Tagged: World War II

Bob Feller Answered the Call


By Glen Sparks

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began at 7:48 a.m. Hawaii time, Dec. 7, 1941. Bob Feller, 22 years old and already a superstar flame-thrower for the Cleveland Indians, heard the shocking news while driving his shiny Buick Century from little Van Meter, Iowa, to Chicago.

More than 2,400 Americans were killed in the surprise strike. One bomb hit a powder magazine in the U.S.S. Arizona, sending that battleship to the bottom of the harbor, along with more than 1,100 officers and sailors.

Forget baseball. Feller wanted to fight the Japanese and the Germans. He signed up with the Navy on Tuesday, Dec. 9. He gave up the chance to make $100,000 as a baseball player in 1942, Feller wrote in a New York Times column in 2010. He didn’t care.

“I was mad as hell,” Feller said.

Feller’s dad, William, lay in a bed back home in Van Meter, terminally ill with cancer. Technically, Feller was exempt from military service. He joined the fight, anyway.

“We were losing that war, and most young men of my generation wanted to help push them back,” Feller said in the Times. “People today don’t understand, but that’s the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting.”

At that point, Feller had pitched in parts of six seasons in the majors and had compiled a 107-54 won-loss mark. William Feller had raised a ballplayer. He rolled baseballs to his baby boy; young Bobby could hurl a ball 270 feet at the age of nine. He was 16 years old when Cleveland signed him to a contract.

The Heater from Van Meter struck out 15 batters in his major-league debut at age 17 and struck out 17 a few weeks later. He led the American League in strikeouts as a 19-year-old in 1938 and topped the A.L. in K’s four straight seasons (1938-41). Rapid Robert won a total of 80 games from 1939-41.

Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight boxing champion, swore Feller into the service at the Chicago courthouse. Navy officials told Feller to report to the training station in Norfolk, Va. The right-hander did some exercising and played on the station baseball team. On June 15, 1942, he pitched in an Army-Navy Relief fundraiser game at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Feller struck out five batters in five innings. But, that wasn’t why he signed up for action. He wanted to go where the shooting was.

Feller entered gunnery school and left aboard the U.S.S. Alabama, a South Dakota-class battleship, in the fall of 1942. The great pitcher fired his guns during a south Pacific battle in 1944 known today as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. U.S. forces shot down 474 Japanese planes, sank three enemy carriers and crippled many more support crafts. “We made it look so easy,” Feller said.

The Alabama took part in several other battles, both in the Pacific and the North Atlantic, and was awarded nine battle stars. Chief Petty Officer Feller was aboard for eight of them. Following combat, Feller said, “the dangers of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial.”

Feller returned to the major leagues on Aug. 24, 1945, at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. He threw a complete game before 45,000 fans, struck out 12 and beat the Detroit Tigers 4-2. In his nine starts in 1945, Feller completed seven and went 5-3 with a 2.50 ERA in 72 innings.

Cleveland’s ace enjoyed probably his best season in 1946. He won 26 games and posted a career-low 2.18 ERA. Feller pitched an astonishing 377.1 innings and struck out 348 batters. Before retiring in 1956, he won 266 games and struck out 2,581 batters. The eight-time All-Star led the league in wins six times and in strikeouts seven times. He hurled three no-hitters. Writers voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1962, in his first year on the ballot, with 93.8 percent of the vote.

Feller missed three-plus seasons due to his service in World War II. How many wins did he lose? 80? 90? How many strikeouts? 900? Feller never complained.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “None at all. I did what any American could and should do: serve his country in its time of need.”

Seventy Years Ago Today, 900 Men Went Into the Water

Commissioned Nov. 7, 1931, the U.S.S. Indianapolis earned 10 battle stars before being sunk by Japanese torpedoes on July 30, 1945.

Commissioned Nov. 7, 1931, the U.S.S. Indianapolis earned 10 battle stars before being sunk by Japanese torpedoes on July 30, 1945.

