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Original Issue

When Football Went to War

The seasons of 1942-45 turned the game upside down, creating new juggernauts and decimating some old ones

If you think Tattletale Gray was a Confederate spy, it must mean that you do not remember the advertising slogans of 30 years ago, which might be just as well. It could mean, too, that you do not remember other amenities of that era, like the state of college football during World War II, which might also be just as well.

Actually, the wartime college game in America was played at two levels, one a kind of enforced de-emphasis among the colleges and universities, and the other—far closer to the collegiate game as it had been known up till then—among teams representing various Army, Navy and Marine installations. Some colleges had servicemen on campus, assigned to such military curricula as the V-12 program, who were eligible for football, and a good number of service teams were infused by recent college stars. The NCAA tried to keep the two categories separate in its record, but it was a doomed effort.

For one thing, many college teams played against service teams. For another, the two strongest "service" elevens, Army and Navy, had always been classified as colleges. Besides, individual players who competed in October in college ranks—for, say, Yale—had a way of turning up in November on the El Toro Marines. At least one player, a Rutgers guard named Bernstein, pulled his civilian-to-military switch in mid-contest, sprinting from the field during the Lehigh game, showering, dressing and departing just in time to show up for a 6 p.m. induction at Fort Dix.

Military orders caused other players to switch from college to college. A Duke tackle named Ellis was transferred to North Carolina just in time for the Duke game. Bill Daley, a promising Minnesota fullback, helped the Michigan V-12 team bury the Gophers in 1943. One Big Ten player recalls, "It seemed like no matter who we were playing that Saturday, the coach always gave us the same pre-game instructions: 'Watch out for Elroy Hirsch.' "

There was nothing so refined as a player draft among the service branches; it seemed to be a case of getting there first with the induction notice. Some colleges suffered fearfully. From an established football power, Fordham turned almost overnight to a state of puniness, to the point where, at the LSU game in 1942, even the drum major fell down. Other colleges had it even worse. Some went over to six-man football. Others gave up the sport entirely. Georgetown quit the game upon discovering that not a single member of its 1942 varsity or freshman squads would be on hand for the 1943 season. Nearly 200 colleges in all abandoned the sport in 1943. Those that persevered had their troubles, too. In the course of one season, Penn State lost 24 varsity players.

In contrast, the service teams could depend on a steady flow of manpower—all of it fit and, perhaps more remarkable for the time, all about the right age. Many pure college teams were fielding aggregations of 16-year-olds, and Utah State, according to an archive in the Helms Hall of Fame, had a 1944 team that included a guard named Anderson who was 35. That may not have been the record. Michigan had two players, both with the same surname, who in the judgment of one suspicious researcher were father and son.

But it was chiefly in the area of recruiting high school talent that the services had all the best of it. There was no such thing as a college deferment from the service, unless it was enrollment in a military program at a university—one of the V-12 or preflight plans. And so the stories of midnight visitations by recruiters—military recruiters—were legend. One example of this used to be offered by the late Hooks Mylin in the form of an afterdinner talk. Mylin was the coach at Lafayette, in Easton, Pa., in the peacetime season of 1940 and he had his eye on a hot prospect, a senior at the local high school. "Naturally, everybody wanted him to go to Lafayette," Mylin recounted, "but every time a train stopped in town a different coach got off. Frank Thomas of Alabama would arrive on one train, Elmer Layden of Notre Dame on the next. Notre Dame had the inside track because the boy was Catholic."

Undaunted, Mylin called a meeting with the parish priest and the university administration, and it was agreed that to keep the prospect Lafayette would put in a special course of Catholic instruction. The season ended, and Mylin, confident and content, left for a vacation. Shortly afterward he received a frantic call from Easton. Princeton had been to town, had painted the church and taken the boy. They enrolled him in the Peddie School at Hightstown, N.J. for additional finishing, and he was there when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. The night afterward there was a rap on the lad's dormitory door. There stood two uniformed emissaries. "Do you want to be drafted or do you want to play for Army?" they inquired. The boy decided to go to West Point.

For Earl (Red) Blaik, the Army coach, the years 1943-45 were golden. He had the pick of the nation's collegiate talent, and he made the most of it. Besides Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, he had such stars as Quarterback Arnold Tucker, End Barney Poole and Tackle Tex Coulter. So rich was the West Point crop that Blaik fielded two separate units, and Army fattened up on its former tormentors. In fact, one observer called 1944 Army's "year of retribution." Notre Dame, which had not lost to Army since 1931 and which had not let Army score a point since 1938, was ground under 59-0. Penn, unbeaten in the four previous Army encounters, went down 62-7. Pitt was smashed 69-7, and Villanova 83-0. Navy and Duke, which had a naval program going, were the only opponents to keep the score reasonably close. Navy lost 23-7 on a last-quarter flurry, and Duke kept it to 27-7.

Football, of course, was not the only sport that appealed to the jock general officer. Harold Patrick Reiser had a medical history that made it impossible for him to get into the armed forces—until a smart induction officer realized this was Pistol Pete Reiser, the baseball player. Now it was impossible for him to get out. He was sent to Fort Riley, which had 17 major-leaguers on its 1944 baseball squad. "I was up for discharge five times," Reiser told Bill Heinz after the war, "and each time something happened." Tennis star Bobby Riggs, meanwhile, was stationed with the Navy in Hawaii, and an admiral there assigned him to a special mission. "The mission," Riggs recollected, "was to improve the admiral's backhand."

