Tuesday, 6 December 2016


It happened 75 years ago…

Shortly after dawn on Sunday, December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese pilots and crew strapped inside 354 aircraft cockpits--torpedo bombers, dive bombers, fighters, and high-level bombers--were launched from six aircraft carriers strategically situated 200 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands. The accompanying force--the largest naval air invasion group ever assembled up to that time--also included two battleships, two heavy cruisers, along with destroyers, support vessels and tankers. The destination: the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and surrounding military bases and airfields.

 Battleship Row taken from a Japanese torpedo aircraft during the Pearl Harbor attack
(US Public Domain)

In two waves of attacks beginning 07:55 hours and lasting one hour and fifteen minutes, the undetected Japanese Imperial Navy fighters and bombers caught the Americans totally by surprise. Very few expected Japan--4,000 miles from Hawaii--to attack that far from their homeland. The Imperial Navy destroyed or damaged 188 US aircraft and 19 ships in the harbor, including eight battleships: 2,403 American personnel lost their lives, 68 of those civilians. An additional 1,178 were treated for wounds and injuries. Twenty-nine Japanese aircraft failed to return, with 74 damaged from anti-aircraft ground fire.

The sinking of the USS Arizona--a 30,000-ton battleship that had taken on 1.4 million gallons of oil the day before the attack--was America’s greatest catastrophe that day. Over 1,000 men were killed instantly, trapped inside the structure, when an 800-kilogram bomb struck from high altitude, exploding the forward magazines. As a result, the concussion from the blast raced across the water and land for miles.

The next day, in Washington, DC, with the USS Arizona still burning thousands of miles away, American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood before Congress. Charged with emotion, he opened his address with these strong words:

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval forces of the Empire of Japan.”
He went on to inform his shocked country on the other Japanese attacks in the Pacific, then ended with a harsh truth. “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

“With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph--so help us God! I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

And so, the die was cast...

Two years after World War II had begun with Adolf Hitler’s attack on Poland, the Americans were now forced into the conflict. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could not have been happier. With the American industrial might officially on his side, he reportedly slept well the first night upon hearing the news of the attack; Roosevelt--with the pressure on him now--reportedly slept badly.

Congress had one dissenting vote out of the more than 500 in the House that December 8: sixty-one-year-old Montana Republican Representative Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of Congress, and a pacifist. “As a woman,” she informed the press, “I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Once Rankin’s brother heard the news of the vote, he told her: “Montana is 100 percent against you!” In Congress since 1916, she had also voted against America entering World War I. In early 1942, she retired from public office rather than face certain defeat in the coming election for her Montana seat.

The USS Arizona burning after the Pearl Harbor attack (US Public Domain)

In retrospect, the Japanese made two crucial errors during the Pearl Harbor strike. Actually, one of them just happened to be bad luck. Both ended up being their undoing. First off, the man in charge of the attack force, First Air Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, decided against unleashing his third attack wave, despite protests from several of his high-ranking officers, including Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the first wave. The proposed third wave targets were the dry docks, the massive oil storage tanks, repair facilities, large machine shops, and torpedo storage units. By the Japanese not hitting these, the US Navy was able to use the untouched machinery to salvage most of the damaged ships and eventually put them back in use. Had they unleashed the third wave, the Japanese could have knocked the US Pacific Fleet out of the picture for years.

Some of the reasons Nagumo considered for pulling back after two attacks were that the American anti-aircraft ground fire had improved by the second wave (downing 20 aircraft in the second wave, compared to 9 in the first wave), the deteriorating weather north of Hawaii which would make take-offs and landings hazardous, besides having to land them nearer to nightfall combined with refueling aircraft and such. Besides, the First Air Fleet ships would be running low on fuel had they remained in the area another half-day.

Secondly, despite excellent intelligence gathering from Japanese spies on the Hawaiian Islands--especially pertaining to the ships along Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor--the US aircraft carriers, a prime target for the Japanese strike force, were nowhere to be found, another reason for Nagumo to cancel the third wave. Up to that time, the Americans had three carriers assigned to the US Pacific Fleet. They were the USS Saratoga, the USS Lexington, and the USS Enterprise, the same name used in the Star Trek flicks that so many of us love.

The Enterprise had been off to Wake Island, 2,300 miles west of Hawaii, delivering Marine squadron VMF-211 personnel and aircraft; and was expected to return to Pearl Harbor on December 6, but was delayed due to bad weather. The Lexington was on a similar mission, experiencing the same meteorological condition while ferrying dive bombers of VSMB-21 Squadron to Midway Island, a distance of 1,500 miles west. The third carrier, USS Saratoga, was still docked at San Diego, California, making arrangements to set sail for Pearl Harbor loaded with men, equipment, and airplanes within days.

The Enterprise arrived at Pearl Harbor on the evening of December 7 to see the carnage the Japanese had left behind from the two attacks. The Lexington never arrived at Midway because she was ordered directly to Pearl on the day of the attack, arriving there a week later. It’s interesting to note that carriers in general up to that time were not considered the air weapon they are today, but were deployed more for battleship support, instead. Overnight, to America’s shock, the Japanese had proven that wrong.

