Archive for Saturday, July 19, 2003

Mayer: Select few were in America’s biggest game — WWII

July 19, 2003


When your career in this business spans all or parts of seven decades, you've grown accustomed to the face of constant, often justified, challenges from readers.

The late Katherine Graham noted that the average newspaper story or column amounted to a rough first draft of the truth. Discovering "truth" is a terribly inexact science.

Mere humans, we journalists never leave everyone fully informed, happy or satisfied. Even the most glowing reactions frequently start with something like, "That was a wonderful article, BUT ..."

Among the most sensitive and picayune are coaches, athletes, and their families and friends. Write 10 favorable pieces, you hear nothing. Mention that one of them missed a pass or basket or struck out and, boy, do they have a cow!

One of the barbs you get from time to time is: "What team did you play for?" or "You never played in a big game, so how would you know?"

Man, that's like shooting fish in a barrel. I feel almost guilty when I respond to such critics because it's so much fun.

Sportswise I tried hard, lots of times, but I possess the athletic skills of an arthritic ameba. I've never been better than scrub or B-team in anything -- except for the biggest game the country ever played -- World War II. In a sense, I'm the jackass they sent each year to run in the Kentucky Derby: Never won much but sure as hell benefited from the association.

Yet I actually made the team and lettered for the international equivalent of the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the World Series, the World Cup or the Tour de France. I'll never be prouder of anything. When some coach or jock or groupie gives me cheap romance about never being on a "team," I can politely recall "team" and training experiences they have absolutely no way of comprehending. So many others can, too.

Lots of guys and gals back here for the Dole Institute of Politics gala this weekend can relate. Most of them have cause for far more satisfaction than I about what they accomplished between late 1941 and the summer of 1945. I feel immensely dignified and blessed to be considered one of them.

We were the White Knights against the ultimate in underworld Oakland Raiders on crack. The Final Four was the Atlantic, Pacific, Europe and Asia. Roy Williams used to bleat about "survive and advance" at tournament time.

Pardon the laughter from those who might have been on the beaches at Normandy, the sands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, part of the travesties at Bataan, and Wake Island, the glory of the turnaround triumph of Midway, the devastating Ploesti oil field raids, the Malmedy Massacre. A big book can't list them all.

In special little pinpoints of time, guys would turn left and die or be crippled, as was our own Sen. Bob Dole. Other lucky ducks such as I might have gone right and made it. How fickle the finger of fate!

It was us and them for the world championship. If we don't win, we all, including the folks back home, wind up crispy critters at Auschwitz or samurai slaves and comfort women for the Japanese. Believe me, those dirt bags had firm and heinous plans when we lost.

Except we didn't. Because we wouldn't. Here were a collection of people from all walks of life, most of whom had never toted a gun, dug a trench, gone higher than the second story of the barn -- not too many McDonald All-Americans among them. Like 5-5, 115-pound Audie Murphy, the gutty little Texan who became the most decorated hero of the Big Show.

Such inconsequential rinky-dinks couldn't possibly overcome German and Japanese professionals who had been born, bred and trained like Spartans to rule the world the first chance they got. We were the "Hoosiers"; they were the Los Angeles Lakers on steroids, who couldn't lose.

The English and their gallant airmen won the Battle of Britain in September of 1940 to prevent a German invasion. At that point, the Brits were the last bastion of the free world. Man, how much we owe them! So much to so brilliant few.

Something like 16 million of us Americans served and it appears there are only about 4 million left 58 years later. Statisticians say 1,000 of us are dying every day. Most of us get out of bed just trying to miss the latest quota. Consider the more than 400,000 Americans who died, and the 680,000 or so injured, like the badly torn Bob Dole. Has the nation, not just the state, ever had a greater combination patriot-public servant?

Don't try to sell anybody allied with that kind of carnage that they never played for an important team. Sports coverage had fallen into the habit of using war terms which badly misrepresented things. The 9-11 travesty and subsequent events, thankfully, have altered that for the better.

One of the terms you'll hear often from the War II returnees in Lawrence up to and through next Tuesday will be "luck." Nobody had more than I. Army Air Corps enlistee at 17, allowed to finish high school, given terrific training as a cadet, gained wings and commission as a B-24 bomber navigator and sent overseas on a plane piloted by Bob Martin, who'd been a couple years ahead of me in high school. A lucky connection made that happen. (A 19- and 20-year-old lieutenant? Hell, I was too young to be a sergeant!)

Got into combat, though nothing near what others did, came home in one piece in late 1945. Got some college credit at KU for service training and had a semester of school under my belt before I turned 21 on April 11, 1946. AND, get this: the government was paying for my schooling through that wondrous GI Bill, the best piece of legislation in national history. Luck slices both ways. Remember and cherish the unluckiest among us.

Back to pilot Bob Martin, who became one of the best lawyers Wichita and Kansas ever saw. He was a demanding crew boss who made you perform because: "The main reason people die in combat is that somebody screws up. We do the very best all 10 of us can and our chances improve." Nobody on any kind of team ever had a better head coach than Bob. My greatest fear, always, was failure. Any prayer from me asked for the courage and skill not to let any of my guys down and not to disgrace myself.

Television newsman Tom Brokaw has done books labeling the War II people as "The Greatest Generation." We're flattered, whether that's right or not. Now for some paraphrasing of baseballer Dizzy Dean when he was asked if he was the greatest pitcher of all time.

"Maybe not the greatest," Diz said tongue-in-cheek, "but I was among 'em." I selfishly feel the same way about the generation being honored here during the Dole events. Pardon my prideful prejudice, please.

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