“Undefeated: From Basketball to Battle: West Point’s Perfect Season 1944”
Author: Jim Noles
Publisher: Casemate Books
Price: $29.95 (Hardcover)
Birmingham attorney Jim Noles is also the author of a string of books.
His “Pocketful of History,” which explains the images on the new set of United States quarters, state by state, was such a needed and useful project it causes consternation: Why didn’t I think of that!
His other books, however, have military subjects.
“Mighty by Sacrifice” tells the story of the terrible losses suffered by an American bomber squadron of B-17s in August of 1944, and “Twenty-three Minutes to Eternity” gives a moment-to-moment account of the sinking of the U.S. Navy escort carrier “Lipscomb Bay” in 1943.
His newest is also military and, though not autobiographical, closer to home.
Noles, West Point class of 1990, was, like all cadets, familiar with Army’s spectacular 1944 basketball season. Although the team had posted only a 5 and 10 record in 1943, in ’44, they went all the way, undefeated.
Noles takes us through the season, game by game, but quickly, mercifully, not play-by-play, culminating in the all-important Army-Navy game. (Only real fanatics can read the play-by-play books in football or basketball. I can’t imagine how it would be done in soccer.)
The ’44 season was in many ways unusual.
The war was on and cadets were being rushed through their time at West Point, completing their education in three and a half or even three years.
So, they played a short season, mainly home games, and away games were a bus ride away, in New York City or Pennsylvania, not all over North America. Army finished by defeating Navy but did not accept bids to either the NIT or NCAA tournament. Why is not certain. Perhaps to demonstrate seriousness about nonessential travel in times of gas rationing? Because there was no time to spare, given the training these cadets needed to receive before being sent to war?
This book is about the members of the basketball team, during the season and, later, in combat, but it is useful to remember the athletes were, like all cadets, carrying a heavy load of courses and, at all times, maintaining the strict discipline expected of cadets. Noles deals briefly with
“Beast Barracks,” the summer weeks before starting the first year, and then the trials of being a “Plebe,” with all the “bracing” and being constantly harassed by upperclassmen, but for a detailed look at all that, the best novel is Pat Conroy’s “Lords of Discipline,” which is set at the Citadel in Charleston.
One bit of West Point lore which was entirely new to me was the choosing of the branch. Noles reminds the reader that cadets are ranked, one through last, in their graduating class. In the spring, the 297 “ground cadets,” that is, those who had not chosen the Air Corps, assemble. On a huge blackboard are the openings in each branch: Infantry, Field Artillery, and so on. Most desirable, Noles tells us, was Corps of Engineers. West Point, after all, is an engineering college. When those vacancies are filled, the lower ranking cadets may or may not get their first or second choice. Least desirable, in time of war, was Coast Artillery, since those lieutenants would probably never get overseas.
In any case, graduation day arrived and, in a remarkable coincidence, the day they received their commissions as second lieutenants was June 6, the very day Allied Forces were landing at Normandy, mostly under the command of West Pointers: Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Ridgway, Taylor. On graduation day, 24 cadets got married.
After commencement, the class of ’44 got a month of graduation leave, except for new Second Lieutenant John S. D. Eisenhower, who went to Europe to be with his father, the Supreme Allied Commander.
The first half of this book focusses on three members of the basketball team: Jack Hennessy, guard, Ed Christl, center, and Bob Faas, forward, then follows these three through additional training and into combat in Europe and the Pacific.
Jack Hennessy’s infantry unit landed at Marseilles and fought north through the bitter winter into Alsace and then Germany.
Ed Christl, an artillery forward observer, landed at Le Havre and fought into Germany and then Austria.
Bob Faas, who had opted for the Air Corps, trained in Selma, Sarasota and Texas and then flew combat missions over Japan. He was shot down and then, marvelously, rescued by a “Dumbo” flying boat, with only three days left before the Japanese surrender.
The class of ’44 went off to war knowing that “the average life expectancy of an infantry lieutenant in Western Europe was just 10 days.” Of the class of ’42, 70 died, 1 in 5. The class of ’44 fared better, with three quarters of the class serving overseas and 15 members dying in service to their country in the last year of the war.
Cliché or not, it would be hard to identify a “Greater Generation.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.