Then, six months later, from June 3-7, 1942, the US Navy took that strategy to the next step, complete with their own carrier force, by surprising the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway, in what military historian John Keegan referred to as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”  Four of the six carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor plus a heavy cruiser were sunk, while the US lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown, and a destroyer. It was the turning point in the Pacific War and US naval carrier power was responsible in a positive way, changing marine warfare forever. Three years later, after the Americans beat the Japanese all the way back to their homeland, two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it was all over.

For more than 50 years now, a 184-foot-long memorial stands over the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, where oil drops from inside the ship still rise to the Pearl Harbor surface at the rate of more than a gallon per day. While there were many financial contributors, we can also thank rock-n-roll star Elvis Presley for the site because he took the time to give a benefit concert in March 1961 that helped raise $64,000 for the future construction of the memorial--completed in 1962--that honors over 1,100 US Navy sailors still entombed below the water line following the “date which will live in infamy”--December 7, 1941.

Sunday, 20 November 2016


Nazi German aerial technology during World War II left the world, and especially the Allies, in awe. At a time when our Allies relied on piston-driven combat aircraft, the Germans had a jet stealth fighter/bomber made of wood, a jet fighter, a rocket fighter, an unmanned flying bomb, and an intercontinental missile that broke the sound barrier several times over. Impressive, to say the least, right?

But in every above case, it was too little, too late, at least for the Germans. Taking the atomic bomb aside, had Adolf Hitler’s masterminds brought some of these weapons into the war sooner or had they been given more hours to perfect their creations, the Germans may have won the war and sued for peace. As a result, we would see a different world today.

What were these highly advanced pieces of machinery?

Horten HO IX glider-version line drawings (US Public Domain)

Designed by brothers Reimer and Walter Horten, the Horten Ho-229 V3 was the first flying wing aircraft powered by jet engines. Three prototypes were built. The first, in glider form, flew March 1944. Then came the jet-propelled version made of a steel fuselage with plywood coverage. With its dual turbojet engines capable of a combined 4,000 pounds of thrust, it weighed 20,000 pounds overall. It was expected by the Luftwaffe to carry a bombload of 2,200 pounds for 620 miles at a whopping speed of 620 miles per hour and use two 20mm cannons to defend itself.

The Luftwaffe hoped that the aerodynamic shape of the Horten 229 with its thin leading edges would allow it to escape English ground-based radar, at the same time cut its air-time in half over the English Channel, compared to previous German aircraft, forcing the English into sheer panic when scrambling their own fighter-interception aircraft. Near the end of World War II, an advancing US Third Army unit discovered one of the two propelled prototypes--the other one crashed during a test flight a few weeks before--in a German hangar outside Dusseldorf.

In July 1945, it was shipped secretly to America where it sits today in a closely guarded army compound outside Washington, DC. Ironically, the US Air Force’s Northrop Grumman B-2 Stealth bomber, which first flew in 1989, looks very similar to the Horten Ho-229 V3.

Captured Messerschmitt Me 262 in United States, 1946 (US Public Domain)

Unlike the Horten 229, the Messerschmitt Me 262--the world’s first real jet fighter--went into production, although late in the war: 1,400 were produced (in single-seat fighter, photo reconnaissance, light bomber, and two-man night-fighter versions). The 262 in fighter form was a marvel to fly, according to German ace Adolf Galland, and the only turbojet fighter that made an impact during World War II. The dual engines, with 1,980 pounds of static thrust each, took it to max speeds of well over 500 miles per hour, 100 miles per hour faster than the top-of-the-line props at that time.

With its swept-back wings, the Me 262 appeared to be right out of a Buck Rogers comic book. It first saw combat in mid-1944, had a surface ceiling of 37,000 feet in pure fighter form, and was fitted with four 20mm cannons in the nose. The only drawback: Due to this new technology, the jet engines had to be overhauled after only 20 hours or so in the air. In all, the Me 262 tallied more than 450 Allied aerial kills, while losing approximately 100.

Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet seen through USAAF P-47 Thunderbolt fighter camera
(US Public Domain)

The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket-powered fighter was a radical design and a very deadly machine: to Allies as well as to the German pilots who braved flying her. The fuel was the scary part of it: a combination of hydrogen peroxide and hydrazine/methanol.  Test-flown in July 1944, it reached 702 miles per hour, making it faster than the speed of sound. Over 370 of these tailless monsters with a short, stubby fuselage were built for the sole purpose of intercepting the daylight American bomber streams over German territory.

When taking off, the Me 163 pilot would jettison the landing gear and climb to 39,000 feet--well above the bomber streams--in only three minutes! Then he would dive into the formations. Due to its short fuel range (only 25 miles), the pilot could make only two passes at best, having to aim and fire the two 30mm cannons in split seconds before heading back to base. This is where matters got extremely tricky.