(This one of my occasional non-sports pieces and another one that focuses on an incident from World War II, in this case the tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.)

By Glen Sparks

The best scene in the 1975 blockbuster movie Jaws takes place in the disheveled cabin of a rickety fishing boat.

Three men (Quint, Hooper and Brody), as much drunk as sober, discuss broken hearts, lop-sided arm wrestling contests and, finally, a long-ago piece of war history that began to unravel in tragedy shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945.

Brody points to a scar on Quint’s arm. Old tattoo, Quint grumbles. Hooper makes a joke. “Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me. ‘Mother.’” he says with an unfortunate giggle.

Quint, a grizzled fisherman (especially of sharks), just grimaces. “U.S.S. Indianapolis.”

Hooper, a marine biologist, turns sober at the mere mention of the Indianapolis. Brody, a police chief, remains clueless.

Now, Jaws, as you probably know, is quite the fish tale. It seems that a large great white shark in Amityville (on Long Island) has chosen to turn local bathers into snacks. This being bad for tourist business, Messrs., Quint (Robert Shaw), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Brody (Roy Scheider) head out to sea in hopes of catching the ornery shark.

So, Quint begins the narrative. Here is the story:

(Semi-quick sidenote: Carl Gottlieb is credited with writing the screenplay for Jaws, along with Peter Benchley, who wrote the book. By almost every account, neither man wrote the U.S.S. Indianapolis scene. Supposedly, uncredited writer Howard Sackler conceived the idea of an Indianapolis speech. John Milius, a writer-director, took it from there and created a 10-page speech. Shaw, an accomplished writer besides being a fine actor, whittled it down. Jaws director Steven Spielberg liked the backstory because it helped explain why Quint hated sharks so much. The character in the book has an almost pathological hatred of sharks, but Benchley never explains why. Anyway, the movie is much better than the book. Every human character is unpleasant. As Spielberg explains, if you read the book, you root for the shark.)

The U.S.S. Indianapolis, a Portland-class heavy cruiser, left San Francisco harbor on July 16, 1945, carrying enriched uranium and other parts for the atomic bomb Little Boy. The ship delivered its cargo to the U.S. Navy airbase at Tinian island on July 26 and left for Guam to pick up some sailors. The Indianapolis departed from Guam, heading for Leyte, on July 28.

A Japanese submarine, the 1-58, hit the Indianapolis with two torpedoes. The first one crushed the ship’s bow. The second one hit near midship next to a fuel tank and a powder magazine. It was 14 minutes past midnight, midway between Guam and Leyte Gulf in the Pacific When the Japanese torpedoes hit, 1,196 men were aboard the ship. Approximately 900 made it into the water.

The shark attacks began at sunrise on the first day. “You know,” Quint says, “the thing about a shark is that he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes like a doll’s eyes … ‘til he bites you.” Quint figures that 1,000 sharks, “maybe more”, circled the bloody scene.

Over the next few days, the sailors also suffered from exposure, dehydration and saltwater poisoning. No one reported the Indianapolis missing even after it did not arrive as scheduled at Leyte on July 31. At 11 a.m. on the fourth day, a Lockheed PV-1 bomber on routine antisubmarine patrol spotted the survivors.

Lt. (j.g.) Wilbur C. Gwinn, the PV-1 pilot, radioed his base on the island of Peleliu. “Many men in the water.” Navy commanders sent a PBY seaplane, piloted by Lt. R. Adrian Marks, to help. Marks overflew the destroyer U.S.S. Cecil Doyle and reported the emergency. The Cecil Doyle captain diverted to the rescue scene. Marks, against orders, landed on the sea. He and his crew pulled in 56 sailors. The Cecil Doyle arrived in total darkness and began taking aboard survivors.

“That’s when I was most frightened,” Quint says, “waiting for my turn.” Of the approximately 900 who made it into the water on July 30, 317 were finally rescued.

