How many games had he played, or coached? Bud Grant wondered this last week. Football, baseball, basketball. College, pros. Hundreds? Thousands? “I can’t remember the details,” said Grant, one of the most iconic sports figures in Minnesota history. “But I can remember all the things that happened during the war.”
Seventy summers ago, World War II finally ended. A dark period when just about everything else, including America’s sports scene, was pushed into the shadows was over. After the war, America would get back to playing again, a renaissance of sports that included the birth of professional basketball, the growth of pro football and an explosion of interest, exposure and money.
From coast to coast, leagues spread, all-stars became icons, and the American sports scene became the force it is today. For those who weren’t alive to see it, an era when sports were a near-afterthought in America can be hard to imagine. But for a handful of Minnesota athletes of the era, the memories of that time are vivid, powerful, lasting.
“It was a beautiful morning,” Stan Nelson said this month, remembering a June day in 1944. “Birds were flying off the beach and over our heads.”
The former multisport star at Augsburg College was remembering D-Day, and the beach was Omaha Beach. The morning turned quickly, of course: More than one-third of the estimated 9,000 Allied causalities on D-Day were wounded, killed or claimed by the sea at Omaha Beach.
Grant, now 88 and living in Bloomington, remembers the loss of friends more clearly than any football game. He recalled last week a buddy from Duluth, a year or two older than him, who graduated high school and joined the Marines. He came back from boot camp gleaming in his new uniform. Not long afterward, he was killed in the Battle of Tarawa. “Never got off the beach,” Grant said.
Grant described another friend, Rabbit, a nickname earned by his small stature and quick moves, who wrote Grant a letter from San Diego late in the war. He told Grant about his new sub, the USS Bullhead, before he shipped back out. “He never came back,” Grant said. “Rabbit is still there in that submarine, still 19 years old.”
For Grant — training in San Francisco in 1945 for an anticipated attack on Japan when the empire surrendered — the end of the fighting meant getting back to playing football. The young man from Superior, Wis., would go on to become a Gopher and a pro athlete, coach Super Bowls and make the Hall of Fame. But he can most easily recall the war’s impact.
On this Memorial Day, a generation can reflect on an era when American sports were relegated to such a status that Major League Baseball, America’s runaway champion of sport in the 1940s, needed a nudge from the president to continue playing its games. The war was the focus, and the people in it.
“On days like this, that’s what I think about,” Grant said. “Not football games, Super Bowls. That’s entertainment. There is a difference between heroes and stars. Those guys were heroes. In sports, we don’t do anything heroic, we just entertain. … No other generation has those kind of memories. So losing a Super Bowl is not that important.”
From jerseys to fatigues
Stan Nelson was in his fifth-floor dorm at Augsburg College on Dec. 7, 1941, when the radio told him and two roommates of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. America was at war. “We looked at each other,” Nelson said earlier this month, “and it was just a feeling of, ‘Fellas, we’ve got to do something about this.’ ”
They enlisted in the Navy the next day.
There are other stories of bravery like Nelson’s, along with stories of being drafted and plucked from college and pro leagues, across sports history. Baseball MVPs and record-breakers traded jerseys for fatigues. More than 500 major leaguers left for service, 34 of them future Hall of Famers. Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg all served; Jackie Robinson met and became friends with boxer Joe Louis, the reigning heavyweight champion, while in the Army and became a major leaguer after the war.
Louis was an American sports icon. His bouts with German Max Schmeling in 1938 came to symbolize the struggle between democracy and fascism. Louis’ one-round knockout secured his place as a national hero. The Army put Louis in the Special Services Division, sending him on tours. He staged nearly 100 boxing exhibitions for 2 million soldiers.
College and pro football leagues lost their emerging momentum as scores of players became soldiers. With so many men in the service, the NFL had to improvise. Retired players were brought back, including Minnesota legend Bronko Nagurski, who returned to the Chicago Bears in his mid-30s. The Cleveland Rams didn’t play in 1943, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles merged to form the “Steagles” that year. A year later the Steelers and Chicago Cardinals became the Card-Pitt combine. After they went 0-10, fans called them the “Carpets.”
Many young college players, drafted, went to bases for boot camp and found teams there. Grant tried out for a Paul Brown-coached team at Great Lakes base north of Chicago. Bernie Bierman left his legendary stay as Gophers coach to lead a Marine team in Iowa. That team, the Seahawks, ended Minnesota’s 18-game winning streak early in the ’42 season.
Gophers legend Bill Daley was on those title teams in ’40 and ’41. Stationed at a naval base in Ann Arbor, Mich., he was talked into playing for Michigan in 1943; he helped win the Little Brown Jug for both teams.
For Nelson, now 94, the war was a large interruption in a busy sporting life. He was a high school star — along with brothers Edor and Norman — in Dawson, Minn., before becoming a multisport standout at Augsburg. Nelson graduated in 1943, trained in England and would be part of the first D-Day wave landing on Omaha Beach.
Through sports, Nelson found his footing on his return from the war. He would become one of the more successful high school football coaches of his era, leading Anoka to a state championship and sending two sons on to football success: Steve played in a Super Bowl for New England, and Dave has coached two schools — Blaine in 1988 and Minnetonka in 2004 — to Prep Bowl titles.
