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When Football Went to War

When Football Went to War

by Todd Anton

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More than any other sport, professional football contributed fighting men to the battles of World War II, and the 22 or so players or former players that lost their lives are among the riveting stories told in this tribute to football's war heroes that spans many decades and military conflicts. The National Football League counts three Congressional Medal of


More than any other sport, professional football contributed fighting men to the battles of World War II, and the 22 or so players or former players that lost their lives are among the riveting stories told in this tribute to football's war heroes that spans many decades and military conflicts. The National Football League counts three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients among its honors, along with numerous Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses, and Purple Hearts. When Football Went to War offers a ground-breaking look at football—college and professional football alike—and many of the wartime heroes who came off the field of play to fight for their country. Detailed biographies of those who gave their lives are supplemented by many other stories of wartime heroism, from World War I through to Pat Tillman's tragic death in the Global War on Terrorism. Football has become the most popular sport in America and this heartfelt book honors the many sacrifices of NFL athletes over the years in service of their country.

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Triumph Books
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8.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

When Football Went to War

By Todd Anton, Bill Nowlin

Triumph Books

Copyright © 2013 Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62368-309-2


Section 1. When Football Went to War

The Last Day of Innocence

In the orange haze of another Pacific sunrise, Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes rendezvoused at their rally point off the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. At 7:55 am local time, the serenity of the tranquil Hawaiian morning was shattered by the roar of engines, the staccato patter of bullets, and the cacophonous reverberation of exploding shells. Japan's unexpected and brutal attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had begun. Meanwhile, the people living in the contiguous 48 states of the United States of America were going about their weekly Sunday rituals. For them, Sunday, December 7, 1941, had begun like any other typical late-fall Sunday. Americans from California to Maine had no sense of how much their lives were about to change as they went about their routine of attending church and family gatherings and, of course, watching football.

Back in 1941, the National Football League consisted of 10 teams and two divisions, and every year the winner of the East Division played the winner of the West Division in a winner-take-all NFL Championship Game. As it happens, December 7, 1941, was the last day of the 1941 regular season, and only three games were scheduled to be played — one in New York City, one in Washington, D.C., and one in Chicago, which was the only game with playoff implications. The Cleveland Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions, and Green Bay Packers had already concluded their 11-game regular season, the New York Giants had won the Eastern Division, and all but the players on the Bears and the 10–1 Packers had begun their off-season.

The Packers and their fans were anxiously awaiting the outcome of that day's intra-city rivalry game between the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park to determine whether or not they would have to play a one-game playoff the following Sunday in order to represent the West Division in the NFL Championship Game. A Bears win that day would mean that the NFL would have its first-ever NFL divisional playoff game, with the winner earning the right to play the New York Giants in the championship game on December 21. A Bears loss would drop their record to 9–2 and propel the Green Bay squad directly into the NFL Championship Game against the Giants on Sunday, December 14. The games to be played at New York's Polo Grounds and Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium on December 7 were for bragging rights and pride. The only people who had access to these NFL contests were the fans who passed through the turnstiles of the three home teams or who were fortunate enough to catch one of the radio broadcasts that day. Meanwhile, few Americans had any notion of what was taking place in the Pacific Ocean around the Hawaiian Island of Oahu.

It was 1:55 pm EST when the attack on Pearl Harbor began. At Comiskey Park in Chicago, the Bears and Cardinals were already embroiled in a hard-hitting affair that saw the Cardinals jump out to an early 14-point lead; they led the Bears 17–14 at halftime. It was during the first half that the public address announcer at Comiskey Park interrupted the game to tell all military personnel in attendance to report to their units; the fans and players were left to wonder what was going on. Unbeknownst to the men on the field at the time, many of them would soon be engaged in vastly different but significantly more important contests than this game. Even the iconic head coach, George Halas — whose Bears mounted a second-half rally that propelled them into the divisional playoff and ultimately to their second consecutive NFL championship — would answer the call to service in World War II. Halas left his undefeated Bears (5–0) halfway through the 1942 season in order to serve as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy.

Back in New York City, the New York Giants were hosting their inter-borough rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers, at the Polo Grounds — in the early days of the NFL, the football squad sometimes adopted the same moniker as the Major League Baseball team that shared the venue. Upon cursory inspection, the contest between the Giants and the Dodgers appeared to be anti-climatic; the Giants were already going to the NFL Championship Game while the Dodgers were playing out the string. But for the franchise-record 55,051 people who crammed into the Polo Grounds that day, as well as the millions of other Giants and Dodgers fans, this was a rivalry game. And because the Dodgers had beaten the Giants 16–13 at Ebbets Field in Week 8 of the season, the Dodgers and their faithful were not convinced the Giants were the city's best NFL team.

