Today is June 6th, the anniversary of D-Day. For those who slept through history class or the first ten gut-wrenching minutes of Saving Private Ryan, this was of course the invasion of Normandy back in 1944. It was the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler on the western front, as he was already being pushed back by the Soviets in the east.
It was a different time back then. For instance, in the United States, when a young man or woman says he or she wants to join the armed forces and serve his country these days, chances are they’ll hear “way to go, kid, good for you!” In Canada and other places, the question will be, “why?” but that’s a different story. Back then, when someone said they wanted to “do their part” for the war effort, it was a given and confusion was saved for those who wanted no part in it.
In a similar way, there has only been one prominent athlete to join the armed forces and serve in the war on terror in recent times. Of course, it was Pat Tillman, who died in Afghanistan back in 2004, joining the U.S. Army in 2002 after the 9/11 attacks. Back during the First and Second World Wars, it was a whole different ball game and in some cases, leagues made special concessions for teams that had lost too many players who had entered service. In 1943, the Cleveland Ramsdid not have a team in the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles merged, creating the Steagles.
In honor of one of the anniversary of one of the most important events of that war, here are fifteen of the most prominent athletes from the period who fought in World War Two. The Sportster published an article about 15 athletes who are war heroes a few months ago, and some World War Two vets were on it, including baseball legends Ted Williams,Yogi Berra, and Hank Bauer. For purposes of offering new information, they will not be featured here, but are also awesome and should be remembered fondly.
15. Stan Musial
One of the greatest St. Louis Cardinals of all time is Stan Musial, who passed away in 2013. He played over twenty years in the Major Leagues, earning over 3,500 hits and just shy of 2,000 runs batted in. If you’re not impressed yet, he was a three time World Series champion and played in over twenty All-Star games in three decades.
He joined the U.S. Navy in early 1945, serving in Maryland first and later being reassigned to ferry duty on Hawaii. His last assignment was to Philadelphia, where he stayed until early 1946, when he was honorably discharged.
14. Turk Broda
While the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently one of the NHL’s whipping boy teams, there was a time over half a century ago when they were one of the teams to beat (it’s easier in a six team league). From 1936 to 1952, their brick wall was Walter “Turk” Broda. He helped the Leafs to five Stanley Cup championships and was a two time Vezina winner.
Between 1943 and 1945 he served in the Canadian Army. He was stationed in England for much of that time.
13. Bobby Jones
One of the golf greats of the 1920s was Bobby Jones, who won all four major championships (before the advent of The Masters tournament) in 1930. He retired after that year, as his money was earned from his law career. He went on to found the Augusta National golf club and also The Masters itself.
During World War Two, he served in the United States Air Force. He was primarily an intelligence officer until 1944, when he landed the day after D-day and served on the front lines interrogating prisoners of war.
12. Hank Greenberg
One of the most revered names in the history of the Detroit Tigers organisation is that of Hank Greenberg, a slugging machine who led the team to two World Series championships and knocked 331 balls out of the park over the course of his 13 years in the league.
He was the first baseball player to register for the draft back in 1940, before the United States entered the war. Initially, he was medically exempt from service, but after reviewing his file (at his request) he was accepted. Shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was honorably discharged due to his age, but enlisted again just two months later. He served as an officer in the Air Force and served in Asia during the war.
11. Joe DiMaggio
Joe DiMaggio has a sort of bittersweet story with regard to his military service. He is one of the biggest names in baseball history, known for his record 56 game hitting streak and a career .325 batting average, not to mention 13 All-Star seasons and nine World Series championships.
When he served in World War Two, DiMaggio never wanted special treatment due to his status as a professional ball player, but whether he wanted it or not, he got it. He played baseball while in the army, serving in Hawaii and California. At one point, he formally requested combat duty, but was turned down.
10. Patty Berg
Every article needs at least one woman and who better for this one than a pioneer star in women’s golf. Born in 1918, the year in which World War One ended, she started playing golf in the early 30s and is one of the founding members of the LPGA. From 1942 to 1945, she was an officer in the United States Marine Corps, working assignments in recruitment and public relations. During her golf career, she won sixty professional tournaments. She passed away back in 2006, but is remembered as one of the most prolific names in the game.
