I Wanted to Join the Fight Against Hitler’
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
In 2006, Alan Schwarz interviewed Bob Feller for a chapter in his book “Once Upon a Game: Baseball’s Greatest Memories.” They collaborated on this essay, in which Feller, nicknamed “Rapid Robert” for his fastball, reflected on his decision to enlist in the Navy during World War II and miss almost four seasons of major league baseball. Feller died on Wednesday at age 92.
I was driving my new Buick Century across the Mississippi River, across the Iowa-Illinois state line, when my world — everyone’s world — changed forever.
It was Dec. 7, 1941. I was driving to my meeting with my Cleveland Indians bosses to hash out my 1942 contract, and out it came on the radio: the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
The last thing on my mind right then was playing baseball. I immediately decided to enlist in the United States Navy. I didn’t have to — I was 23 and strong-bodied, you bet, but with my father terminally ill back in Van Meter, Iowa, I was exempt from military service.
It didn’t matter to me — I wanted to join the fight against Hitler and the Japanese. We were losing that war and most young men of my generation wanted to help push them back. People today don’t understand, but that’s the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting. So on Dec. 9, I gave up the chance to earn $100,000 with the Indians and became the first professional athlete to join the Navy after Pearl Harbor.
It was one of the greatest experiences in my life. You can talk about teamwork on a baseball team, but I’ll tell you, it takes teamwork when you have 2,900 men stationed on the U.S.S. Alabama in the South Pacific. I was a chief petty officer. I helped give exercises and ran the baseball team and recreation when we were in port. But I was also a gun captain — I was firing a 40-millimeter quad at eight rounds per second.
The Alabama was involved in one of the most important battles of the Pacific. In June 1944, we were supposed to shell the beaches of Saipan for two hours so that our Marines could land safely. The Japanese tried a surprise attack — but we were ready. The American Navy and Air Force, we had all the big carriers and battleships like the Iowa, the Wisconsin, the New Jersey, the Alabama, you name it, we had them all. Our pilots and gunners shot down 474 Japanese aircraft, sunk three of their carriers and got several of their escort ships. And when the sun went down that night, it was the end of the Japanese naval air force. We made it look so easy, ever since they’ve called it the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.
We were involved in so many other important engagements, including some in the north Atlantic over in Europe. Our ship won nine battle stars, eight of them while I was on it. It was an incredible time for all of us.
I went on inactive duty in August 1945, and since I had stayed in such good shape, and had played ball on military teams, I was ready to start for the Indians just two days later, against the Tigers. More than 47,000 people came to see me return — there was such a patriotic feeling, with V-J day so fresh in everyone’s minds. Even though I hadn’t pitched in the major leagues in almost four years, I struck out the first batter. I wound up throwing a four-hitter and winning, 4-2.
What a great night ... I kept it up the rest of the season, too, and then had what many people call my best season in 1946, when I won 26 games with 348 strikeouts.
A lot of folks say that had I not missed those almost four seasons to World War II — during what was probably my physical prime — I might have had 370 or even 400 wins. But I have no regrets. None at all. I did what any American could and should do: serve his country in its time of need. The world’s time of need.
I knew then, and I know today, that winning World War II was the most important thing to happen to this country in the last 100 years. I’m just glad I was a part of it. I was only a gun captain on the battleship Alabama for 34 months. People have called me a hero for that, but I’ll tell you this — heroes don’t come home. Survivors come home.