In addition to the rivalry, fans were drawn to the Polo Grounds that day to pay tribute to their star running back, Alphonse "Tuffy" Emil Leemans, who the Giants wanted to honor for his contributions to the team. Their second-round pick in the NFL's first-ever college draft in 1936 played fullback and halfback — and even excelled on defense — and he consistently kept the Giants in championship contention through the years. For this and more, he had earned his own day. The Giants players quietly assembled on the field for the ceremony and watched as Tuffy Leemans was presented with a silver tray, a watch, and $1,500 in defense bonds. The ceremony began at 1:30 pm EST, and the players on the field and the fans in the stands had no inkling that at 1:55 pm EST, shortly before the speeches honoring Tuffy Leemans had begun, the first Japanese planes were dropping their bombs on Pearl Harbor.

Those who didn't have a ticket to the Polo Grounds that day could still listen to the game over the radio. One such person was a red-headed teen who went on to become a Hall of Fame broadcaster for the Brooklyn, and then Los Angeles, Dodgers baseball club. Eight days after his 14th birthday, Edward "Vin" Scully settled under his radio at his home in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan to take in the Giants-Dodgers broadcast on station WOR. The young Scully liked to lay under the stand upon which the family radio sat and hold on to the legs so that he could "feel the sounds of the game." Like many other football fans, he was tuned into the Tuffy Leemans Day proceedings and had no hint that his life was about to change; there was no immediate report inside the stadium, or over the radio, regarding the surprise attack thousands of miles away. As the young Scully listened to the description of the intense action taking place on the field that day, the stadium's public address announcer could be heard paging the army intelligence chief, Col. William J. Donovan, with the directive to call "operator 19 in Washington." The announcer also told all military personnel that they needed to report to their units. Suddenly, the radio broadcast itself was interrupted by the news of the Japanese attack; it, too, instructed all servicemen to report for duty.

The typical late-fall American Sunday afternoon had abruptly changed. As the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor poured out of the speaker and into the Scully home, young Vin sat there stunned by what he was hearing. It was shocking and scary. A bewildered Vin asked his parents, "What is going on?" The only words they could muster in reply were, "My God! This means war."

Millions of other Americans reacted similarly to the Scullys when they heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Back at the Polo Grounds, the players on the field and the spectators in the stands had no awareness of what had just taken place in the Pacific Ocean; they did not find out about the attack until after the Dodgers' 21–7 victory. Two Sundays later, the Giants lost to the Chicago Bears 37–9 in the NFL Championship Game.

It was 7:55 am Hawaii time that December day when military personnel at the base in Pearl Harbor were awakened by gunfire and explosions. Five time zones to the east, in Washington, D.C., the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles were preparing for a 2:00 pm EST start at Griffith Stadium. It was cold in Washington that day as 27,102 spectators made their way into the stands, reporters made their way to the press box, and the players on the field tried to stay warm. By game time thousands of Americans had been killed or wounded, but most of those inside Griffith Stadium had no clue that this was happening. The game was their sole focus; they were there to see "Slingin'" Sammy Baugh lead the Redskins to a respectable 6–5 record. Soon after Philadelphia had taken an early 7–0 lead on their first drive, the PA announcer began a string of announcements: "Admiral Bland is asked to report to his office. ... Captain H.X. Fenn is asked to report. ... The resident commissioner of the Philippines is urged to report...." Baugh stated later, "We didn't know what the hell was going on. I had never heard that many announcements one right after another. We felt something was up, but we just kept playing."

The only people in the stadium who had any hint of what was going on in the Pacific were the occupants of the press box. Associated Press reporter Pat O'Brien received a message instructing him to keep his report of the game brief; only in a follow-up second message did he get the news after he complained and asked the reason. The spectators still had no idea. Feeling that it would distract the fans, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall wouldn't allow an announcement of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during the game. As he later said, "I didn't want to divert the fans' attention from the game." Oblivious to the world-changing event taking place outside, the fans inside the stadium loudly cheered as the Redskins were led to a 20–14 victory on the strength of two fourth-quarter touchdown passes thrown by their hero, Sammy Baugh. While a few hundred fans rushed the goalposts, the rest of the fans exited Griffith Stadium. It wasn't until they cleared the turnstiles that they heard the news. They were shocked to hear newsboys outside the stadium shouting, "Extra papers!" and brandishing newspapers that declared "U.S. at War." The game was made inconsequential by this transformative national event, so much so that some have even referred to the Eagles/Redskins game played that day as "the most forgotten game ever played."

