The Team That Went to War
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
The 1942 UC Bearcats
We love cliches in sports often using military terminology to explain our games and contests, especially when it comes to football. Perhaps no phrase is more cringe worthy than, “we’re going to war,” no explanation required here. However, in 1942 the University of Cincinnati’s football team did indeed march off to war.
The slow but steady mobilization that followed the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 changed life in America in every way imaginable as the world descended into total war. That change extended to college life as campuses gradually emptied of students as they enlisted or were called into service by the inevitable draft notice. Every facet of college life was affected including college athletics. By the summer of 1942 several dozen schools announced they had dropped football due to a lack of players, however most schools did play that year. As it became clear the number of young men leaving for war would continue to grow, many schools did announce there would be no 1943 football season, including the University of Cincinnati.
When Bearcat Head Coach Joe Meyer surveyed his team for the upcoming 1942 season, he told the Cincinnati Enquirer “Nine of our boys will be in army uniforms instead of football uniforms” this year, noting another was a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and an eleventh Bearcat in the Navy. [i] All would still be college students playing football in 1942 if there had been no war, adding several others were already reservists whose service was delayed until the beginning of 1943.
UC Head Coach Joe Meyer
Though Coach Joe Meyer was left with just enough players for the 1942 season they were a tough and talented bunch, a boatload of whom were later drafted by NFL teams including ; Jake Sweeney, a big tackle from Roger Bacon, tight end Elbie Nickel who went on to a long NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, tackle Dick Lagenbeck of Western Hills High School drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, Nick Skorich, a rugged guard who played with the Pittsburgh Steelers for three seasons, end Vern Ullom from Hughes High school drafted by the old Brooklyn Tigers, Tackle Bill Smyth of Roger Bacon taken by the Los Angeles Rams and running back Allen Richards from Miamisburg drafted by the Chicago Bears.
UC's 51- 0 Thrashing of Lousiville
Though reduced in number the young Bearcats responded with an impressive 8-2 record losing only to Tennessee and Georgia, teams bound for the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl respectively. As the season was winding down in November of 1942 the Selective Service Act was amended, extending the draft to men 18-20 years of age all of whom were previously exempted, leaving UC with were fewer than 300 civilian men on campus by the beginning of 1943. Left with virtually no players and facilities like Nippert Stadium and practice fields increasingly needed for the daily training of the 2,000 troops stationed on the UC’s campus for specialized programs training in medicine, languages and other specialized fields, UC President Raymond Walters announced the football program would be dissolved.
At the conclusion of the ’42 season players said their goodbyes as those from out of town returned home while native Cincinnatians waited for their orders. By 1943 the Bearcat players were being inducted into every branch of the armed services based on military needs as well as the physical and psychological testing they underwent. Spread across the nation the young Bearcats underwent 13 weeks of basic training followed by 4 weeks of more specialized training. The 17 week training minimum was standardized for all the armed services in 1943 after it was discovered attempts to cut initial training to 8 weeks after Pearl Harbor met with disastrous results on the battle field.
From training bases they were sent to every corner of the globe in the titanic struggle termed the “good war” by writer Studs Terkel. Dick Langenbeck , a highly touted defensive linemen, found himself a brand new lieutenant in the US Navy on a minesweeper patrolling the cold, cold waters of the North Atlantic, there no doubt, to protect the convoys supplying Great Britain with everything needed to carry on against Nazi Germany, convoys bearing his brother Bearcats, the GI’s that would storm Fortress Europa and carry the war to Adolph Hitler.
Others like quarterback/punter Joe Babcock were sent to the 461st Bomber Squadron flying out of Italy by 1944 tasked with bombing raids in Germany, Eastern Europe and Southern France, a dangerous mission many did not survive. Indeed, a fellow Bearcat First Lieutenant Howard Ebbers did not survive. A member the 346th Bomber squadron flying out of North Africa, Ebbers was killed in action in late 1943.
When the crusade to free Europe from Nazi occupation began on D-Day, June 6th, 1944 Nick Skorich captain of the 1942 team and future Pittsburgh Steeler, was there. A 22 year old commissioned Navy officer, Skorich was on an amphibious ship landing troops on Utah and Omaha Beah in the awful chaos of that morning portrayed in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Another Bearcat teammate, 19 year old West Virginian Ralph Hurst, did not survive that day, killed in action on a French beachhead. Captain Johnny Bedway, like Skorich a guard on ’42 Bearcats, a pair of guards whom Street & Smith, called the best guard tandem in the country was with the First Infantry Division. “The Big Red One” as it was known, became one of the most storied units of the Second World War, taking part in campaigns in North Africa, Italy and the rest of Europe. The Big Red One landed on D-Day and it along with Jonny Bedway, slugged its way across Europe into the heart Germany while another Bearcat teammate literally was dropped into the war, paratrooper Bob Creevy, formerly a freshman running back from Chicago.
Back at home the training of troops on UC’s campus continued. One Bearcat who enlisted in the Navy, halfback Hal Schneider, found himself in the familiar classrooms of UC. Schneider was on his way to becoming Dr. Schneider, MD, assigned by the Navy to attend med school. He was one of thousands of troops passing through UC’s campus for specialized training that could best take place at an academic institution.
On the other side of the globe other Bearcats carried on the war against Japan. Marines like end Allen “Alkie” Richards took part in the Island hopping campaign that took US forces across the Pacific. In January of 1944 the Enquirer reported his teammate and captain of the 1941 Bearcats Lieutenant Ray Virgin, a marine, was forced to ditch his aircraft somewhere in the waters of the South Pacific and was presumed dead.