9. Joe Louis
One of the greatest boxers of all time, Joe Louis held the World Heavyweight title for over eleven years and had a professional record of 66-3. He was a symbol of anti-Nazi sentiment due to certain comments he made about Adolf Hitler. He volunteered for service in the Army just a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He was initially a member of a segregated cavalry unit, but would later be used primarily for recruitment purposes. He was a major force for recruiting black soldiers. When asked about his views on segregation in the military, he said that while the United States wasn’t perfect and had some problems “Hitler ain’t gonna fix ’em.”
8. Jackie Robinson
Another African American athlete to have served during World War Two, Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play in the major leagues. His military service took place before his professional athletic career and he was an officer in a tank unit. All of this took place during World War Two but he did not see combat. He refused to move to the back of a bus in 1944 and was court-martialed for insubordination.
His joining the armed forces was influenced by Joe Louis, as he encountered difficulty being accepted to officer school, a problem which was solved via some protest and string pulling by the boxer. He left the army with an honorable discharge in late 1944, having been acquitted of his insubordination charge.
7. Enos Slaughter
St. Louis Cardinals legend Enos Slaughter, who was a Hall of Fame inductee, four-time Word Series champ and ten time All-Star is our number seven, having taken three years off from baseball to serve in the armed forces. During World War Two, he originally wanted to be a pilot but was colorblind, so instead served as a physical education instructor.
Despite his service and baseball career, Slaughter (who had a great name for a soldier) has a slightly tainted reputation for allegations of racism. Such accusations rose from a rumor that when Jackie Robinson was brought into the league, he and others tried to organize a strike. Additionally, he cut Robinson’s leg with the spikes on his cleats while running to first during a game back in 1947. Slaughter said when asked about these events, that it was nonsense and while he was southern, the color of Robinson’s skin didn’t matter.
6. Syl Apps
Another Toronto Maple Leaf, Syl Apps was with the team from 1936 until his retirement in 1948. A brilliant athlete, he competed at the 1936 Olympics in Pole Vault. He won three Stanley Cups with the Leafs back when they weren’t into “rebuilding” every year.
Apps served from 1943 in the Canadian Army and played for military leagues throughout much of his time. He returned to the Leafs in 1945, leading them to Stanley Cup victories in ’47 and ’48.
5. Jerry Coleman
While Yankees fans may remember Jerry Coleman for being a member of four World Series winning teams between 1949 and 1957, he was most fond and proud of his days serving with the United States Marine Corps, in which he was a pilot. He flew over 100 combat missions as a Marine pilot and served in the Korean War in addition to World War Two. He died in 2014 after a nasty fall from which he did not recover.
4. Max Schmeling
Schmeling was the first European to hold the Heavyweight World Championship belt and did so in the early 1930’s. He beat Joe Louis in 1936 but lost to him in 1938, returning to Germany shortly thereafter. While he was used by the Nazis for political reasons, he disliked Hitler and what the party stood for, stating that in retrospect he was happy he lost to Joe Louis, as he would have been a hero to his government if he had returned after a win.
He was forced to serve in the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), during the war, but was injured in 1941 during the Invasion of Crete. It was revealed after the war that he had actually helped a couple of young Jewish boys by providing them shelter during Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass, a massive anti-Jewish riot) in 1938.
3. Monte Irvin
Unlike most of this list, Irvin is still kicking. He played for many years in the Negro Leagues, but broke into MLB in 1949 and would play until 1956. He was one of the first black players in the league, being hired by the New York Giants just two years after Jackie Robinson was brought into the league by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He took time away from the Negro League between 1942 and 1945 to serve in the armed forces. He was stationed in Europe and worked with the engineers.
2. Archie Williams
Everyone seems to remember Jesse Owens from the 1936 Olympics. He won four gold medals in track and field, but Adolf Hitler refused to shake his hand. Classy gent. Archie Williams was a runner who won the gold in the 400 meter sprint in Berlin that year. He fondly remembered, with a chuckle “Hitler wouldn’t shake my hand either.”
He earned an engineering degree years later and during the war he trained the Tuskegee Airmen and served as a pilot in the Air Force for many years after the war, seeing combat action in Korea.
1. Jack Dempsey
Another boxer on our list, Dempsey was the World Heavyweight Champion from 1919 to 1926. Throughout his professional career, he went 54-6 with 9 draws. The Colorado native who was born in 1895 was criticized for having not served in World War One (he was 22 in 1917) but was later proven to have applied and been medically turned away.
When the United States joined World War Two, Dempsey joined the U.S. Coast Guard and was in charge of phys ed for a New York training base. He would later be sent into the Pacific Theater, where he was stationed on a few ships and was present at the Invasion of Okinawa.
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