Players at war

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:07 PM ET

The silent oath of athletes is a simple credo -- "leave your best on the field," be it the one-yard line, home plate, the goal crease or under the hoop.

But for those careers that collided with two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, much greater effort and sacrifice was required.

From a comfortable life playing a kid's game, the best pro athletes in North America learned that "going to war" for a 1 p.m. Sunday kickoff was nothing like someone trying to blow your head off, facing a cold steel bayonet, dodging submarines or attempting to fly a shot-up plane.

More than 60,000 Canadians lost their lives in the First World War, another 42,042 in the Second World War and 1,202 in Korea. Athletes weren't immune to those numbers; while many of those who survived came back physical or mental wrecks.

"You could meet an older guy who says: 'I could've made the National Hockey League if I'd stayed home,' " Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn said in 1998 when recalling his father's role in the Battle of the Atlantic. "You might think, "yeah, sure" but so many really made that sacrifice.

"We can be so self-absorbed that we don't think of what people gave up years ago. Would we make the same decision to go and fight?"

The face of Canadian hockey changed quickly in the First World War as the stars either enlisted or formed powerful armed forces teams. The eventual 1920 world champion Winnipeg Falcons joined en masse, but three notables -- Olie Turnbull, Buster Thorsteinson and George Cumbers -- died in France.

Ontario Hockey Association president James T. Sutherland took command of the 146th Battalion and urged young players "to exchange stick and puck for a Ross rifle and bayonet."

The wartime OHA included Toronto's 40th Sportsmen's Artillery Battery, organized by newspaper heir Gordon Southam and coached by future Maple Leafs boss Conn Smythe.

The 40th distinguished itself at the Somme and Vimy Ridge, two of Canada's most terrible engagements of the war. Southam was killed by an artillery blast and rover Jack Pethick perished as well.

Smythe later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, was shot down and became an unwilling guest of the Kaiser, but American ace Hobey Baker, star of the Princeton hockey team, wasn't as lucky. After three German kills in 1918 that won him a French medal, his plane (painted in Princeton orange and black) crashed a month after the Armistice. The NCAA's top hockey individual award now bears his name.

One-eyed Frank McGee, legend of the Ottawa Silver Seven, also fell at the Somme. At 32, the eager recruit had convinced army doctors he could see perfectly despite his rather incriminating moniker.

By 1939, the NHL had become a big spectator sport, but the effects of the Second World War were immediate. Canada entered the conflict two years before the U.S. and a player shortage loomed on the six teams on both sides of the border.

At first, players could get around military service by putting in a month of basic training. But patriots such as Smythe, who again raised a Toronto artillery battery, urged the pros to fulfil longer tours of duty. Smythe was wounded by shrapnel in a German night air raid near Caen, France, as his men tried to douse flames on a munitions truck.

Duty was more dicey for a team such as the Montreal Canadiens, whose province largely opposed the war. However, the volunteers included a young Maurice Richard, who was turned down on medical grounds because of his hockey injuries.

Until June 1944, most Canadian forces were pent up in England with nothing but hockey as their common bond. They cheered the great army, navy and air force teams, based in cities such as Manchester, Brighton and Richmond.

When a German bomb wrecked the roof of the rink in Manchester, a huge tent was erected with 10 support poles, one of them sticking out of the blue line.

"Better than a third defenceman," ex-army engineer Howie Meeker said.

But fun and games were brief. The Leafs lost farmhand Jack Fox, while Toronto-born Dudley (Red) Garrett, who played for the Leafs and Rangers, died off Newfoundland when a U-boat torpedoed the HMCS Shawinigan. Scoring whiz Red Tilson, who had led the Oshawa Generals to the 1943 Memorial Cup and was headed for the Leafs, died during the liberation of Holland in '44. Garrett and Tilson also have OHL trophies named after them.

But in Douglas Hunter's book, War Games, there also were tales of survival involving Canadians. Edmonton-born Chicago Blackhawk forward Bob Carse was wounded and captured in Holland, enduring a year-long shuffle between German POW camps on both fronts. American goalie Sam LoPresti of the Hawks, a merchant mariner, survived 42 days in a raft after his ship was sunk in the Pacific by the Japanese. Coincidentally, Bruins goalie Frank Brimsek, who shared LoPresti's birthplace of Eveleth, Minn., served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Baseball saw its share of sacrifice in the Second World War as well, but Moe Berg's work began seven years before Pearl Harbour. Berg, who had attended three universities and spoke 12 languages, toured Japan with other players in 1934 and was never without his camera. He had been approached by the OSS, a forerunner of the CIA, to photograph key installations that later helped Allied bombing missions.

Cleveland Indians pitching ace Bob Feller signed up two days after Pearl Harbour, at the height of his career. He is one of 434 baseball players who joined, 19 of them now Hall of Famers. He won eight Battle Stars aboard the USS Alabama as a gunnery captain.

Canadian-born players were prominent, led by Phil Marchildon. A native of Penetanguishene and a member of the Philadelphia Athletics, he pitched very well for the last-place club, but left for the RCAF after the 1942 season.