Lt. Ray Virgin, USMC of Cincinnati Ohio
A little more than a year later another marine, Bearcat tackle Bill Smyth from Cincinnati Roger Bacon, fought for his life for 29 days of hell on the island of Iowa Jima, a battle that saw more than 25,000 US casualties . Other Bearcats were in the Navy like quarterback Don McMillan. Fellow sailors including talented end Willlard Stargel, Max Coyle and Jim Murphy ( Coast Guard) were at sea for months at a time. In McMillan’s case 17 straight months working on the deck of the aircraft carrier San Jacinto, operating the catapult that launched aircraft and the arrestor cables that grabbed planes as they landed. His ship was involved in major actions from June of 1944 until the end of the war in August of 1945 including the “Mariana’s Turkey Shoot”, Iowa Jima, Okinawa, Battle of Leyte Gulf and the campaign against the Japanese home islands.
Many others from the 1942 UC team were also in the armed forces during World War II but few public details of their service are known. In fact, that is true of most of the 10 million Americans in uniform during the war, outside of a notation in an obituary or a brief mention in a newspaper article, though the details might live on with their children and grandchildren. Here is list and the little I know: Abramowicz, Stan(US Army), Davis, Donnie(US Army), Giacometti, Gene (US Army), Gretchen, Mike(US Army), Hobt, Earl (branch unknown), Houston, Jack (US Army), Klusman, Len (US Army), Meier, Robert F. (US Army), Schneider, Hank (US Army), Smollen, John(US Army), Stewart, Willis (US Army), Sweeney, Jake(US Army), Williams, Billy(US Army), Zelinski, Bernie(Army Air Corps).
When the war ended in August of 1945 demobilization of the US military began quickly, but it would be months before most troops could return home. However, UC did manage to field a football team in 1945. Led by new coach Ray Nolting, a native Cincinnatian from Hughes High School who went on to star at running back for UC followed by a career with the Chicago Bears, the team was put together on the fly. Athletic Director Charles Mileham managed to put together a shortened schedule of eight games while Nolting patched together a team of newly graduated high schoolers and World War II vets who had made it back to campus in time for the new season. There were a few old faces returning like Len Klusman , Joe Townsend and Jack Hunt but most were brand new to the football program including Eugene Rhuelmann , a Western Hills High School graduate and Marine Corps veteran who saw action on Okinawa. He like many of the returning veterans benefitted from the landmark Serviceman’s Readjustment Act ( GI Bill), a visionary piece of legislation that democratized higher education for millions of Americans. Providing tuition, a monthly stipend for living expenses and low interest home loans for returning vets, it also provided the nation with the human capital to transform the United States into a Twentieth Century economic superpower. By 1946 and 1947 college campuses were flooded with veterans accounting “for 49% of all college admissions,” by the end of 1947.[ii]
Though the patchwork lineup of 1945 managed a 4-4 record, it was recognized UC still had not returned to its prewar form. However, through late 1945 and the spring and summer months of 1946, a steady stream of veterans returned to campus. An Enquirer headline from August 8, 1946 in big bold letters proclaimed UC BEARCATS MAY GO PLACES THIS FALL with sports columnist Dick Forbes writing “Maybe you’ve heard it – this whispered rumor around town, that UC’s really gonna have a team this year.”[iii] As the newly separated men returned home and contemplated their future, the NCAA had granted all athletes whose eligibility had been interrupted by the war an additional two years of eligibility which combined with the benefits of the GI Bill, allowed UC and schools across the United States to field college teams the likes of which had never been seen.
Coach Nolting explained “We’re going to put 11 pretty good men on the field every game,” adding most were service men from all the branches of the military. Insightfully he added, “They’re serious, considerably more interested in getting a college degree than they are in playing football”. Some had been high school stars who never had a chance to play college ball, while some were familiar faces to UC fans and still others who had played college ball elsewhere but for one reason or another transferred to UC. Forbes the Enquire columnist, noted “every man on the line is a former GI from one branch or another.”[iv] It was a line any quarterback would feel comfortable behind. In first game of the 1946 season the Bearcats pulled an upset, defeating the Big Ten runner up Indiana 15- 6 followed by wins over Marshall, Dayton, Ohio University, Michigan State, Xavier, Case Western and Miami with losses coming against Kentucky and Tulsa, caping the season with a Sun Bowl victory over Virginia Tech for a record of 9 – 2.
The momentum carried over into the next year, again powered by the World War II veterans. Fielding a starting lineup with an average age of 25, UC again turned in a strong performance, going 7-3 built around the 27 vets who probably viewed a college football game as a nice stroll in the park. The truth is this was happening in football programs across the nation. From the gridiron they deployed once again into civilian jobs as doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers and coaches, one even becoming the mayor of Cincinnati, proving themselves indeed to be “the greatest generation”.
*Special note- Every name I mentioned and accompanying details came from dozens of newspaper articles and obituaries. There were however many people on which I could find
nothing. If you know something about players from the 1942 team not mentioned or if you can add detail to what I have provided, please contact me through this blog.
[i] Cincinnati Enquirer, August 24, 1942. [ii] Born of Controversy: The GI Bill of Rights, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, pg. 3. [iii] Cincinnati Enquirer, Dick Forbes, August 8,1946, p. 13. [iv] Ibid.