The public did not learn of the Indianapolis disaster until Aug. 15, the same day of the Japanese surrender in World War II. Following an investigation, Capt. Charles B. McVay III, commander of the Indianapolis, was court-martialed and convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag (to avoid enemy submarines).”

The investigation was fraught with controversy.  No Navy directive had ordered McVay to zigzag, for instance, and a decorated U.S. submarine commander testified that given the identical circumstances facing the Japanese submarine on July 30, he could have sunk the Indianapolis whether it had been zigzagging or not.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz later remitted Capt. McVay’s sentence and restored the officer to active duty. Even so, many families wrote angry letters to McVay over the years, blaming him for “killing my son.” In a tragic end to a tragic episode, McVay committed suicide on Nov. 6, 1968, at the age of 70. When family found him, he was holding a metal toy sailor in one hand.

Duty, Honor and The Great Escape

The Great Escape opened in the U.S. on this date in 1963. Happy 52nd birthday!

The Great Escape opened in the U.S. on this date in 1963. Happy 52nd birthday!

(This one of my occasional non-sports pieces and another one that focuses on World War II.)

By Glen Sparks

Do you remember the first time that you saw Steve McQueen race across the Alpine countryside on a motorcycle pilfered from the German Army? The crackle of enemy machine-gun fire follows him as he speeds toward neutral Switzerland. Just one long, high wall of razor wire separates him from his freedom.

Pass the popcorn. The 1963 hit The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges and based on a book by Paul Brickhill, still ranks as one of the all-time great World War II action movies. United Artists held the U.S. premiere of The Great Escape on July 4, 1963. (London hosted the world premiere on June 20.)

If you like to cheer for the heroes, this is the movie for you. In addition to McQueen, the cast includes Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Garner and many more familiar names. I remember seeing The Great Escape on television as a kid and right away putting it on my Top 10 list.

You probably recall at least parts of the classic story:

The German High Command, tired of the time and expense of hunting down U.S. and British escapees, unloads the craftiest ones (the “Forger,” the “Scrounger” “the Manufacturer,” “Cooler King” McQueen, etc.) at the new, supposedly escape-proof, Stalag Luft III (located in the German province of Lower Silesia, now Poland.) There, the High Command expects prisoners to sit out the war by gardening and playing sports. Of course, the prisoners decide from the start to make a break for it. They will go over the fence, under the fence and—if need be—through the fence to get back to their units.

One key scene happens early on. The camp commandant, a Luftwaffe officer, admonishes the senior British officer following a series of sophomoric escape attempts.

The duty of all military officers is to attempt escape, the senior British officer reminds the commandant, Von Luger. The commandant understands this truism. He expects captured soldiers to flee their captors, or to die trying.

A second British officer, Big X, hatches the great escape plan. He arrives at Stalag Luft III in handcuffs. The forbidding SS officer orders Big X—played by Attenborough—not to attempt any more escapes.  Try one more escape, the SS officer hisses, and, if the Gestapo catches you, you will be shot.

Big X brazenly answers this promise of execution. He orders that the prisoners build three escape tunnels—Tom, Dick and Harry. His plan?

  • to let loose 250 men throughout Germany,
  • to tie up the S.S.
  • and to make as much trouble as possible for the enemy.

Day and night, prisoners shovel dirt in suffocating crawl spaces below the ground. The pieces of lumber that support these tunnels creak and groan underneath the weight of all this earth. The men risk pounds of dirt collapsing onto their heads and burying them in darkness.

German soldiers find two of the tunnels – Tom and Dick – during a Fourth of July celebration. That leaves only Harry. Now, what? “We dig,” Big X orders.

But, why?

What makes these officers so single-minded about making their great escape? History offers us the quick and clear answer.

Hitler had put a torch to Europe. His Sherman tanks had barreled into freedom. His Messerschmitt airplanes had unloaded bombs onto the innocent.

