgium.
Ted Williams-Arguably the greatest hitter in MLB history, Williams served with the U.S. Marine Corps in WWII as a flight instructor in Pensacola, Florida, and a fighter pilot in the Korean War. Williams got called back to active duty at the age of 34 and flew 38 combat missions in Korea and flew with the same group as John Glenn. Williams was awarded the Air Medal for being able to return to base after his hydraulics were knocked out by flack. Williams sacrificed five years of his career to serve his country.
Jackie Robinson-His military career during WWII eerily mirrored his future MLB career. While stationed in Texas, Robinson refused to move to the back of bus when a white driver told him to. He was arrested by MP’s and was eventually transferred and received an honorary discharge in 1944.
Ahmard Hall-A fullback for the Texas Longhorns and now the Tennessee Titans, Hall served with the Marines, 3 rd Battalion, 8 th Marines out of Camp Lejeune. Hall performed missions in Kosovo in 1998, and Afghanistan in 2002.
Yogi Berra-Served in the U.S. Navy and took part in the D-Day invasion and served in North Africa & Italy.
Joe DiMaggio-Arguably the most iconic sports figure in American history not named Babe Ruth, DiMaggio enlisted in the Air Force in 1943. His parents, along with all other immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Japan, were labeled “enemy aliens’ and were forced to carry photo identification and couldn’t travel more than five miles from home without a permit. DiMaggio served as a fitness instructor and rose to the rank of sergeant.
Bob Feller-He became the first major league player to enlist after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Feller served four years in the navy, primarily aboard the USS Alabama, and earned five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
Hank Greenberg-Served as a scout for B-29 locations in the Pacific theater during WWII.
Warren Spahn-Enlisted in 1942 and served in the U.S. Army. Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Ludendorf Bridge at Remagen, and earned a battlefield commission. Spahn was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze star for bravery.
Dick Adams-Enlisted in the Air Force in 1941 and was discharged in 1945.
Jack Lummus-Played for the New York Giants in 1941 and was in fact playing a game against cross town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place. The Giants’ players sat around at half time listening to news accounts of the attack. The Giants played the Chicago Bears in the championship game, after which Lummus enlisted in the Marines. On February 19, 1945, Lummus was among the first wave of troops to land on Iwo Jima. On March 8, after being appointed his company’s commander, Lummus led an attack on several fortified Japanese positions. After eliminating three strongholds, Lummus stepped on a landmine. He died on the operating table only after uttering his famous last words, “Well, doc, the New York Giants lost a mighty good end today.” Lummus was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as leader of a Rifle Platoon attached to the 2d Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands, 8 March 1945. Resuming his assault tactics with bold decision after fighting without respite for 2 days and nights, 1st Lt. Lummus slowly advanced his platoon against an enemy deeply entrenched in a network of mutually supporting positions. Suddenly halted by a terrific concentration of hostile fire, he unhesitatingly moved forward of his front lines in an effort to neutralize the Japanese position. Although knocked to the ground when an enemy grenade exploded close by, he immediately recovered himself and, again moving forward despite the intensified barrage, quickly located, attacked, and destroyed the occupied emplacement. Instantly taken under fire by the garrison of a supporting pillbox and further assailed by the slashing fury of hostile rifle fire, he fell under the impact of a second enemy grenade but, courageously disregarding painful shoulder wounds, staunchly continued his heroic 1-man assault and charged the second pillbox, annihilating all the occupants. Subsequently returning to his platoon position, he fearlessly traversed his lines under fire, encouraging his men to advance and directing the fire of supporting tanks against other stubbornly holding Japanese emplacements. Held up again by a devastating barrage, he again moved into the open, rushed a third heavily fortified installation and killed the defending troops. Determined to crush all resistance, he led his men indomitably, personally attacking foxholes and spider traps with his carbine and systematically reducing the fanatic opposition until, stepping on a land mine, he sustained fatal wounds. By his outstanding valor, skilled tactics, and tenacious perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, 1st Lt. Lummus had inspired his stouthearted marines to continue the relentless drive northward, thereby contributing materially to the success of his regimental mission. His dauntless leadership and unwavering devotion to duty throughout sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.Nile Kinnick-Won the Heisman Trophy in 1939 and died in a training flight on June 2, 1943.
Eddie LaBaron-Played with the Washington Redskins from 1952-59. Served in the USMC in Korea and earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Pat Tillman-Famously walked away from a $3.6 million contract offer to serve with the 75 th Ranger Regiment. He died on April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan, a victim of friendly fire. Tillman was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star, becoming the first NFLer to die in combat since 1970.
Bob Kalsu-An All-American at Oklahoma, Kalsu satisfied his ROTC obligation by enlisting in the Armed Forces for Vietnam in 1969. Kalsu was killed in action on July 21, 1970 in the A Shau Valley.
Gene Tunney-Was heavyweight champion in boxing and fought in WWI.
Rocky Bleier-Drafted into the army in 1968, Bleier was part of the 196 th Light Infantry Brigade and was wounded several times. He earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Joe Louis-When asked why he joined the racially segregated army, Louis responded with profound simplicity, “Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain't going to fix them.”
Hoyt Wilhelm-Arguably the greatest relief pitcher of all time, Wilhelm was wounded in action during the Battle of the Bulge, for which he received a Purple Heart.
Phil Rizzuto-Served three years with the U.S. Navy in WWII.
Pee Wee Reese-Served three years in the navy in WWII.
Earl Johnson-He compiled a 40-32 record as a starting pitcher for Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. Johnson was part of the 120 th Infantry Regiment, 30 th Infantry Division, earning a Silver & Bronze Star. His Bronze Star citation read, “Sergeant Earl Johnson and several other members of his unit…courageously braved severe hostile fire and were completely successful (in their mission).”
John McKay-Probably the greatest coach the USC Trojans ever had, McKay led his team to four national titles. Before his coaching career began, McKay survived multiple missions as a tail gunner during WWII. While he was head coach of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team mired in a 26 game losing streak, McKay was asked about his team’s execution. He responded, “I think it would be a good idea.”
Bruce Smith-Won the Heisman Trophy in 1941, an award he accepted barely 48 hours after Pearl Harbor. Smith then enlisted and was a fighter pilot during WWII.
Dick “Night Train” Lane-Served as a Lt. Colonel in WWII & Korea, and will go down as perhaps the greatest defensive back in NFL history.
Billy Fiske-Won gold medals in the bobsled at the 1928 & 1932 Winter Olympic Games. In 1939 Fiske joined the British Royal Air Force and was assigned to the No. 601 Squadron of the RAF Tangmere. On August 16 Fiske and his squadron were scrambled to repel a German bomber attack. During the skirmish Fiske’s plain was hit but he managed to limp the plain back to base. Fiske died the next day, resulting from burns suffered after his plain caught fire. He was the first American pilot to die in WWII. The inscription on his gravesite reads, “To Pilot Officer William Mead Lindsley Fiske III, an American citizen who died that England may live.”
Treasure these men, not for their dazzling physical gifts or for the trail they blazed across our nation’s consciousness, treasure them for their unfathomable courage.
As we raise our glasses to the sky, and the heavens above, we offer our sincerest gratitude for you and your service. Thank you gentlemen.