Tennessee football and Memorial Day

Marvin Westwestwords

Please stand, remove your caps and direct your attention to how Tennessee football relates to Memorial Day.


Seventy-five years ago, more or less, four Volunteers died for their country in World War II.

Cadet Robert R. Neyland

Before that, and a little after, Robert Reese Neyland was doing his U.S. Army duty, far from Shields-Watkins Field. Neyland survived, excelled and was promoted to general. Four guys from the football family came back in boxes.

Bill Nowling, three-year starting fullback and linebacker (1940-42) from St. Petersburg, Fla., helped win a Southeastern Conference championship. He finished a fine career with an interception against Tulsa in the Sugar Bowl.

After graduation, he was commissioned as an infantry second lieutenant at Fort Benning, Ga., in June 1943. In July, he married his high school sweetheart. He was killed on Aug. 9, 1944, leading his platoon in fighting in France – one day after a brief acknowledgment of his 24th birthday.

Clyde “Ig” Fuson from Middlesboro played second to Nowling on the 1942 team that went 9-1-1. He scored the knockout touchdown against Tulsa in the bowl game. He enlisted in the Army as his way of following Neyland. He was eventually assigned to the 84th Infantry.

The division took Geilenkirchen, Germany, on Nov. 19, 1944, and moved on to Beeck and then Lindern. Ig was killed on Dec. 4. He was 21.

Homegrown Willis Tucker was a reserve center and guard on the 1939 team that went unbeaten, untied and unscored-upon. He played behind Norbert Ackermann and Bob Suffridge on the 1940 team that finished fourth in the AP poll.

It seemed Tucker always had a broken nose. It never had a chance to heal. Willis also had a kind heart. He made crutches by hand for hospitalized children in Sevierville. He tried to keep this a secret, but word leaked out and he was nicknamed “The Crutch.”

Tucker was 26 when killed on Nov. 28, 1944, the day the U.S. Ninth Army reached the Roer River in Germany.

Rudy Klarer, good guard, fierce competitor, a fearless fireman during summer breaks, came from Louisville to Tennessee. He departed soon after the previously mentioned Sugar Bowl for officers’ training at Fort Benning.

He moved on from there to Germany as a second lieutenant. He became a platoon leader deep inside the 45th Infantry Division. He was killed in action on Feb. 6, 1945. He was awarded a silver star “for bravery in protecting the lives of men under his command.”

***

World War II seriously impacted Tennessee football. The Vols did not play in 1943. Captain-elect O.C. Lloyd missed his opportunity to lead the team. Many of the players had gone to war. Most came back to the team.

Dick Huffman was a prime example. He was a tough tackle before the timeout. He returned to become an all-American.

The war changed some Volunteers. One changed the war.

Austin Shofner played for Neyland, graduated in 1937 and joined the Marines. He was having fun playing and coaching service football until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Suddenly, being a Marine was serious stuff. Shofner went to war with a loaded gun, in defense of the Philippines. He was captured at Corregidor. He endured 11 months in Japanese prisoners-of-war camps.

On April 4, 1943, Shofner led the only group to ever escape the Japanese. He and his men were first to tell the world about the atrocities being committed, including the Bataan Death March and brutal starvation, torture and death in POW camps.

America reacted with a more vigorous effort. You know the rest of that story. You may not realize that Shofner healed, went back to the Pacific war zone, did other heroic things and became a general.

***

Time for a commercial break:

Today is a good day to pay our respects – and remember that 16 million Americans were engaged in WWII and that some 400,000 were killed. We probably shouldn’t take what they gave for granted.

I was not quite old enough to participate, but my father did. He didn’t think of himself as a hero. He got drafted at age 39.

***

Today is a good day to again appreciate Neyland. He was a Texan, born in Greenville in 1892. He received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy from U.S. Rep. Sam Rayburn (a Tennessean who moved from Roane County to Texas).

Neyland did very well at West Point. He graduated in 1916 with honors of several kinds. He was a scholar and one of the greatest athletes of his day, national collegiate heavyweight boxing champion, a star football end and a baseball pitcher who beat Navy and attracted professional offers.

He was commissioned as an officer and gentleman in the Corps of Engineers and served in France during World War I – as an instructor.

The Army recognized talent and sent Neyland for an advanced degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He returned to West Point as aide-de-camp to Douglas MacArthur, academy superintendent.

Neyland coached at Tennessee for nine years before the Army recalled him, to help widen the Panama Canal. He resumed coaching but was again needed in May 1941, before Pearl Harbor.

Neyland served in the China-Burma-India region, supervising movement of materials through monsoons and across the Himalayas to troops commanded by Gen. Joe Stillwell.

Neyland was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit and was honored as a member of the Order of the British Empire. He made it back to UT football for 1946.

He finally, officially retired from military service with the rank of brigadier general.

***

Neyland still ranks high on the all-time list of successful coaches. In 21 years with the Volunteers, he went 173-31-12, a winning percentage of .829. Many opponents failed to score.

His genius was recognized. Knute Rockne of Notre Dame fame went so far as to call Neyland “football’s greatest coach.”

I don’t know about that, but I do know the Army seemed to think he was a good soldier.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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