Paris, and most of Western Europe, had fallen by the summer of 1941. The London Blitz—carried out between Sept. 7, 1940 and May 16, 1941—had left more than 43,000 British civilians dead.

V-1 and V-2 rockets pummeled London. City parks smoldered. Great monuments lay in ruin. Bombs damaged both Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. British pilots, flying Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes, battled German pilots during fierce dogfights in the grey skies above London.

Citizens fled to the London subway—the Underground—to wait out the German terror.   Fireman ran up and down British streets as soon as the blitzes ended for the evening, putting out the flames.

The Great Escape tells a true story about prisoners of war risking everything to break free and to bring peace back to the world.

Sure, the filmmakers mix in a bit of Hollywood. That motorcycle-aided run for the Swiss border, for example, happened only on screen. Steve McQueen, an enthusiastic cyclist and race car driver, insisted that a motorcycle action scene be added as a condition for his making the movie, and he did most of his own stunts.

No U.S. prisoners took part in the actual escape, either. By the night of the escape, the Germans had transported all U.S. prisoners to a separate compound.

But the filmmakers did get most of the important parts right:

The prisoners, including those from the United States, really did work on three escape tunnels and they really did dub the tunnels “Tom,” “Dick” and “Harry.”

Due to miscalculations, “Harry” really did fall 20 feet short, as the movie depicts, and an air raid really did light up the prison during the breakout. Seventy-six men still made it out of the camp.

Tragically, the Gestapo really did execute (against all regulations of the Geneva Convention) 50 recaptured prisoners—including Big X—although not at a rest stop en masse as the movie portrays.

Only a handful of prisoners actually broke out of the camp for good. The movie ends with several recaptured prisoners—the ones not executed—heading back by German gunpoint to Stalag Luft III.

The SS, unhappy about the great escape, escort the commandant from the camp … to suffer a quick fate at the hot end of a Luger, or to suffer a long, cold fate on the Eastern front.

The McQueen character, Capt. Hilts, a pilot, arrives back at camp as the commandant exits. His escape attempt ended in a tangled mess after he skidded into the razor-sharp fence. Hilts heads to the cooler, and a friend tosses him a baseball glove and a ball. Hilts likes to bounce a baseball off the cooler wall to pass the time.

Someday, some way, some how, I imagine popping in my DVD of The Great Escape and watching Hilts evade his pursuers. I picture him soaring over that wall of wire. You see, The Great Escape is more than just a classic war movie with an all-star cast and a cool motorcycle chase.

The movie helps us better understand the important idea of freedom and about the incredible lengths that heroes will go to get back that freedom. The Great Escape is a classic.

Andrew Higgins “Won the War”

Andrew Higgins patterned his LSVP after a boat he built to maneuver through Gulf Coast swamps.

Andrew Higgins patterned his LSVP after a boat he built to maneuver through Gulf Coast swamps.

By Glen Sparks

Andrew Higgins built the boats that won the war.

Higgins boats, or as the military called them, LSVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), carried troops ashore most famously at Normandy on D-Day, but also at North Africa (Operation Torch), Sicily, Iwo Jima, the Philippines and other World War II hot spots.

The rectangular vessels, made mostly of plywood, could haul 36 soldiers from sea to shore. Most measured just more than 36-feet long. Higgins’ company built more than 20,000 of them.

LSVPs met with outstanding reviews. From both sides.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, said later, “Andrew Higgins … is the man who won the war for us.” Adolph Hitler bitterly called Higgins “the new Noah.”

This Higgins boat is carrying troops to Okinawa.

This Higgins boat is carrying troops to Okinawa.

Higgins, a native of land-locked Nebraska, who got thrown out of Omaha’s Creighton Prep High School as a senior for fighting, designed the forerunner of the LSVP during peacetime in 1926. He called it the Eureka boat.