Without a landing gear, the pilot used a skid to land on a grass field. Trouble was, he had to land the Komet nice and easy, just right, with no yawing, or the rocket fuel could ignite, blowing him and his craft to smithereens. Many Komets were lost this way. Anywhere from 10-15 kills were reported by Komet fighter pilots, while losing, perhaps, 10—the latter number done by Allied fighters following the Komets back to base and blasting them out of the sky before they could land.

V-1 Flying Bomb cutaway (US Public Domain)

Londoners during the war were well-acquainted with the unmanned V-1 Flying Bombs, the forerunner of the American-built Cruise Missile. They called them “Buzz Bombs” and “Doodlebugs” for the pulsating sound the single jet engines made when they flew over the city at low-altitude. I know of an ex-Londoner who told me that when they saw V-1s overhead, they would wait and listen for the jet sound. As long as they could still hear it, they were OK. When it stopped, it had run out of gas and would drop out of the sky. At that point, you had better dive for cover and fast.

The V-1 was actually the first guided missile, containing an auto-pilot system aboard. A range of 160 miles, it would fly 350-400 miles per hour at an altitude of 2,000-3,000 feet. Weighing 4,740 pounds, it carried a 1,870-pound warhead of a TNT/ammonium nitrate fuel combination. They were first launched from Calais, France--22 miles across the Channel from Dover, England--on June 13, 1944, exactly one week after the successful Allied D-Day landings at Normandy.

In all, about 9,500 Flying Bombs were fired at southeast England, sometimes as many as a hundred a day. Near the end of 1944, once the Allies had overrun the Calais sites, the Germans fired an additional 2,450 at Belgium from other sites. In total, 4,260 V-1s were destroyed by Allied fighters, anti-aircraft fire, and stationary barrage balloons that were braced to the ground by cables. Destruction on London alone, where 2,400 V-1s were fired upon, saw 6,100 people killed and 17,900 injured.

United States Army cutaway of the V-2 (US Public Domain

Talk about terror: There was no defense against the V-2 Rocket, the brainchild of brilliant German engineer Wernher von Braun, a rocket and jet propulsion expert. The V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. It was massive: 45 feet long and weighing 27,600 pounds. Propelled by a mixture of ethanol, water, and liquid oxygen, the V-2 reached an altitude of 55 miles and a speed of 3,580 miles per hour as far as 200 miles away before descending and heading to its target at an impact speed of 1,790 miles per hour. The 2,000-pound warhead contained the same explosive mix as the V-1 Flying Bomb.

What made the V-2 Rocket unique was its overall speed. Because it flew several times faster than the speed of sound, it would hit the ground and explode, then people nearby would hear the sound of the engine descending from the sky. The rocket’s speed cut down on casualties and the destruction zone area as it would bury itself deep into the ground before detonating. V-2 launching began September 1944. Over 3,000 missiles were fired on London, and Antwerp and Liege in Belgium. Over 2,500 civilians and military personnel were killed, and another 6,000 injured.

Following the war, all of these German inventions fell into the hands of the Allied military. Wernher von Braun, in particular, along with his entire rocket team, surrendered willingly to the advancing American forces before the Russians caught up to them. In the next two decades, von Braun and his German associates contributed mightily to the US Space Program by putting the first man on the moon.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016


Robert Redford starring in The Natural (courtesy TriStar Pictures)

Many of us have seen the baseball flick, The Natural. But if you haven’t, you should catch it, whether a sports fan or not because it has a great storyline. Based on Bernard Malamud’s novel of the same name, this outstanding baseball-drama-mystery came to the silver screen in 1984 with a star-studded cast featuring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Darren McGavin, Joe Don Baker and Kim Basinger. It has to be one of my favorite sports movies. By the way, Redford looks exceptional with a bat in his hands--a real pro. He revealed later that for the movie he modelled his swing after that of Boston Red Sox slugging great Ted Williams.

For those of you who haven’t seen the TriStar Pictures film, here’s a rundown in a nutshell: The hero is Roy Hobbs--played by Redford--a young man of considerable baseball talent. As a kid, he carves his own bat--which he calls “Wonderboy”--from a tree that had been struck by lightning on his farm. As a 19-year-old, in 1923, Hobbs is a promising left-handed pitcher who had been asked to tryout with the major league Chicago Cubs.

On way to Chicago by train, he meets a confidant, chubby bore of major league ball player named “The Whammer” (Joe Don Baker) and a sensual woman named Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey). Incidentally, the Whammer and his physique bears an uncanny resemblance to Babe Ruth. At a stop along the way, after a dare, Hobbs strikes out the bragging hitter on three pitches. Ms Bird  then becomes obsessed with Hobbs. After the train reaches Chicago, Bird entices Hobbs to her hotel room where she shoots him in the chest. Then she jumps out the window. Hobbs’ career appears over…

The screen jumps ahead 16 years to where the 35-year-old Hobbs is signed by the fictional major league New York Knights. As a mysterious unknown rookie, he quickly makes his presence felt in a positive way as a middle-aged slugger with a bad ball team. In short, Hobbs’ hitting leads the Knights to the National League pennant on the last day of the season. Of course, there’s highs and lows along the way and a love interest with beautiful Kim Basinger--influenced by his gambling uncle--who tries to lead him astray.

