A half-century ago, they came by sea

November 30, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Football, or even all of sports, never had an event to equal the circumstances that existed in Baltimore exactly 50 years ago. It was the only time Army played Navy when they were ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country -- plus the fact you had first to buy a war bond before becoming eligible to purchase a ticket. Furthermore, because of railroad travel restrictions, the corps and brigade of the academies came to the game by ship.

The entire mission was guarded by World War II censorship rules. Had German U-boats known of the trip down the Hudson River, they may have attempted to hug the coast line of New Jersey, torpedo the U.S.S. Uruguay and wipe out the 2,400 future officers it was transporting.

There was a convoy of protection, six destroyers, which surrounded the troop carrier against such an attack. Meanwhile, Naval Academy undergraduates merely sailed up Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis to Baltimore and then marched to then-Municipal Stadium, on the same site as present Memorial Stadium.

It wasn't until after the war that the almost spell-binding details of how the Cadets and Midshipmen made it to Baltimore for the 1944 kickoff were revealed by Harold Rosenthal, sportswriter of the New York Herald Tribune. What happened was never talked about or discussed and known only to military personnel before Rosenthal related the secret scenario that unfolded.

World War II was at its height. Railroads were moving supplies and men. It would have been a violation of national policy to utilize trains to carry the cadets and midshipmen to Baltimore. Thus, the precarious nautical maneuver was implemented.

Army coach Earl "Red" Blaik, great as a man and football strategist, later said, "I know there must be a moment in every coach's career which surpasses all the others. . . . I believe the No. 1 moment for me came in that victory of Army's greatest over Navy's greatest in Baltimore."

To see the game, a fan was compelled first to buy a war bond to qualify as a ticket holder. A crowd of 66,658 was present, including Gen. George Marshall, Army chief of staff; Adm. William D. Leahy, Navy chief of staff; Ernest King, chief of naval operations; and Gen. H.H. "Hap" Arnold, chief of the Air Forces.

A seat on the 50-yard line meant a million-dollar war bond had to be purchased. Fifteen boxes, bought by corporations and industries, were sold for that figure. Overall, the total war bond sale represented the most money accrued during World War II from any single event -- an astronomical $58,637,000.

It was the Treasury Department that came up with the idea of staging the war bond bonanza, succeeding in a brief 15-day period, with congressional pressure, to move the game site from modest Thompson Stadium at the Naval Academy to Baltimore.

Here, seating capacity was three times more than could have been accommodated in Annapolis.

As for the game, it was an epic, even though Army won by a deceptive score of 23-7. Two future Heisman Trophy winners, Felix "Doc" Blanchard and Glenn Davis, were in the West Point backfield.

Blanchard, in a momentous twist of irony, had tried to enlist in the Navy after his freshman year at North Carolina, but was turned down because doctors found he was color-blind. Imagine if Blanchard had gone in the Navy and played there. History would have offered a diverse perspective.

Davis, in reflecting on the game, remembers Blaik's telling the team in the locker room how Gen. Robert Eichelberger had wired him "to win for all the soldiers fighting for us." There was no denying the resolve as the teams took the field.

Davis is in agreement with Blaik that the Baltimore performance was historic. It was Army's first undefeated season in 30 years. "Of the many thrills I've had in my career, I guess the Army-Navy game of Dec. 2, 1944, was my greatest," he says. "We at West Point considered that victory the high point of our undefeated streak."

And on a distant battlefront, Gen. Douglas MacArthur learned, via Armed Forces Radio, what had transpired in Baltimore. He quickly dispatched a cable to Blaik that qualifies as a vivid example of the flamboyant MacArthur. His message read: "The greatest of all Army teams. We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success."

It was a momentous college football game between the academies that featured, in addition to Blanchard and Davis, such outstanding Army players as Hank Foldberg, Dale Hall, John Green, Joe Stanowicz, Barney Poole, DeWitt "Tex" Coulter, Doug Kenna, Max Minor, Tom Lombardo, Dick Pitzer, Herschel "Ug" Fuson, Al Nemetz, Archie Arnold, Dick Walterhouse, Robert Dobbs and Robert St. Onge.

For Navy, Don Whitmire, Ben Chase, Clyde "Smackover" Scott, Leon Bramlett, Jim Carrington, Gail Gilliam, Jack Martin, Ben Martin, John Hansen, Hal Hamberg, C.B. Smith, Bobby Jenkins, Bill Barron, Ralph Ellsworth, Joe Sullivan, Stansfield Turner, Dick Duden and Jim Pettit were prominent in the cast.

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