Higgins had gone from Omaha to Mobile, Ala., in 1906 as a 20-year-old to seek his fortune in the Southern lumber business. By age 24, he was managing a German-based import-export lumber company in New Orleans. He founded his own firm, Higgins Lumber and Export Co., in 1922.

In time, competition from tramp steamers, along with a beleaguered world economy, put the Lumber and Export Company out of business. Higgins Industries, the boat-marking arm, kept going. In addition to the Eureka boat, Higgins built tugs, barges, motorboats and other crafts for a variety of clients, including the U.S. Guard.

The Gulf Coast swampland had inspired Higgins. Oil drillers and trappers needed shallow-draft boats to move through murky water filled with fallen trees and alligators. A sort of tunnel underneath the Eureka boat protected the propeller and shaft. The boat could speed through 18 inches of water, run onto land, extract itself and head back into the swamp.

Like so many other people, Higgins knew by the late 1930s that the United States would soon be at war. He also knew that steel would be in short supply and that military leaders might find some use for his wooden boats. With all that in mind, he cornered the entire 1939 mahogany supply from the Philippines and stored it in New Orleans.

Higgins signed up for a competition to design a landing craft suitable for troops and supplies. The Navy cringed. It “wanted no part of this hot-tempered, loud-mouthed Irishman who drank a bottle of whiskey a day,” historian Stephen Ambrose wrote in his book D-Day.

The Irishman, though, said, “There are no officers, whether present in this room or otherwise in the Navy who know a thing about small boat design, construction, or operation—but by God, I do.” Ambrose called Higgins “a genius.”

HigginsLSVPFredTheOysterFreeMarine Corps leaders loved Higgins’ boat. The Navy just shrugged. On May 25, 1942, in Norfolk, Va., Higgins’ boat squared off against a vessel built by the Navy’s Bureau of Ships. Each boat would carry a 30-ton tank across choppy waters. The race wasn’t close. The Bureau’s boat nearly sank. Higgins’ boat sped through with muscle to spare.

By 1943, Andrew Higgins had seven plants and more than 25,000 workers in the first integrated shop in New Orleans. Higgins boats carried more soldiers, sailors and Marines ashore in World War II than every other landing craft combined. (Large troop ships would bring the fighting men as close to shore as possible. The troops would then climb down cargo netting and into the LCVPs. When the ships got to shore, a ramp would open.)

The Higgins boat made it up sand, coral atolls, volcanic ash and rocks and met the enemy. Eisenhower said, “If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we could never have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”


D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen Ambrose

Andrew Higgins: Boat Builder of World War II by Burton W. Folsom Jr.

Higgins and His War-winning Boats by Dwight Jon Zimmerman

Rosenthal Captured the Flag on Iwo Jima in 1/400th of a Second

Joe Rosenthal photo/Rosenthal's photo of the Iwo Jima flag raising won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for photography.

Joe Rosenthal photo/Rosenthal’s photo of the Iwo Jima flag raising won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for photography.

(This is the second non-sports article in the history of the Dazzy Vance Chronicles. It is the second article devoted to World War II.)

By Glen Sparks

Guns were blazing and men were dying 70 years ago today on little Iwo Jima island. U.S. and Japanese soldiers were fighting for control of an eight-square mile, sulfur-strewn rock, just a speck in the vast Pacific Ocean.

Marines had begun charging ashore Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, following months of Naval bombardments. At first, all was quiet. Japanese soldiers had retreated into caves and bunkers. Soon enough, the Marines faced fierce machine-gun and artillery fire.

A primary goal was to capture 545-foot-tall Mount Surabachi, the highest point on the island. It took four days and heavy causalities to do it. On Feb. 23, five Marines, along with a Navy corpsman, raised a 96-inch-by-56-inch United States flag from atop Surabachi. Joe Rosenthal captured the moment forever.

Nancy Wong photo/Joe Rosenthal left AP and spent most of his career with the San Francisco Chronicle.  He died in 2006 at age 94.