Most of the field scenes were filmed at the old War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, New York, and one distinct scene at Buffalo’s All-High Stadium to depict Chicago’s Wrigley Field. There, Hobbs smashes the right-field clock with one of his home run blasts. Both venues have since been torn down. The Natural took four Academy Awards and one Golden Globe.

Bill Jurges 1933 Goudey Gum card
(US Public Domain)
So, where did author Bernard Malamud--who was not a baseball fan--get the inspiration for his 1952 novel? Actually, from stories surrounding two major leaguers who had been stalked by women about as looney as the fictitious Harriet Bird. The first player was fiery shortstop Billy Jurges, a defensive specialist who played for the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants from 1931-1947. The second was quality first baseman Eddie Waitkus, a Cub, Philadelphia Phillie, and Baltimore Oriole from 1941-1955.

In his rookie season, twenty-three-year-old Jurges fell madly in love with the stunning Violet Valli, a baseball groupie and sometimes-showgirl. When Jurges broke off the relationship a year later, Valli confronted the player on the morning of July 6, 1932 at Hotel Carlos in Chicago, a few blocks north of Wrigley Field. They argued, then she pulled out a loaded .25-caliber gun. During the struggle, Jurges was shot twice: one bullet went off a right rib, coming out his right shoulder, while the other ripped flesh clean off his left-hand little finger. A third bullet struck Valli in her left hand, lodging six inches up her arm and breaking her wrist. Jurges decided against pressing charges against her, and a year later married another woman, a good move on his part. The Cubs won the pennant in 1932 with former-Yankee Mark Koenig replacing Jurges at shortstop for a few weeks and jolting the Cubs’ pennant surge during the Jurges recovery period. The Cubs won two more pennants in 1935 and 1938, with Jurges and second base partner Billy Herman playing significant roles in a top-notch infield, while Valli went on dabbling in show business here and there across the country, along with enticing young men with her charms.

Eddie Waitkus 1950 Bowman Gum card
(US Public Domain)
Going back to his minor league career, Eddie Waitkus made everything look easy and was known as “a natural.” Hey, just like the movie! How about that! And he threw and batted left, the same as Robert Redford. A decorated World War II hero--four Bronze Stars--who saw heavy fighting with the US Army in the Pacific, Waitkus returned to America to play exceptional ball, at the plate and at first base for the Chicago Cubs. One of his biggest fans was 19-year-old, six-foot brunette Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who enjoyed seeing him live at Wrigley Field, without getting to know him or even so much as meeting him on the fly by asking for an autograph. All was fine and dandy until Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1948 season.  Then Steinhagen snapped.

Unable to see her obsession--Waitkus--as much as she had done previously, Steinhagen booked into the Edgewater Beach Hotel on June 13, 1949, during a Philadelphia Phillies road trip to Chicago. By then, Waitkus was having the time of his life, enjoying a .306 season with his new club. Using the alias of a former high school classmate whom Waitkus had known, she left a note at the front desk for the player to meet her at her hotel room. When Waitkus arrived and walked into the room, Steinhagen removed a .22-caliber rifle from the nearby closet and shot him in the chest, very close to his heart.

Coming to her senses as Waitkus lay bleeding on the floor, Steinhagen called the front desk on the room telephone. When a member of the hotel staff approached, she was found cradling the player’s head in her lap. Nearly dying on the operation table more than once, Waitkus returned to the playing field for the first time since the shooting on August 19 for “Eddie Waitkus Night” at Shibe Park, Philadelphia where he was smothered in gifts by adoring fans and associates. Although in uniform that one occasion, he didn’t suit up again until the following spring, ready to resume his baseball career. In 1950, he played the full 154-game schedule, hit .284 and was named the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year. He experienced a few more major league seasons until the mid-1950s, although he wasn’t quite the same again after the shooting.

Never charged with attempted murder, Steinhagen did, however, end up in a mental hospital for three years before considered sane enough to leave in 1952--ironically, the same year that Bernard Malamud’s publisher released The Natural.

Sunday, 16 October 2016


Most Second World War stories consist of the “blood-and-guts” type. The following are some first-person accounts on the lighter side, coming from Allied air force veterans living in Ontario--one American and four Canadians…who I had interviewed over the years.

RCAF Flying Officer Roy Schmidt

“While in training, I was stationed in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We used to have supper around 6 o’clock, then we’d leave, go out on the town, and have to be back to the base by 11 for roll call. One night a bunch of us got back in time except for one guy who was a few minutes late. The sergeant taking roll call wasn’t too happy, and he gave us all hell. Well, one guy in the back row couldn’t take it anymore and yells, “Up yours!”

The sergeant stomped all the way to the back row, singles this guy out, then says, “What’s your name?”

He then gave the sergeant my name! “Roy Schmidt, sir.”

But the dumb sergeant wasn’t smart enough to ask him his regimental number because I’m the only one who knew that. Meanwhile, I was in the front row when all this was going on and didn’t want to say otherwise because I didn’t want to be a shmuck.

