In Memoriam II
The Pacific and Korea
Gene Bearden, a tall, curly-headed, 28 year-old, was aboard a ship that was torpedoed, killing 200 men. He scrambled down a ladder to help his trapped buddies, but a second torpedo split his skull open and crushed his knee. An officer carried him out on his shoulder just minutes before the ship sank, and Gene spent 21 hours floating unconscious in a lifeboat.
With the Indians in 1948, Gene won 20 games; the final one, on two days rest, beat the Red Sox in the American League playoff.
Nineteen-year old Jerry Coleman was flying a Dauntless dive bomber for the Marines, hitting enemy troops on Guadalcanal and the Philippines just ahead of the front-lines. On the right he models the Marines’ off-duty tropical uniform.
Thanks to Kevin Keating for the following: Harry O’Neill appeared in one game for the 1939 A’s and died in 1945 at Iwo Jima.
The battle of Okinawa, raged for almost three months and cost at least 12,500 American deaths. One man who survived was Lieutenant Hank Bauer, although he took a shrapnel wound in his thigh, his second wound of the war.
As far as I know, no one ever asked the Yankee right fielder about this is experiences, and he never spoke of them, though his son told me Hank had been even prouder of his Marine uniform than his Yankee one.
On the morning after Pearl Harbor, Bob Feller was in the line to enlist and was given a job as Phys Ed instructor. He had to pound a lot of captains’ tables but finally got sea duty – a nice safe milk run in the Atlantic, where no enemy had ever been sighted.
“We sent up a wall of white hot metal. The sky was alternately black with smoke, then bright from tracer bullets.
“Then the horizon darkened like a swarm of killer bees. Two made it through, and a 250-pound bomb landed on our sister ship.”
An hour later 430 planes attacked. Only 35 got back. “It was the most exciting 13 hours of my life. But when the sun went down, the Japanese naval air force didn’t exist any more.”
Feller would earn eight battle stars in the Gilbert Islands, Kwajalein, Marshalls, New Guinea, Tarawa, Guam, the Philippine Sea, and Iwo Jima. “After that,” he said, “the dangers of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial.”
Buddy Lewis of the Senators enlisted in the air corps: “I could have played ball in the Service, but I had the flying bug.” He flew almost 400 missions in a C-47 transport over “the Hump” – Japanese occupied jungles and mountains from Burma to China.
One of his passengers may have been Hank Greenberg on his way to China.
Let me tell you: I didn’t want to go down in the jungle. They gave me one bit of advice: If you survive, come out of the plane with a baseball in my hand; it might save my life, because the Japanese love baseball.
In contrast to the U.S., which didn’t lose any big leaguers in the Pacific fighting, Japan, with half the population and half the number of players, lost 73 killed in action. Their names are inscribed on a memorial stone near Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium.
One who survived was star third baseman and Tokyo manager Shigeru Mizuhara, who was stationed on the Manchurian/Russian border, then spent four years in a Siberian forced labor camp. He returned to an emotional ovation and resumed his winning managerial record.
November 20, 1934 – perhaps the most famous day in Japanese baseball history. 17-year old Eiji Sawamura whiffed Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, four up, four down, before losing 1-0 on Gehrig’s homer. CK tried to sign him.
Three years later Sawamura was in China, hurling grenades until he was shot in the hand. A second tour found him in the Philippines. On his third tour he boarded a troop ship, which was sunk by a sub. There were no survivors. (Photo: Sawamura and catcher Toshiyasu Ogura, who was also killed in action. Courtesy Yoichi Nagata.) oto: Sawamrua
Only one former big leaguer died, Major Bob Neighbors, who had played with the Browns in 1938 and flew combat in World War II. As pilot of a B-26 bomber named “The Grim Reapers,” he volunteered to replace another plane, whose pilot was sick, on a night mission over North Korea.
He never returned.
Jerry Coleman of the Yankees was called back for his second tour with the Marines, in the same squadron as Ted Williams. In addition to his 57 missions in World War II, he added 63 more for a total of 120.
On his last mission, Jerry took off with a full loan of bombs, armed and ready to explode at any contact. His plane couldn’t clear the runway and crashed in a front-first flip. Miraculously, the bombs didn’t detonate, but Coleman was trapped upside down with his chin strap choking him dangerously. A rescuer raced to the plane, unbuckled the strap, and pulled him out, saving the golden voice that would announce Yankees, Angels, and Padres games for some 16 years. Listeners waited for his familiar home run call: “You can hang a star on that one, baby!”
The most famous vet, of course, was Ted.
The Marine fliers’ main mission was to give close, low-level support – strafing etc – to the Marines in the trenches. They were vulnerable to intense anti-aircraft fire.
The following account is based on Bill Nowlin’s excellent book, Ted Williams at War (2007 Rounder Books).
On his second mission Ted joined a massive attack to hit the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and peeled into a steep dive to the target. Every plane got away safely except one. Ted’s.
The plane began shaking, and the flashing red lights on his panel almost blinded him. The stick froze, and he had to fight it with both hands. “May Day! May Day!” he called. “I’m hit!” Then his radio went dead.