Nancy Wong photo/Joe Rosenthal left AP and spent most of his career with the San Francisco Chronicle. He died in 2006 at age 94.

Rosenthal, a 33-year-old photographer with the Associated Press, had gotten word about an imminent flag raising and rushed to Surabachi, his Speed Graphic press camera in hand. On the summit, he could see one group of Marines taking down a smaller flag and another group getting ready to put up a larger flag. Smartly, Rosenthal focused on the second group.

Lt. Col. Chandler W. Johnson had ordered the flag raising. He wanted a flag “large enough that the men on the other end of the island can see it. It will lift their spirts, also.” Second Lt. Albert T. Tuttle retrieved the flag from an LST 779 beached on the island and gave it to Pvt. 1st Class Rene Gagnon, who promptly headed up the mountain.

Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon H. Block, Pvt. 1st Class Ira Hayes and Pvt. 1st Class Franklin R. Sousley struggled to plant the flag into the rocky ground. Gagnon and Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class John H. Bradley ran over to help.

Rosenthal stood about 35 feet away on a slope. Just 5-feet-5, he gathered some rocks and a sand bag to stand on. He adjusted his lens setting between f/8 and f/11. He set the speed to 1/400th second and snapped the photo that became an almost instant sensation. The image was shown in Sunday newspapers around the world on Feb. 25, 1945, and was the centerpiece of a war bond drive that raised $26.3 million. Rosenthal, the man rejected by the Army because of bad eyesight, took the most famous photograph of World War II.

Continue reading

Tuskegee Airmen Answered the Call

Many Tuskekee pilots flew the P-51 "Red tail" in World War II.

Max Haynes photo/Many Tuskegee pilots flew the P-51 “Red tail” in World War II.

(This is the 100th post in the history of the Dazzy Vance Chronicles and the first non-sports post.)

By Glen Sparks

U.S. Army Air Force pilots Charles Brantley, Roscoe Brown and Earl Lane battled Luftwaffe fighter jets and enemy machine-gun fire in the Berlin skies on March 24, 1945.

The three men all shot down a German plane that day, two years before Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball and nine years before the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Brown vs. the Topeka (Kansas) Board of Education.

The pilots flew P-51 Mustangs. They were part of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen, so-called because they did much of their training at Tuskegee Army Air Force Field in Alabama. The Tuskegee Airman were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces. They comprised the 332nd Fighter Group (which included the 99th) and the 477th Bombardment Group.

The  so-called "Tuskegee experiment" officially began in June 1941, six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The so-called “Tuskegee experiment” officially began in June 1941, six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The 355 Tuskegee pilots deployed overseas during World War II flew nearly 1,600 bombing missions. They shot down 112 enemy airplanes, destroyed 150 planes on the ground and damaged another 148, according to the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Pilots blew up 600 railroad cars and 40 boats and barges.

Luftwaffe pilots called the Tuskegee Airmen “Schwartze Vogelmenschen,” or Black Birdmen. Aviation buffs remember the Airman by a different nickname, “Red tails.” Tuskegee pilots painted the back ends of their P-47s, and later, their P-51s, a bright red as a way to identify each other in the air.

The Tuskegee program officially started in June 1941 when the Army still was segregated and Jim Crow laws (“Black only” schools, restaurants, hotels, etc.) ruled in many states. (African-American men who had wanted to fly in World War I were turned down.) Trained African-American officers at Tuskegee found it almost impossible to get a command slot. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold put it this way: “Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men, creating an impossible social situation.”

Tuskegee pilots finally flew their first combat mission June 2, 1943. The 99th attacked the Mediterranean volcanic island of Pantelleria, loaded with German and Italian troops and airplanes, as preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Later, the squadron received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its combat over Sicily.