But football was preeminently the game that went to war, as did the men who coached it. Minnesota's Bernie Bier-man, as wartime director of athletics at Iowa Pre-Flight, insisted that every cadet participate in football training "climaxed by a full scrimmage session." It goes without saying that Iowa Pre-Flight was one of the biggies among the wartime service teams. So were Great Lakes Naval Training under Paul Brown, North Carolina Pre-Flight under Glenn Killinger, and the El Toro Marines, coached by Dick Hanley, formerly of Northwestern.

There were to be only three seasons of feast (for the services) or famine (for the colleges) before the universities began to get back on their feet for the 1945 season. By that time only two of the great wartime service squads were still up to muster. Indeed, one of them, the Fleet City (Calif.) Bluejackets, may have been the greatest football team ever to take the field anywhere up to that time. It says enough to point out that Buddy Young, the future star at Illinois, was not a starting halfback. About 60,000 people in Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum watched Fleet City play the El Toro Marines, which starred Elroy Hirsch. Edgar (Doc) Greene, then a marine, recalled what it was like.

With the Marine team leading 18-14, Greene recalled, Hanley assembled the squad in the locker room at halftime and studied each face silently. Finally he asked, "Who is the stupidest man here?" His gaze continued around the room. One of his tackles raised his hand. "Are you the stupidest man here?" Hanley asked.

"Yes, Coach," the tackle intoned.

"Then I'll talk to you," Hanley said, "because if you can understand me, then everybody can understand me."

"Yes, Coach," the player said.

"O.K.," said Hanley. "Now they have one guy on this other team. Except for him, we're doing all right. But they put him in every once in a while to catch a punt or a kickoff."

"Yes, Coach," the tackle said.

"You can't miss him," Hanley continued. "Little colored guy. Number 77, Named Young."

"Yes, Coach," the tackle said.

"Now, we don't want to kick the ball to him, do we?" the coach asked.

"No, Coach."

"Then get out there and kill them in the second half!" Hanley concluded with a shout. And they all went roaring out the tunnel, lined up and kicked off for the second half. The ball, of course, went straight to Young, who ran it back 99 yards for a touchdown. Coach Hanley, understandably, was disappointed.

"On the sidelines," Greene recalled, "you could see him, stripping off his uniform item by item, slamming each garment to the ground and jumping up and down on it."

If one were to suggest that the thrust of wartime service football was largely Navy, one would be absolutely right. More nearly correct would be to say that, except for West Point, the thrust of all wartime football, both collegiate and service, was Navy, for pure college teams were fed by on-campus naval training programs—a luxury in which the Army seldom indulged. Colleges rose or fell in proportion to their share of Navy activity, and the Big Six among the service teams—El Toro, North Carolina Pre-Flight, Fleet City, Great Lakes, Iowa Pre-Flight and Bainbridge Naval Training—all were from the seafaring service. Here and there an Army or Army Air Corps team surfaced briefly, but in the crunch of wartime they were the expendables. One rule facilitated things for footballers who joined Navy programs; they were permitted to play intercollegiate football, while the Army allowed no such extracurricular exertions.

This prompted much rhapsodizing among naval officials. "Football! Navy! War!" wrote Coach Tom Hamilton. "At no time in history have these words been more entwined and intermeshed than they are now." From a former director of athletics at Annapolis, Admiral Jonas H. Ingram, came the observation that "the closest thing to war in time of peace is football!"

The supposed benefits of the game as a preparation for combat were, of course, used by Army people, too, but the paeans of the MacArthurs and Eisenhowers were less frequent. And only rarely did there a rise such a comment as that contributed by Lou Little at Columbia. "Let's be open-minded about this," he wrote at the time. "Not even the most zealous of football men will assert that only the men who have played football are good soldiers. That would be silly, of course. The Russians, who have done so magnificent a job of fighting in this war, don't play football, so far as I am aware, save for some soccer, and that is not generally. The same is true of another valiant ally, the Chinese. In England they play the rugby game that was the parent of American football, but hardly recognizable as a relative of our sport now."

The Germans didn't play American football either, with one notable exception. At a prisoner-of-war camp in Kentucky in 1944 an effort was made to teach the game to the captive Panzers. "What you must do," they were told, "is to tackle the man with the ball." And so, with appropriate Teutonic verve, all 21 of them—the 11 guys on the opposing team, plus his 10 teammates—tackled the guy with the ball. (At the University of Chicago, incidentally, they had abandoned football in 1939, but the stadium—Stagg Field—had remained. Instead of playing football there, the site was used to develop the world's first atomic pile in anticipation of the atomic bomb.)

Yet another assent to the football-as-builder-of-warriors concept came from Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, whose memoirs cited Tom Hamilton's comparison of football and war, and expressed agreement with the analogy Hamilton had evoked in applauding America's "foresight to punt and bide time for a scoring opportunity."

No doubt the rigors of football did help equip many men for combat, but there was one player named Swanson at Bucknell whose varsity career could scarcely have done him much good. He became eligible for football on a Monday, played in a game the following Saturday and was transferred out on the following Wednesday. Though he is by no means the last player to have given up sport for the duration, it does appear that in inducting the abortive Bucknellian, wartime football had done a Swanson.