With football fields viewed as proving grounds, the military fielded teams that competed against top college programs during World War II. The Fort Knox Armoraiders, Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks and other service teams played the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State. Military teams sometimes soared passed perennial powers in the national rankings.
With its tactical formations, violent turf battles and employment of military terminology such as “blitz” and “bomb,” football was thought to instill toughness, leadership and teamwork. “Football! Navy! War! At no time in history have these words been more entwined and intermeshed than they are now,” declared Commander Thomas J. Hamilton, head of the U.S. Navy’s pre-flight and physical training program and former Naval Academy football coach.
Distinct from teams representing the academies at West Point and Annapolis, the World War II military service teams boasted an all-star collection of players and coaches. Otto Graham, Marion Motley and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch were among the future Pro Football Hall of Famers to play for military installations. Before becoming a legend at Alabama, Paul “Bear” Bryant served as an assistant coach for the Georgia Pre-Flight Skycrackers and North Carolina Pre-Flight Cloudbusters. Future Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson was as an Iowa Pre-Flight assistant.
While service team players endured practices in addition to the grueling physical conditioning that prepared them for battle, coaches dealt with constantly fluctuating rosters. “We never knew from week to week what our lineup would be because someone was always being shipped out,” said Tony Hinkle, who had guided Butler University’s basketball team to a national championship before coaching the football team representing Chicago’s Naval Station Great Lakes.
College coaches faced different challenges. After losing many of their top players to military service, more than 50 colleges dropped varsity football in 1942 and approximately 200 more—including Alabama, Michigan State and Stanford—followed suit in 1943. Many of the collegiate teams that did play relied on freshmen too young to be drafted and those excused from military service because of medical conditions.
With rosters that included NFL players and All-Americans, the service teams often had size and speed advantages. In 1942, Georgia Pre-Flight toppled Auburn and Alabama, and the Great Lakes Bluejackets recorded six consecutive shutouts before tying Notre Dame to end the season. The aspiring aviators of Iowa Pre-Flight defeated Kansas, 61-0, in their opener before beating Michigan and defending national champion Minnesota. Even greater success awaited the Seahawks the following year.
READ MORE: How Did World War II End?
Iowa Pre-Flight Nearly Beats Notre Dame for 1943 Title
While service teams had separate rankings in 1942, the Associated Press in 1943 combined military and collegiate teams in its weekly Top 20 poll.
“College football was at an interesting crossroads. Some schools deemphasized athletics to focus on the war effort while others had military camps stationed on their campuses,” says College Football Hall of Fame historian and curator Jeremy Swick. “There’s rationing of gasoline so small teams that rely on people travelling far distances to games are also impacted. I think that’s a significant reason why military installations were included in the rankings.”
With a roster sprinkled with NFL veterans such as 29-year-old Dick Todd, a two-time All-Pro fullback for the Washington Redskins, the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks flew up the Associated Press rankings in 1943 behind the innovative split-T formation of former Missouri coach Don Faurot.
After steamrolling their first eight opponents, including a victory over defending national champion Ohio State, the second-ranked Seahawks traveled to South Bend, Indiana to face top-ranked Notre Dame, also 8-0, in the season’s biggest game.
Even before kickoff, war left its imprint on the game when the Seahawks quarterback and five teammates were transferred to other training bases and the Marines activated Irish quarterback Angelo Bertelli, who would win the Heisman Trophy that year.
From his barracks at Parris Island, Bertelli joined the millions listening to the nationwide radio broadcast of the showdown between the country’s best teams on November 20, 1943. A 20-point underdog, the Seahawks took a 13-7 lead in the fourth quarter on a touchdown pass. (The extra point attempt failed.) Led by sophomore quarterback Johnny Lujack, who would win the Heisman Trophy in 1947, the Irish scored a late touchdown to win, 14-13, before 45,000 fans.
The only team standing between Notre Dame and an undefeated season was another service team—Great Lakes. Captain David Hanrahan, Iowa Pre-Flight commandant, sent a note to his Great Lakes counterpart before the game: “We’ve softened them up for you, now it’s up to your boys.”
Before a crowd of 25,000 enlisted men inside a stadium built on a Great Lakes quadrangle, the sailors sank Notre Dame’s perfect season when Steve Lach, selected fourth in the 1942 NFL draft by the Chicago Cardinals, threw a last-minute, 46-yard touchdown pass to give the Bluejackets a dramatic 19-14 win. The Associated Press called the game the “sports surprise of the year.” Having defeated five top-10 teams, Notre Dame still finished the season atop the rankings. But for one missed extra point, however, Iowa Pre-Flight would have been national champion.
Military Service Teams End Along With World War II
The following season, service teams accounted for half the teams in the final Associated Press Top 20 poll—and that doesn’t include top-ranked Army and fourth-ranked Navy. The Randolph Field Ramblers from San Antonio finished third in the rankings.
Just months after tying Texas in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day, the Ramblers routed the Longhorns, 42-6, in between shutouts of Rice and Southern Methodist. They finished a 12-0 season by defeating March Field before 50,000 fans in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and downing Second Air Force in Manhattan’s Polo Grounds six days later.
When World War II ended weeks before the start of the 1945 college football season, many service teams such as Iowa Pre-Flight cancelled their seasons and disbanded. With military personnel redeployed elsewhere after the victory in Europe, several West Coast service teams fielded teams in 1945. In a battle for the unofficial national service title at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Fleet City Naval Training Station beat the El Toro Marines Leathernecks, 48-25, in what the Los Angeles Times called the “wildest scoring duel the Coliseum ever witnessed.”
Before retreating from football altogether, the service teams scored one final triumph over the collegiate bluebloods. With their stadium due to be disassembled starting the next day, the Great Lakes Bluejackets played for a final time December 1, 1945, against Notre Dame. Led by Paul Brown, the coach often called the “father of modern football,” in his last game before taking the helm of the Cleveland Browns, the three-touchdown underdogs scored 26 fourth-quarter points en route to a 39-7 triumph over the Irish. The victory served as a farewell salute to the military service teams that boosted college football during the war years.
“College football is definitely able to shift when it has to,” Swick says. “College football has always been a sport that manages to play games under unusual circumstances, which I think is a testament to the strength of the game.”