Ted was streaming fuel, flying without wing flaps, brakes, and wheels. He was also sitting on top of a tank of flammable jet fuel. Flames were shooting out of the engine, an ominous sign that an explosion could soon blow the tail off. If Ted rode it down to a belly landing, there was a good chance it would explode.
Ted recalled: “I took her out to sea, like the book says. But one look at that water – no sir, not for this boy. It was half-frozen, and I could see myself breaking through and not getting up again. So I said to myself, ‘Son, you’re going down on land.’(The fact that he couldn’t swim was probably a big factor.)
Other pilots raced over to help. Lieutenant Larry Hawkins arrived first. “He’s the guy that saved my ass,” Ted said.
Hawkins patted his helmet and motioned to him to eject; but Panther jets had a reputation for killing pilots who ejected. At the very least, the lanky Ted thought, “I’d leave my knees in the cockpit.” He didn’t know yet that he was on fire, “or I probably would have bailed out.”
When smoke began filling the cockpit, Williams finally realized the danger. Hawkins motioned up, and they climbed to thinner air to try to put out the flames. It didn’t work. Hawkins began searching for the nearest emergency field.
As Ted made his approach, an explosion rocked the plane and a wheel blew off. “Why a wing didn’t go was just an act of God.” The tower screamed that his landing gear hadn’t dropped down, but he couldn’t hear them. Ted quickly pulled the wheels back up and decided to come in for a belly-landing.
“We heard an explosion over the field,” recalled Woody Crockett, the base safety officer and a veteran of the famous all-black “Red Tails” of World War II. “A piece of the plane dropped off, and you could see the flames coming out.”
With his brakes gone, Williams came roaring in low at over 200 miles an hour, while villagers scattered “to beat hell.” He hit the runway in a shower of sparks and an ear-splitting screech, engulfed in flames. The plane skidded more than a mile while Ted was “praying and yelling.”
He tugged at the canopy, which was stuck, and finally got it open, flames licking all around him. He somersaulted out, and set a record for the 50-yard dash with his chute banging against his knees behind him. He slammed his helmet into the ground just before the plane exploded. “The @&%$#s were shootin’ at me!” he yelled while firemen poured foam over him, a chaplain spread his arms like an umpire yelling, “Safe!” and a colonel ran up to ask for an autograph.
A few minutes later Williams strode into the officers’ club. “Any of you Air Force types got a drink?” he asked and downed four of them, one after the other.
“Heh, Ted,” Coleman yelled, “You never ran that fast on the bases!”
Major John Glenn arrived the next day. He immediately took a liking to Ted and asked for him as wingman on future flights.
Ask Questions. Question Answers
Letters may be edited for length
There were many major league players who were veterans of WW 2 who were also veterans of WW 1. Hank Gowdy was probably the best known. I have a list of 1503 who played in the majors and were WW 2 veterans. Fifty were born in the 19th century, making them potentially veterans of both wars. For example,
Curt Walker, an outfielder for 12 years with the Giants, Phillies and Reds;
Ted Kleinhans, a pitcher with the Reds, Phillies and Yankees;
Bill Morrell, a pitcher with the Senators and Giants was in the Army Air Corps both wars. (Walter Kephart)
(Thanks, Walter. I was trying to hold the list down to combat vets. Did these qualify?)
As usual, I learned some things from your latest post. I was not aware that two with big league time, short as it was, also met their demise: Burr and Troy.
You suggest that Jack Knott passed away in WWII but I believe that he came back to pitch briefly on the 1946 A’s and lived until 1981. (Kevin Keating)
(He sure did. Thanks.)
Timely and well-written. Thank you. My father survived the D-Day landing in Normandy, came home with a Purple Heart, some broken French, and permanent hearing loss in one ear. (Bruce Brown)
Some very interesting details, appreciate it. (smithf573)
Thank you so much for an excellent article on remembrance. Much appreciated. (Damien Begley)
Well done…I interviewed Bert Shepard about 15 years ago… had Lou Brissie on the show too…His book is excellent. (Martin Lurie)
I enjoyed your article.
A quibble: I question that Alexander was “the greatest pitcher of his day”. On what do you base that? ERA? ERA+? Wins? WHIP? Greater than Walter Johnson? I think not. (Paul Haas)
(You’re right. Johnson and Alex were the two best pitchers of their day. Walter’s peak came 1912-13, when he won 30 games each year. Alex’s peak was 1915-17 with three 30-victory years (31, 33, 30). The next year he was in the Army. He returned May 11, 1919 and lost five in a row, then went 16-6. Could he have won 30 in 1918 and 16 more in 1919? It’s not unreasonable. If so, 46 more victories would have given him 419 lifetime, or a few more than Walter. Let’s shake hands and say they were the two best pitchers of the decade – Walter ruled the first half and Alex the second.)
Please check the June 2016 edition of the Baseball in Wartime Newsletter. This 47-page issue looks at players who passed through the Middle Atlantic League. (Gary Bedingfield)