If you know anything about minor league baseball, you know that those teams are filled with players who are either waiting to get back to their major-league team or those who are working hard every day for their shot at the big time.
It’s hard to overestimate just how important baseball was during the 1940s, and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed the game was critical for the country during wartime. Still, baseball players enlisted in droves. For most of them, any kind of wound could end their major-league dreams forever. Some returned to their home field, while others never came home at all.
The website Baseball in Wartime documents the heroism of both major- and minor-league players who risked everything they’d worked for their entire lives so they could serve their country.
A minor league pitcher, Bebas had joined the Naval Reserve long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As war broke out in Europe and loomed over the United States in 1940, he resigned his commission, took off his baseball uniform and enlisted in the Navy as a seaman. By February 1941, he was an aviation cadet, learning to fly from aircraft carriers.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Bebas became a Dauntless Dive Bomber pilot, assigned to the USS Hornet. His first taste of combat came in 1942 at the Battle of Midway. He flew through a forest of enemy fire to bomb the Japanese destroyer Tanikaze, pulling up just 100 feet from its decks. His bomb missed, but it damaged the ship.
For his daring during the Battle of Midway, Bebas was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross but died during a dive bomber training operation later that year.
When it came to baseball, Keith Bissonnette could do it all. He spent his whole life becoming a skilled infielder and outfielder. His career was on a meteoric rise, but when he was drafted by the Army in 1942, he took his gusto for baseball into the Army Air Forces. He was sent to the China-Burma-India theater to fly air sweep and bomber escort missions against the Japanese.
Bissonnette flew more than 200 missions, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals. In 1945, he took off from an airfield in Burma to hit enemy troops concentrations and supply dumps, but was shot down near the Chinese border.
Lummus was an all-purpose athlete, playing both baseball and football. He was playing minor league ball while he was already in training as an Army aviation cadet in 1941. A training accident that year led to his discharge from the Army, so he played pro football for the New York Giants instead.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lummus enlisted in the Marine Corps and volunteered to become an officer. This led him to a brief stint with the Marine Raiders before leading Marines at the Battle of Iwo Jima. As a rifle platoon leader, he single-handedly knocked out three enemy strongholds before stepping on a mine.
He was evacuated from the field and given 18 pints of blood in an attempt to save his life, but he died on Iwo Jima. He posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions against the Japanese.
John J. Pinder
Before entering the Army in 1942, Pinder was a stocky, right-handed pitcher who played for farm teams of the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox. He was sent to North Africa and Sicily with his new team, the 1st Infantry Division. After both invasions, Technician Fifth Grade Pinder was sent to England to prepare for D-Day, the invasion of France.
Pinder’s boat landed 100 yards off the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Under heavy fire and in waist-deep water, he carried the vitally important radio ashore. He was hit three times as he returned to the landing craft to bring more communication equipment back to the beach.
He would not be stopped, even after being hit by a German machine gun. Pinder rebuilt a damaged radio while dying from blood loss, and even waded back into the surf to get the spare parts he needed. He died on his 32nd birthday and would receive the Medal of Honor for his heroism and dedication.
Between 1940 and 1942, pitcher and outfielder Stanford Wolfson played for three teams attached to the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization while attending the University of Illinois. In 1942, he joined the Army Air Forces as a bomber pilot, and by 1943, he was making bombing runs over occupied Europe.
On his 10th mission, this time over Germany in November 1944, his plane took too much damage and he was forced to bail out. The crew was captured by the Germans, but while the rest were taken prisoner, Wolfson was Jewish. He was executed by the local police after capture.
Wolfson received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and Purple Heart during his service. It wasn’t until after the war that his execution was discovered. Wolfson’s murderer was tried and executed in 1947.
Tom Woodruff led multiple leagues in stealing bases during his minor-league run. His speed and fielding meant he had a career that was destined for Major League Baseball. In May 1941, he was called to serve in the U.S. Army, and Woodruff answered. He was sent to a public relations staff, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he transferred to the Navy to be a fighter pilot.
From the USS Enterprise, he flew missions at Peleliu, Okinawa, Luzon and the Philippine Sea. He also helped sink two destroyers at Ormoc Bay. Throughout the war, he earned the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Gold Star, but was shot down over the Philippines and was never recovered.
Station HYPO Note:
Not mentioned in the story is RM1c Walter L. Rougeux, a Minor League player. Walter Rougeux was killed in action on May 12, 1945 while serving onboard USS NEW MEXICO (BB 40) as a radio intercept operator trained to intercept Japanese katakana radio traffic. White copying “PVO” tracking on Japanese kamikazes, one of the kamikazes hit the NEW MEXICO, killing him.
22 April 2023 at 15:15
I enjoy all your history posts, this one has been the best.
22 April 2023 at 19:44
Thank you for your comment and for visiting Station HYPO.
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