96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, Eight Purple Hearts …

The success of the 99th encouraged Army commanders to send more Tuskegee Airmen into battle across Europe. By war’s end, Tuskegee airmen had earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, at least one Silver Star and eight Purple Hearts. Of the 355 deployed pilots, 68 were killed in action and 12 died in training and non-combat accidents. Also, 32 were captured as prisoners of war.

Several sources reported after the war that no bomber escorted by a Tuskegee pilot was ever lost to enemy fire. The no-loss myth held sway for many years. An Air Force researcher in 2007, looking at once-classified after-mission reports, found out that 25 bombers actually had been shot down while being escorted by Tuskegee pilots. Another study put the number at 27. Even so, the average number of lost bombers by other P-51 fighter groups at the time was 46.

Schreick's Photo Service/Capt. Benjamin Davis led many of the Tuskegee missions.  He later became a four-star general in the Air Force.

Schreick’s Photo Service/Capt. Benjamin Davis led many of the Tuskegee missions. He later became a four-star general in the Air Force.

Capt. Benjamin Davis, whose father was the Army’s first African-American general, commanded many of the Tuskegee combat missions. A Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to Davis for a mission on June 9 1944 noted how he “so skillfully disposed his squadrons that in spite of the large number of enemy fighters, the bomber formation suffered only a few losses.”

Davis eventually rose to the rank of four-star general in the Air Force. Two other Tuskegee Airmen became generals. The Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2007. All told, the “Tuskegee experiment,” as the Army called it, produced nearly 1,000 pilots and 16,000 support personnel (navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, etc.)

Two Airmen died recently, both 91, both in Los Angeles, both on the same day. No one knows how many of the Airmen are still alive. They are all in the 80s or 90s by now. One of the survivors, Grant Williams, commented on how things have changed over the decades. The Airmen, once subject to segregation, now get respect and adulation.

“Back then, nobody realized the significance of what we were doing,” Williams said. “Now, they seem to think we could walk on water.”

Toni Frissell photo/The Tuskegee Airmen compiled an impressive record during World War II.    The group was awarded a collective Congressional Medal of Honor in 2009.

Toni Frissell photo/The Tuskegee Airmen compiled an impressive record during World War II. The group was awarded a collective Congressional Medal of Honor in 2009.

Read about Jerry Coleman on Veterans Day

Jerry Coleman flew 120 missions total in World War II and Korea.

Jerry Coleman flew 120 missions total in World War II and Korea.

By Glen Sparks

Global events kept getting in the way of Jerry Coleman’s baseball career. First, World War II broke out, Dec. 7, 1941. Coleman left the Yankee farm system to fly 57 combat missions as a Marine Corps aviator in the South Pacific.

The infielder piloted a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. A dive bomber pilot swoops down over the target at a sharp angle before unloading the plane’s ordinance. The Dauntless could dive at 80 degrees, almost vertically, and may have sunk more Japanese ships than any other aircraft, according to the National World War II museum web site. Coleman flew in the Solomon Islands campaign and, later, in the Philippines.

Following the war, Coleman played another three seasons of minor league ball. The Yankees finally called him up to the big club in 1949. The 24-year-old second baseman finished third in the Rookie of the Year balloting and made the All-Star team in 1950. Coleman set career highs in games (153), at-bats (602), hits (150), triples (6) home runs (6), RBI (67) and batting average (.287). He also was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1950 World Series as the Yankees beat the Phillies.

In late 1951, Coleman went off to war again. He flew 63 missions in Korea, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Coleman piloted a Chance Vaught F4U Corsair, the plane that Japanese soldiers in World War II called “Whistling Death.” Supposedly, the plane made some spooky noises when wind rushed through the engine vents.

A New York Times article recalled some of Coleman’s close calls while in Korea. Once, a Sabre jet nearly knocked into him just before landing. Another time, he came close to flipping over when his engine conked out on take-off.

Coleman missed almost all of the 1952 and ’53 seasons while on that second combat tour. Besides flying 120 missions in two wars, Coleman also earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.