Many Redskins and Eagles players and other football personnel would soon be going to war as they answered their country's call to arms. In fact, almost a thousand players and team personnel from the National Football League's 10 franchises would participate in history's bloodiest conflict in the ensuing four years. Sammy Baugh, the hero of the Eagles/Redskins game, went home to Texas expecting to receive a call from the draft board, but the call never came; Baugh worked on his ranch doing the essential work of raising beef cattle for the war effort. During the war he flew in on the weekends to play football games.

For Americans, World War II began in a place most of them had never heard of, but what took place on that Sunday morning in the Pacific Ocean impacted all of them — immediately and completely. The world had suddenly become a more dangerous place. Americans would have to adopt an ethos of sacrifice. Americans from every corner of the nation and from every walk of life were called upon to do all they could for the cause. Some made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for the cause of stopping totalitarianism. And the NFL was not immune. Both players and team personnel from the National Football League were among those who served and sacrificed. Many served with distinction, several were commissioned as officers, and some gave their lives. The attack on Pearl Harbor had shattered America's innocence. The United States government and all Americans were in for the battle of their lives as they sought to preserve the world for democracy.

Unnecessary Distraction or Morale-Builder?

As people throughout the United States tried to process what had taken place on December 7, they turned to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for guidance. Naturally, the call for war was immediate, and on December 8, 1941, the United States Congress voted (almost unanimously) for a declaration of war on the Empire of Japan. War was declared on Germany three days later. Buoyed by the words of FDR's "Infamy Speech," Americans began to determine how they could help. Millions of young men, including thousands of college and professional football players, flocked to the nearest enlistment office. Civilians were asked to make sacrifices on the home front.

The attack on Pearl Harbor had an enormous impact on almost all areas of American life, and this included professional sports. Many wondered aloud about the propriety of playing sports in wartime. The political and public conversation fostered by the attack on Pearl Harbor centered on this question: "Is playing baseball or football during a time of national emergency appropriate?" Americans again turned to their leader at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Roosevelt's response was a resounding, "Yes!" In FDR's mind, professional sports would serve as a welcome diversion for the millions of civilians working in war-related industries. Even before the attack, millions of Americans were back working as the United States government carried out FDR's Lend-Lease edict; even before the United States' direct participation in the war, President Roosevelt had promised that the United States would provide its allies with war-making hardware such as tanks, planes, and guns "in ever increasing numbers." Millions more civilians swelled the ranks of the homefront workforce as the nation geared up for war. It was President Roosevelt's contention that in the grim times ahead, the American people could benefit from the distraction and that it would boost morale. Thus, he encouraged the major sports to continue. The NFL did.

On March 24, 1942, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden issued a news release stating that the United States government supported the continuation of the NFL seasons. Commissioner Layden's release read in part:

From Aristotle's time on down we have been told, and it has been demonstrated, that sports is necessary for the relaxation of the people in times of stress and worry. The National Football League will strive to help meet this need with the men the government has not yet called for combat service, either because of dependents, disabilities, or the luck of the draw in the army draft.

The NFL responded to the government's support by offering to create monetary and morale-boosting programs targeted at supporting the final objective — victory. Part of the reality of achieving total victory was that the league would see many of its stars as well as everyday players depart for military service. Players eligible for the service were leaving in droves, and those who were left to play in the ensuing wartime seasons were aptly described in the popular World War II–era song, "Too Young or Too Old." But the seasons went on.

During the 1942–45 NFL seasons, the players played and the spectators cheered. The quality of the play was not as good, but the enthusiasm was there. Many of the league's best players were serving in theaters of war, battling for their lives. The National Football League paid a dear price for total victory. It had the highest casualty rates of any professional sports organization in America, and 22 men — 20 players and two other NFL personnel — paid the ultimate price. One of those men killed — NFL legend Jack Lummus — earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Maurice Britt served with distinction, survived his injuries, and was also honored with the Medal of Honor. A third Medal of Honor recipient — Joe Foss — would come back home and play an instrumental role in the creation of the American Football League, as well as the Super Bowl.


Excerpted from When Football Went to War by Todd Anton, Bill Nowlin. Copyright © 2013 Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Todd Anton has been a U.S. History instructor for more than 23 years. He served on the board of trustees for the National World War II Museum from 2006 to 2010. He is the author of No Greater Love: Life Stories from the Men Who Saved Baseball and coauthor with Bill Nowlin of When Baseball Went to War. He lives in Victorville, California. Bill Nowlin is a former professor of political science and cofounder of Rounder Records. He is the author or editor of more than 30 books baseball books and collaborated with Todd Anton on Fox News Channel’s “War Stories with Oliver North” episode on baseball and World War II. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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