So, next day, I’m called out of parade and marched to the CO. The CO asked me if I talked back to the sergeant and I answered, “No, sir, it wasn’t me. I didn’t know who said it but it wasn’t me. If you call the sergeant, he’ll be able to identify me and say I didn’t do it.”

Anyway, the sergeant came over and said, “Well, I don’t know for sure because I was so mad. Yeah, you look like the guy.”

So, I got KP duty--seven days--washing dishes, with no leave. And that dirty guy who gave my name wouldn’t even take half of it for me.”

Messerschmitt BF-109 fighter off North African
coast, 1941 (US Public Domain)
RCAF Flight Sergeant W. W. Baron…

“In 1942, I was posted to RCAF Headquarters in Ottawa, where I was told I’d be going on a promotional tour in the United States. I was part of an 8-man crew. The idea was to help in a fund-raising tour called “Bundles for Britain” and display a shot-down German Messerschmitt 109 fighter. The public would pay an admission and would look at the fighter while me and another member handled the microphone. We’d give a lecture and answer questions. It went on six days a week from 10 AM to 10 PM. We each had two hours on and two hours off, and some of them were radio interviews.

The 109 fighter we used was one that had been shot down over Kent, England in August 1940, during the Battle of Britain and had made a forced landing. It was in pretty fair condition except for bent prop blades and a few scratches.

It was interesting work at first, but I got tired of it after a while. The same questions over and over again were too much. I was getting to hate facing the people. One of the questions they kept asking me was, “Why are the blades bent back like that?”

So, I’d tell them something dumb like, “So they could cut their way through the jungles!”

RAF Flying Officer “Bunny” Baker…

“I was a student pilot at a base near Neepawa, Manitoba. When practicing circuits-and-bumps there, the pilots had to concentrate on four things: watch for a certain red farmhouse and turn left; look for four trees and turn left; look for a wheat field and turn left; there in front of you should be the runway and you land. Easy right.

Well, one pilot lost his way and landed his Tiger Moth a hundred miles away. He said later, “When I saw the red farmhouse, I turned left; when I saw the four trees, I turned left; but when I looked for the wheat field, it was gone! It probably never dawned on the pilot that they were in the middle of a prairie harvest and the grain had been cut.”

15th Air Force B-24 Liberator bombers over Polesti, Romania oil targets, 1943 (US Public Domain)

USAAF Staff Sergeant Richard Wirth…

“Our crew used to fly the B-24 Liberator and it was so drafty that we called it the “Whistling Shithouse” because the wind used to whistle through it like crazy. The wind was so strong, you could hardly light a cigarette inside it. The B-24 flew like a big bird. The wings would actually flap.

We were stationed at Cerignola, Italy with the 458th Bomber Group, 459 Bomber Squadron. On a bombing run to Austria in 1944, we ran into a real pile of flak on way to the target. Several pieces hit our aircraft. One big piece of flak hit the leading edge of one wing, but we weren’t too worried. On the way back to base, the pilot said to the co-pilot “OK, put the landing gear down.”

But when he did that the wheels went down only half-way, and we could see the hydraulic fluid pore out the hole in the wing. The flak had hit the hydraulic system and all the fluid was lost. So, everyone in the crew urinated into the hydraulic tank inside the airplane to get any form of fluid into it. The wheels came down, but still hadn’t locked into position. This meant that the wheels might collapse when we touched down.

Again, the pilot wasn’t too worried, because he said we could manually drop the nose wheel, then hook up a couple parachutes to the ball turret and throw them out the waist windows to act as brakes to stop the airplane. We hooked up the chutes, then the pilot said, “Everybody else go to the tail.” So, everybody went except for me and my buddy because it was our job to throw the chutes out on either side of the aircraft.

So, we’re coming to our base and we’re set to land on a special dirt landing strip that was used only for crash-landings. We came in low and the pilot gently set the wheels down, and the wheels held. The pilot screamed out, “I think we made it! The wheels are holding! I’m going to ease the nose wheel down now.”

As soon as he did that, the nose wheel--not the main wheels--collapsed! We went from 100 miles per hour to zero in about 50 feet! Everybody in the tail wasn’t in the tail anymore. They were on top of my buddy and me, and all of us ended up in the bomb bay rear bulkhead. When it was all over, we looked around at each other and, amazingly, nobody was hurt. Not a scratch! And no fires either because the pilot cut the switches on impact.”

  *      *      *

I’ll end with a story that had occurred about 40 years after the war. Burlington, Ontario resident, Pilot Officer Alan Hall--an RCAF navigator who flew a tour of bombing operations on Lancaster bombers--told me that he and his wife booked a light aircraft flight from Toronto to North Bay, Ontario in the early 1980s. Hitting some fierce turbulence shortly after leaving Toronto, the aircraft rocked around a lot, enough to unsettle Hall’s wife, while Hall was just looking around calmly, not a care in the world.

Finally, Mrs Hall glanced over at her husband and said, “Doesn’t this bother you?”