A tail-gunner in a Halifax bomber, Marchildon's crew completed the requisite 25 missions, but he was shot down in August '44 over the North Sea. Rescued by Danish fisherman, he spent some of his captivity at the infamous Stalag Luft III, near Berlin, site of film The Great Escape seven months before.

Liberated in May '45, Marchildon was malnourished and suffering from a nervous disorder, but made it back to pitch for the A's that summer. He was joined by Toronto's Dick Fowler.

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On Sept. 9, 1945, the just-released Fowler threw a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns and no Canadian has tossed one since.

Baseball's best comeback stories included Bert Shepard, who had his right leg amputated after his plane crashed in Germany. He taught himself to walk and pitch with an artificial leg in a POW camp and appeared in a 1945 game for Washington.

Another A's pitcher, Lou Brissie, a lanky southpaw from South Carolina, was fighting in the mountains near Florence, Italy, in December '44 when a German shell broke both feet, splitting his left leg open from ankle to knee. Also suffering from a shoulder wound, he dragged himself to cover through the mud, which infected his injuries. Awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, he required 23 leg operations, but returned for spring training in 1947, pitching in the first Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium.

Brissie was in the '48 season opening doubleheader in Boston. After Marchildon tossed the first game, Brissie followed with a 4-2 win over the Red Sox, though he took a Ted Williams liner off his bad leg in the seventh and fell in severe pain. Among the anxious faces he saw looking down at him was Williams, an ex-pilot.

"For Chrissakes, Ted, pull the damn ball," Brissie snapped before getting up to complete his win.

Williams flew three years in the Second World War, but his combat experience was all in Korea. In 39 missions, his bomb accuracy rating was as impressive as his .406 batting average in 1941. Early in 1953, his F-9 Panther was hit by small arms fire that damaged the hydraulics and radio while causing a small fire. With great difficulty, Williams followed a fellow pilot back to base, landing his jet at 225 m.p.h., on one wheel. He had decided not to eject, fearing his 6-foot-3 frame would not escape career knee damage and risked the hard landing instead.

Canadian football lost greats such as Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Jeff Nicklin, a lieutenant colonel with the First Canadian Parachute Battlion. He survived the D-Day drop, but not a raid months later in the heart of Germany when his chute snagged in a tree above an enemy mortar crew.

Of the 638 American pro football players who served in the Second World War, 21 died, including Hall of Famers Maurie Britt and Jack Lummus. Bears legend George Halas also interrupted his career. Six future NFL owners served, such as Ralph Wilson of the Bills and Wellington Mara of the Giants.

The National Basketball Association was not launched until 1946, but one of the first players to break its colour barrier in 1950 was the U.S. Navy's Chuck Cooper with the Boston Celtics. Serving his country wasn't enough; Cooper also endured the same racial taunts that Jackie Robinson had faced in baseball a few years earlier.

Roll Call

Professional athletes who served their country during the 20th Century:

Hockey

Syl Apps

Red Tilson*

Hobey Baker (USA)* +

Dudley (Red) Garrett+

Jack Fox+

Howie Meeker

George Richardson*+

Scotty Davidson*+

John Mariucci (USA)

Sam LoPresti (USA)

Frank Brimsek (USA)

Olie Turnbull*+

Buster Thorsteinson*+

George Cumbers*+

Frank McGee*+

Ed (Muggins) Roberts*

Jack Pethick*+

Howard McNamara

(Bullet) Joe Simpson

Bob Carse

Joe Turner

Red Hamill

Football

Eagle Keys

George Halas

Ralph Heywood

Pat Tillman^+

Roger Staubach@

Charlie Joiner@

Ray Nitschke@

Cliff Harris@

Moses Denson@

Bob Kalso (Bills)@

Don Steinbrunner@

Rockey Bleier@

Eddie Thompson

Jeff Nicklin+

Len Teeuws

Chad Henning

John Sheridan

Mike Basca+

Charlie Behan+

Keith Birlem+

Al Blozis +

Chuck Braidwood+

Young Bussey+

Jack Chevigny+

Grassy Hinton+

Smiley Johnson+

Eddie Kahn+

Alex Ketzko+

Lee Kizzire+

Jack Lummus+

Bob Mackert+

Frank Maher+

Jim Mooney+

Gus Sonnenberg+

Len Supulski+

Don Wemple+

Chet Wetterlund+

Waddy Young+

Baseball

Hank Greenberg

Bert Shepard

Bob Feller

Joe DiMaggio

Dom DiMaggio

Ted Williams

Phil Marchildon

Dick Fowler

Dave Philley

Buddy Lewis

Lou Brissie

Harry O'Neill+

Elmore Gedeon+

Basketball

Chuck Cooper

Bones McKinney

Ralph Kiner

Coaches/executives

Bud Adams

Ralph Wilson

Tom Denian

Wellington Mara

Art Modell

Alex Spanos

Conn Smythe

Shanty McKenzie

Sandy Alderson

James T. Sutherland

Gordon Southam+

Jack Buck

+ = Killed

* = WW I

^ = Iraq

@ = Vietnam


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