World War II was blazing on all fronts. Sugar, coffee, meat, butter and other staples of the table were being rationed. Gasoline and tires were in short supply, so families weren't out joy-riding in automobiles.
Casualty lists, too often containing familiar names, were published in the newspapers. Gold stars on a white background appeared starkly in the windows of neighborhood houses, denoting that a mother's son, a soldier, sailor, marine, airman or coast guardsman, had been killed in action.
And with this grim reality as a backdrop, Army and Navy were getting ready to play a football game, Dec. 2, 1944, at Baltimore's Municipal Stadium. President Franklin D. Roosevelt decreed that some sports should go on as scheduled if they didn't hamper the movement of troop trains. He also wanted as much of normal American life to continue for purposes of overall morale and to assure citizens that the Axis enemies couldn't interrupt our long-held traditions.
It wasn't advertised as such, but the Army-Navy encounter in Baltimore became the most important sports event of wartime -- this meeting of military academies for the national championship. To buy a ticket, you first had to subscribe to a war bond, kind of a personal seat license to help your country and not some two-bit entrepreneur.
Purchasing a $25 war bond entitled you to sit in the end-zone section. A $100,000 or a $1 million check coming from major industry, those with defense contracts, provided entry to the coveted midfield seats. Bottom line: More money was contributed in Baltimore that day to pay for the expense of waging war than in any other single fund-raiser held anywhere in the country.
The grand total was $58,637,000.
Army won the game, 23-7, and with it the national championship, the first time the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked service academy teams played for the premier position. The Heisman Trophy winners of 1945 and 1946, Felix "Doc" Blanchard and Glenn Davis, were Army's famed combination, known as "Mr. Inside" and "Mr. Outside."
Blanchard, with enormous irony, after his freshman season at the University of North Carolina, had applied to the Naval Academy but was rejected because he was colorblind. How that changed history. The Army had no such stipulation, so his destiny became West Point.
When the Cadets' glorious afternoon in Baltimore concluded, General Douglas MacArthur was so moved by the result that he sent the following cablegram from his Pacific command post to Earl "Red" Blaik, the much-revered Army coach:
"TO THE GREATEST OF ALL ARMY TEAMS -- STOP -- WE HAVE STOPPED THE WAR TO CELEBRATE YOUR MAGNIFICENT SUCCESS."
Now doesn't that sound so typical of MacArthur and his love of all things West Point?
How the Naval Academy midshipmen and the Military Academy cadets came to Baltimore was not by bus or train but via the waterways, a surprise invasion. It was an easy 28-mile trip from Annapolis, but for Army it was close to 300 miles and a precarious run.
The corps of cadets, coming by sea, sailed down the Hudson River on two troopships, escorted by protective destroyers hugging the coast of New Jersey and Delaware and then making a turn into Chesapeake Bay. On to Baltimore.
Had German U-boats, which turned the area off Atlantic City, N.J., into a shooting gallery, known of the trip, they might have blown away a large segment of future army officers in what would have been a wartime tragedy and also a travesty, one the government would have had difficulty defending.
Fortunately, the cadets arrived in Baltimore safely. No details of how they had gotten here were mentioned. Secrecy was locked in and censorship maintained until long after the war, when sportswriter Harold Rosenthal of the New York Herald Tribune disclosed what had occurred.
The corps was promised a steak dinner after the game, aboard ship, but while cruising on their return down the Chesapeake Bay, a violent storm of almost hurricane strength rocked the ships, and most of the land-loving cadets were so nauseated that the evening meal was skipped.
Those were, indeed, extraordinary times, the rarest of circumstances. In fact, for the two preceding years, the Army-Navy game had been played before fewer than 20,000 at Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y., and Thompson Stadium in Annapolis. Neither visiting team then was accompanied by remnants of the student bodies, but on those occasions a section of cadets was ordered to cheer for Navy ... and vice versa when Army played in Annapolis.
They were applauding and exulting for the "enemy," but not with all heart and soul and maybe only via a whisper.
At both Army and Navy, college players were recruited to attend the academies and play football. Instead of going into the regular service with a possibility of being shipped overseas, they trained to become officers. It was something of a sham because when the war ended in 1945, most of the former college standouts, but not all, resigned and returned to the freedom of campus life.
In some cases, they had avoided combat under the protection of being groomed to become future military officers. Only a relative few remained to make the Army or Navy a career. Notable exceptions included Don Whitmire and Doc Blanchard. They remained loyal to their pledge and distinguished themselves as decorated officers after their football eligibility elapsed.
World War II had set the strangest parameters for Army, Navy and college football. It made for a bizarre and unique chapter in a storied relationship that has meant so much to America in history and lore.