“Not at all,” Alan answered her, shaking his head. “Nobody’s shooting at me.”

Saturday, 1 October 2016


1951 Bowman rookie card of Mickey Mantle
(US Public Domain)
Ever since I can remember, the big talk in baseball going back to when Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays broke into the game in the same season was who was better? Constantly compared throughout the next two decades, they were two distinct players, but they also had a slew of similarities. In addition, they had unique and noteworthy entrances into the majors--different, yet similar.
Both players were born in 1931: Mantle in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, Willie in Westfield, Alabama. Both fathers had the burning ambition to see their sons play pro baseball. Mantle’s father, Mutt, toiled in the dangerous and unhealthy lead and zinc mines by day. After the whistle blew, he would then work with his son until sundown on the finer points of the grand old game, especially switch-hitting. The last thing Mutt wanted was his son spending the rest of his life as an underground miner. Willie’s dad, Willie Sr., played semi-pro ball in the heavily competitive Negro industrial leagues of the Deep South. In this environment, the younger Willie grew up watching--hanging around the dugout--eventually advancing to playing alongside his dad and his black teammates.  

Mantle and Mays were teenage sensations fast-tracked to the majors. Mantle jumped from C ball in Joplin, Missouri to the parent New York Yankees in early 1951. A few weeks into the same season, Mays left the AAA American Association Minneapolis Millers for the New York Giants. The two were destined to meet that October.

In spring training, Mantle astounded the Yankee staff with his foot speed running the bases, a reported 3.0 seconds to first from the left side and 3.1 seconds from the right side. They had never seen any prospect that fast. His hard, on-the-money throws from the outfield were equally astonishing. Said fellow-rookie teammate Gil McDougald: “It was like watching a young, blond god.”

Then, the switch-hitting, 19-year-old Mantle put on a clinic during an exhibition game against the University of Southern California Trojans in Los Angeles on March 6, 1951 where he crushed two long home runs hitting left-handed, one measuring 656 feet in the air before it landed well beyond the right-center field fence, the other an opposite-field shot that soared across the street before descending to earth in a backyard 500 feet from home plate. On the day, the mighty Mantle went 4-for-5, with two homers, a single, a bases-loaded triple and seven RBIs.

On a roll, Mantle opened the season crushing every ball in sight. That is until the American League pitchers found his weaknesses and starting striking him out with high fastballs and outside breaking curves. Sent down to the minors in Kansas City for fanning far too often--and obliterating a water cooler or two--the unpolished Mantle continued in his woes at the plate by swinging at bad pitches, until he was ready to quit and go home to the mines.

Frustrated and in tears, he called his father, Mutt, who drove six hours from Oklahoma to Mantle’s hotel room in Kansas City to tell his son in person and in no uncertain terms to smarten up and be a man. An hour or so later in the hotel restaurant, Mutt told his boy, “Everyone has slumps; even Joe DiMaggio. It’ll come together for yuh.” A renewed Mantle returned to Kansas City Blues lineup. Two days later in Toledo, he hit for the cycle, two of those hits being homers over the right-field light tower. All told, in the 40 games spent with Kansas City, Mantle hit a blistering .361 with nine doubles, three triples, 11 homers, 50 RBIs and a .651 slugging average. After that, he was recalled to the Yankees for good.

Thirty-five games into the Minneapolis Millers schedule (in the same Triple A American Association as Mantle), Mays got his call to the majors via Giants’ manager Leo Durocher on May 24, 1951. The to-the-point long distance telephone conversation went something like this…

: “Willie, I need you in New York. I want you to play center field for me.”
Mays: “I don’t know if I can hit major league pitching.”
Durocher: “What are you hitting now?”
Mays: “.477.”
Durocher: “You think you can hit half that in the majors?”
Mays: “Yeah, I think so.”
Durocher: “Okay, then. What are you waiting for? Get the hell over here!”

Mays went oh-for-12 in his first major league at bats before blasting a home run over the left-field roof of New York’s Polo Grounds off pitching great Warren Spahn. After the game, Spahn was asked by reporters what happened, to which he replied, “For the first 60 feet that was one helluva pitch.” Years later, in retrospect, he said, “I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out!”

But before that pitch, Willie had his freshman troubles too: Only at the plate, and not the field. After a one-for-25 start to his rookie season, he burst into tears in the near-empty Giant clubhouse. Durocher was quickly summoned by a coach where another player-manager conversation between the two occurred…

: “What’s the matter, Willie?”
Mays: “Mr. Leo, I can’t buy me a hit. I’m letting you, the team, and the fans down.”
Durocher: “Lookit, Willie. I don’t care if you don’t get a hit for the rest of the year. You’re my center fielder now and will be for the rest of the year. Now, quit you’re balling and get back out there tomorrow!”

