In '41, war crashed Navy victory party

December 02, 1991|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Evening Sun Staff

ANNAPOLIS -- On the day in 1941 that still lives in infamy, Navy's football players gathered at the quarters of the academy's superintendent, Adm. Russell Wilson, for a victory reception.

Only eight days before, on Nov. 29, Navy had defeated Army, 14-6, before 98,000 in Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium. It was the Middies' third straight win over the Cadets, accomplished under coach Swede Larson and with a triple-threat tailback named Bill Busik.

During the reception, Wilson was called to the phone, and Busik and his teammates watched as he went upstairs. When the superintendent returned, he announced, "Gentlemen, we are at war. Return to your quarters in Bancroft Hall."

Even when Busik entered the academy in 1939 there were war clouds over Europe and the "mindset of people was war-oriented."

Courses were accelerated. Classes were whisked through the academy early. Busik's class of 1943 graduated a full year early, in June 1942, depriving him of a year of football.

From behind his desk in Alumni House, where he has served as executive director of the Naval Academy Alumni Association since 1971, Busik, 72, smiled.

"I still have a year of eligibility left," he said.

It may have crossed the mind of current coach George Chaump to tell Busik, "Suit up." As the Middies prepare for their game with Army Saturday -- on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II -- they are burdened with an 0-10 record.

Busik came to the academy from Pasadena, Calif., where he was a teammate in four sports of Jackie Robinson, who would later break major-league baseball's racial barrier. They were together during junior high school and for a year of football at Pasadena Junior College.

"In baseball, I was the second baseman and he was the shortstop," Busik said. "We were both long jumpers in track. In basketball he was a forward and I was a guard. In football, when I was at fullback, he was the tailback."

Busik was known at Navy as Barnacle Bill, a spinoff from the ditty, "He's rough and tough and knows his stuff, he's Barnacle Bill the sailorman." Busik ran, passed, punted and played safety on defense right through his final game, eight days before Pearl Harbor.

Navy went into that encounter with Army with six wins, a loss to Notre Dame and a tie with Harvard. Army, in its first season under coach Red Blaik, had five victories, losses to Harvard and Penn and a tie with Notre Dame.

"Army took a 6-0 lead and our adrenalin really started to flow," Busik said.

Larson had what was known as a "two-ocean team." Just as the Navy had fleets in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Larson had so much depth that he formed two teams and substituted them as entire units from quarter to quarter. In those days, the rules stated that a player who left the game couldn't return until the next quarter.

Busik was the tailback on the first unit, Howie Clark the tailback on the second. It was Clark who scored Navy's second touchdown, after Busik's runs and passes had set up the first.

At one point, Busik got off a 77-yard quick kick on third down that rolled dead on Army's 1-foot line. That punt stood as an Army-Navy game record until a few years ago when a Cadet's punt bounced past the Navy returner and rolled and rolled.

Busik, watching the game with Roger Staubach, turned to his companion and said, "Hey, Rog, there goes my record."

On the train that brought the team back to Annapolis, captain Bob Froude asked the players to sign the game ball. It was presented to Larson's wife, known by the players as "Grandma."

In 1962, when Busik became Navy's athletic director, Grandma Larson shipped the ball to him. At halftime of this year's William & Mary game, the 1941 team presented it to current Navy AD Jack Lengyel for display in a trophy case.

The 1941 game not only was the last for Busik as a player but for Larson as Navy's coach. The Middies' victory preserved Larson's all-winning record against Army -- three as player, three as coach.

"This will be the last game for me for quite a while," Larson told reporters after the game. "There's a bigger game coming up and I am going to be in it."

He was right. The "bigger game" started eight days later when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into World War II. Weeks later, in the thick of the fighting in the South Pacific, Larson was killed.

Were it not for Pearl Harbor, the Army game might not have been the last for Busik or Larson. As one of the top teams in the country, Navy was in line for a bid to the Rose Bowl, in Busik's hometown of Pasadena, but the war --ed that dream.

"If it hadn't been for the war, all of us whose graduation was moved up a year would have come back for the 1942 season," Busik said. "We would have been world-beaters."

As it was, Barnacle Bill was in the heat of his first battle in the fall of 1942.

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