He retired following the 1957 season and after batting .364 in a losing cause against the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series. Add it up, and Coleman hit .263 in parts of nine big league seasons. He played on six World Series teams and four champions. In 69 Series at-bats, Coleman hit .275.

The Colonel, as many people called him, left baseball for a career in broadcasting. He called Yankee games for seven years and then went west to his native California. Coleman broadcast Angels action for a couple of seasons before settling in with the Padres.

Coleman died Jan. 5, 2014. He belongs to both the broadcasting wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame. A statue of Coleman, depicting him in his combat flight suit, stands inside Petco Park in San Diego.

When asked once about the time he missed as a ballplayer while serving in the Marines, Coleman dismissed any talk of regret. “Country is more important than baseball,” he said.

On this Veterans Day, thank you to all the vets of yesterday and today.

Feller’s Fastball Took on the U.S. Army, Harley-Davidson

By Glen Sparks

Fans wanted to know just how hard Bob Feller could throw a baseball. Could he throw one harder than Walter Johnson? Or “Smokey Joe” Wood?

The Heater from Van Meter, Iowa, really did bring it. In this video clip from 1946, you can see the Indians’ fireballer hurl a pitch at 98.6 mph, as clocked by U.S. Army ordinance equipment typically used to measure artillery shell velocity.

Bob Feller won 266 games in his 18-year career, all with the Cleveland Indians.

Bob Feller won 266 games in his 18-year career, all with the Cleveland Indians.

But, was it Feller’s best effort? A fairly primitive piece of equipment once clocked the right-hander at a mind-boggling-and nearly impossible–107.6 mph. (Just for comparison, modern machinery recorded Reds’ relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman at 105.1 in 2010. Most people consider Chapman to be today’s top flamethrower.)

In 1940, Feller’s four-seamer took on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at Lincoln Park in Chicago. Lew Fonseca, a former ballplayer and a producer of baseball instructional films, organized the event. Feller, dressed in a suit and a pair of wingtips, unfurled his fastball moments after the motorcycle flashed by him at 86 mph. The ball tore through a paper bull’s-eye target, about three feet ahead of the Harley.

Fonseca followed up the pitch with some mathematics. He estimated Feller’s heater at 104.5 mph, worthy of the fast lane even on the Autobahn. If accurate, Feller certainly belongs in short company for title of fastest pitcher ever.

Later in life, Feller explained why he accepted the invitation to fire a baseball as hard as he could on a closed-off street in one of our most famous urban parks, a motorcycle barreling past him.

“I was there because we all wanted to know, deep down, who was the fastest of all time,” Feller told Tim Wendel in the 2010 book High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Greatest for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time.

The story of Bob Feller is such a great American tale. He grew up on a farm, learning how to pitch by playing catch with his dad after a hard day’s work. Milking cows and bailing hay built up the arm strength that made Feller, according to Ted Williams, “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career.”


Bob Feller served aboard the USS Alabama during World War II.

All fuzzy-cheeked and loose-armed, Feller made his big-league debut as a 17-year-old. He struck out 15 batters in his first start and 17 in his second. As a rookie in 1936, he went 5-3 and punched out 76 hitters in 62 innings. This was how he spent his summer vacation before returning to Van Meter High School for his senior year.

“Rapid Robert” tossed three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters in his career. He led the American League in strikeouts seven times and fanned 2,581 batters, including 348 in 1946. Feller finished with a lifetime won-loss mark of 266-162 and a 3.25 ERA. Cleveland’s greatest pitcher ever, and its fastest, led the league in wins six times and easily made it into the Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year on the ballot, with 93.75 percent of the vote. His total remains the 17th best all-time.

When writing about Feller, it’s always important to note that he missed the 1942-44 seasons, and part of the 1945 season, while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Feller earned eight battle stars as chief of an anti-aircraft gun crew aboard the U.S.S. Alabama.

Feller, who died in 2010, would have turned 96 years old yesterday.