1951 Bowman rookie card of Willie Mays
(US Public Domain)
Like Mantle, Mays recovered. He went on to take the National League Rookie-of-the-Year Award by season’s end. In 121 games, he hit .274 with 22 doubles, five triples, 20 homers and 68 RBIs. He also used his speed to steal seven bases. Learning to take a walk instead of swinging at bad pitches, Mantle finished 1951 by playing in 96 games, hitting a decent .267 with 13 homers, 65 RBIs, and stealing eight bases. Defensively, Mays threw out 13 base runners. Mantle nailed eight runners, while playing almost exclusively in right field. The following year, with center fielder Joe DiMaggio retired, Mantle switched to center.

That fall, the New York Giants and New York Yankees met in the World Series. In the fifth inning of Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, Mays--wouldn’t you know it--hit a high fly to right-center. Mantle, playing his usual right field, ran towards the ball, but was called off by DiMaggio who had it all the way. Out of respect for his veteran teammate, Mantle ground to a halt, but as he did that his cleat caught an open drainpipe used for the sprinkler system, thus tearing his right knee to shreds and leaving him with knee problems for the rest of his career.

Passing their 1951 initiation season was only the beginning for Mays and Mantle. The Hall of Fame was dead-ahead for the two hard-hitting center fielder icons. Their achievements are as follows:

Mickey Mantle…

--18 seasons (1951-1968), all with the Yankees
--lifetime: 536 homers, .298 batting average, 1509 RBIs
--excellent career walk/strikeout ratio for a power hitter: 1734/1710
--16 All-Star Games
--12 pennant winners, seven World Series championships
--Triple Crown winner in 1956 (52 homers, 130 RBIs, .353 BA), along with a league-leading .705 SA
--four-time AL home run leader
--hit 50 homers twice, including 54 in 1961, the same year Roger Maris hit his coveted 61
--hit .300 ten times
--AL MVP three times, two other near misses (both taken by teammate Roger Maris in 1960 and 1961)
--hit numerous tape-measure shots, including three over the right-field roof of Detroit’s Briggs  Stadium, and two high-arching blasts within mere feet from exiting Yankee Stadium
--In 65 World Series games, he hit 18 homers, 40 RBIs, and 26 extra-base hits
--rated #17 on the 1999 Sporting News List of 100 Greatest Baseball Players
--His #7 uniform retired in 1969
--1974 Hall of Fame member on the first ballot with 88.2% of the vote

Willie Mays…

--22 seasons (1951-1973) with the New York Giants, San Francisco Giants, and New York Mets
--12 Glove Gloves, all consecutively from 1957-1968
--24 All-Star Game appearances
--eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons
--two NL MVPs
--hit 50 homers twice
--NL batting champ in 1954
--classic catch off Cleveland’s Vic Wertz’s long fly in the first game of 1954 World Series that stunned those who saw it. Now known as “The Catch”
--four-time NL homer king
--hit .300 ten times
--hit four homers in one game in 1961
--lifetime: 660 homers, 3283 hits, 1903 RBIs, 338 stolen bases, .302 batting average
--on four pennant winners and one World Championship
--his #24 uniform retired by the San Francisco Giants in 1972
--Hall of Fame member in his first year of eligibility in 1979 with 94.7% of the vote
--rated #2 on the 1999 Sporting News List of 100 Greatest Baseball Players

So, Mickey or Willie, who was the best? What do you like, apples or oranges? Let’s just say they were both great.

Thursday, 15 September 2016


1949 Bowman bubble gum card of
Dick Wakefield (US Public Domain)
The infamous Bonus Rule came about after World War II because too many rich major league baseball franchises were cornering the market on talent by throwing around big dollars on highly-touted, fuzzy-cheeked kids in their late-teens coming right out of high school or first-year college then stock-piling them on their farm clubs.  
The first of the
 Bonus Babies -as they were soon called- was University of Michigan’s Dick Wakefield, who the Detroit Tigers signed in 1941 for a whopping $52,000 and a brand-new Cadillac thrown in for good measure. In his 1943 rookie season, a war year with depleted talent, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound outfielder hit .316 and led the American League with 200 hits and 38 doubles. Mid-1944, he was off to the US Navy, leaving behind a .355 batting average. But when he returned to the majors in 1946 (along with all the other players who had gone off to war), he never regained his swing and struggled along into the early Fifties before calling it quits after brief stints with the New York teams, the Giants and Yankees. 

The bidding for players stopped during World War II, 
then picked up again in late-1945. Certain rules were put in place in 1947 to curb such larcenysuch as restricting any player signing for more than $6,000 to be placed on an MLB roster before the end of the season or be declared a free agent. The top signing under these rulings was southpaw pitcher Johnny Antonelli when he inked a $65,000 bonus with the Boston Braves in 1948. Nothing seemed concrete on paper and amid squabbles around the majors, all previous rules were dropped in 1950. That same year, southpaw Paul “Wizard of Whiff” Pettit signed the first $100,000 bonus (equal to about $1 million today) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, right after graduating from high school. But, he injured his elbow pitching for New Orleans in the minors, and threw a whole 30 innings with Pittsburgh before retiring early 