George Smilanich was a starting senior guard on the Buhl High School basketball team, which was about to win its second consecutive state title, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. A year after graduation he was driving a tank in the U.S. Army’s Second Armored Division, also ultimately landing at Omaha Beach.
Ed Lechner and his Gophers football teammates were fresh off their second consecutive national championship in December 1941 when his night-shift boss came in and told him about the attack. He remembers walking back to campus knowing his sports-packed life would never be the same. After finishing dental school and a short stint playing tackle for the Giants, he entered the Navy and had just completed his training when the war ended. He returned home, opened a dental practice and became the Vikings’ team dentist for many years.
His boss told Lechner the news and “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Everything changed.’’
In 1941, baseball was coming off an incredible season in which Williams hit .406 and DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak. The United States’ entry into World War I had ended the 1918 season early, but fears the major leagues would stop playing this time ended with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Green Light” letter that said a nation at war needed baseball as an entertaining diversion.
Still, the talent was diluted with stars such as Greenberg — the year after winning the AL MVP — DiMaggio, Williams and Bob Feller entering the service.
“The attitude was, ‘No regrets, it had to be done,’ ” said Stew Thornley, a locally based sports historian. “And baseball changed a lot.”
The lean war years saw baseball employ a one-armed player, Pete Gray of the St. Louis Browns, and even a 15-year-old, Joe Nuxhall.
Most important memories
Seventy years later, the men of sports and war in 1945 hang on to their war memories more than their sports memories. And those war memories are indelible.
Nelson was a communication officer on a landing craft taking 250 men at a time to Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“There were thousands of ships on the channel,” he said. “It was an awesome sight. ... We looked at each other and said, ‘This is going to be a piece of cake. Nobody knows we’re around.’ Well, it changed in a hurry, of course. They had all these pill boxes [German artillery bunkers], and they all opened up.”
The 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan” opens with an unflinching depiction of the landing, and watching that took Nelson back. Soldiers forging ahead in the face of German machine-gun fire, mortar explosions spraying shrapnel, blood turning the surf red.
“It was so vivid, like everything was happening again,” Nelson said. “My mind cracked.”
Nelson left the theater, unable to finish the nearly 25-minute scene.
Smilanich, the son of a miner, became a tank driver. His armored division helped Gen. George Patton race English Gen. Bernard Montgomery across Sicily. From there he went to Europe, where he landed on Omaha Beach three days after D-Day. On his way to the beach, the landing craft next to him was destroyed by a mine. By that night, the tanks had reached the hill above the beach, where the Normandy Military Cemetery is now.
In his time, Smilanich lost three tanks. He and his crew escaped the first tank after it was hit. The second time, hit by a bazooka, four crew members were lost. The third tank caught fire after a hit. His tank commander was hit in the leg. With the tank exposed to enemy fire, Smilanich went back, dragged his commander out of the tank to safety and applied a tourniquet.
His unit went on to liberate the Belgian town of Celles on Christmas Day, 1944. Smilanich, now 96, has since returned to the town.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I go back there, speak to the kids at the school there. They won’t let their students ever forget.”
There also will be no forgetting the moment he learned he had saved his tank commander.
“The doctor came out of the tent and said, ‘Who put the tourniquet on that man’s leg?’ ” Smilanich said. “I said, ‘I did, sir.’ He said, ‘You just saved that man’s life.’ ”
Back to sports
Grant was learning to pilot landing craft in San Francisco Bay for an anticipated attack on Japan in the spring of 1945. “The landing craft were full of ammo, all gassed up, stacked up on ships,” he said. “All of a sudden, the war was over.”
Grant took advantage of a loophole that allowed him to leave the Navy; soldiers who were accepted into an accredited college could get mustered out early. He called a college football coach, who sent in the required paperwork.
The coach was Harry Stuhldreher — of Wisconsin.
Once he was out, though, Grant wanted to be closer to home and decided to turn down Stuhldreher, a member of Notre Dame’s famed Four Horsemen as a player, and go to Minnesota instead.
Nelson coached football, basketball and baseball at Zumbrota and Farmington high schools before moving on to Anoka, where he coached football 26 years, going 154-70-8 and winning 33 consecutive games. The Tornadoes were state champs in 1964, and he is now a member of the Augsburg, Minnesota State High School League and Minnesota Football Coaches halls of fame.
Smilanich returned home, went to St. Cloud State and joined a basketball team that qualified for the NAIA national tournament. After graduation, he got a teaching and coaching job in Erie, Ill. Four years later he moved to Buhl, where he coached and taught for 13 years. He moved to Hibbing in 1967, retiring in 1984.
Recently, Smilanich was one of four technical advisers for the 2014 film “Fury,” which depicted a World War II tank and crew; Smilanich has reams of photos of himself with star Brad Pitt at the premiere.
But it’s memories of the real war that stick on Memorial Day.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Nelson said. “And I’m just so happy that I was one of the millions that fought for our country. I pray for all those that didn’t make it. A lot of guys had it tough. So it’s kind of a tough day for me. … I’m no hero. I was just one of millions that went. My story would be for them.”