Over the next two years, bonus fever 
continued stronger than everenough for major league baseball to form a committee in 1952 chaired by Pittsburgh Pirates GM Branch RickeyThe new rule they adopted was the following: Disregarding a hard cap, any player signing a bonus for at least $4,000 had to be placed on the 25-man major league roster for a term of two calendar years from the signing date. If the player was sent to the minors during that time, the team no longer had rights to the player’s contract and would subsequently be exposed to the other teams. In other words: a free agent.
1955 Bowman bubble gum card of Al Kaline (US Public Domain)

In most cases the situation did not work out well for the players. 
Some called it major league baseball’s worst blunder. One of the 1950’s Bonus Babies, Canadian Reno Bertoia, born in Italy in 1935 and raised in Windsor, Ontario, could relate to that. He signed with the local Detroit Tigers in 1953, the first year of the new stringent ruleIn an interview with sportswriter Mary Appel in 1992, Bertoia said: “It was such a poor rule for baseball, forcing bonus players to stay in the majors. I was so shy at 18, just not ready for it all. Sitting on the bench as a kid and not playing and wondering whether you belong there, then being put into situations where you’re not comfortable, that was tough on a kid.”  

To add to Bertoia’s statements, t
he young Bonus Baby players should have been working their up through the minors, learning their craft as they went. Most of them had signed for more money than the regulars were receiving in any given season. In short, the situation caused a lot of resentment.  

signed for $10,000 plus $1,000 for his mother to take a trip to Italy, in addition to the Tigers promising to pay for his college education at the University of Michigan, where he eventually received his teacher’s degree. Bertoia went on to play 10 years in the majors with various clubs, mostly at third base and batted .244 lifetime. For his first five years in the majors with Detroit, he roomed with another Bonus Baby, Al Kaline, the youngest player to win a batting crown in 1955 by hitting .340 at age 20, and who is enshrined in the Hall of Fame todayMy wife’s family is from Windsor. Both her brother and sister were taught by Bertoia at Assumption High School. A super person and a very popular teacher, they both told me. 

Bonus Rule stayed in effect until 1957. During those five years, every one of the 16 major league teams carried at least one Bonus Baby on their roster. Most of them barely playedif at all, due to their inexperience, of course, and when they did there wasn’t much to write home to momma aboutHigh-paid unknowns like Laurin Pepper, Jim Brady, George Thomas, Mel Roach, Ron Jackson, Paul Giel, Dave Hill, Frank Leja, Tom “Money Bags” Qualters, and twins Eddie and Johnny O’Brien, both signed together by the Pirates, to name someA few players did have decent careers, however: Joey Jay, Dick Schofield, Mike McCormick, Lindy McDaniel, Billy O’Dell, Moe Drabowsky, and Clete Boyer.  

In the Fifties, m
any teams found sneaky ways to work around the rule by putting the players on the injury list, when they were perfectly healthy, to be replaced by a minor leaguer. There were even cases of teams slipping money to bonus players “under the table,” then sending the youngsters to the minors where they should have been in the first place. Therefore, with these reasons in mind, MLB decided to kill the Bonus Rule, even making it retroactive, thus freeing up every Bonus Baby who had signed previously.  
Exhibit card of Roberto Clemente,
Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago
(US Public Domain)

In 1962, however, the rule came back, due to expansion in both leagues
 with four new teams. Now the Bonus Babies had to spend only one full season on the roster once they were signed. Future managing great Tony LaRussa was one such playerThen everything changed when a bidding war erupted for the services of slugger Rich Reichardt who eventually signed with the Los Angeles Angels in 1964 for $200,000, or about $1.5 million today. By 1965, the rule was dropped again, this time for good. The free agent amateur draft took over. Rick Monday was chosen No. 1 by the Kansas City Athletics and signed for $104,000. The Bonus Baby era had finally come to an abrupt end. Free agency would be right around the corner, a story in itself: where the big bucks came about. 

Of the dozens of Bon
us Babies signed during its more rigid time from 1953-1964, there were some true stars who made it to the Hall of Fame, besides Detroit’s Al Kaline: Harmon Killebrew, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente. Of these, only Killebrew spent any time in the minors once his so-called “probation period” was up. Koufax, in particular, would’ve rewritten the record book had he first spent a couple years in the minors with a decent pitching coach by his side. It’s unfortunate Koufax lingered half a dozen years before he turned his career around and finally starting winning.  

Clemente was
 a whole different matter altogether. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Roberto Clemente signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers on February 19, 1954 for a reported $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. Instead of keeping him on the big club, Brooklyn turned around and sent him to their AAA farm team, the International League Montreal Royals, knowing full well he’d be up for grabs in a draft the following spring. One story was that Brooklyn tried to hide Clemente’s talents from the other teams by playing him only sparingly, hoping that he wouldn’t be noticed 

But Brooklyn GM Buzzy Bavasi 
insisted that wasn’t the case. He told his close associates that the only reason they signed Clemente was to keep him away from the cross-town rival New York Giants, who had been actively seeking him, wanting him to play in the outfield alongside Willie Mays. In November 1954, the last-place Pittsburgh, run by Branch Rickey, used the first pick in the ensuing draft to grab Clemente, and you know what happened after that... 

The rest is history.