Hail to Conquering Heroes — the Thousands of Them
First there was Tom Harmon. Then there was Bob Chappuis.
They are forever among the most revered Wolverine football players when University of Michigan folks loudly sing, “Hail to the conquering heroes … The champions of the West.”
During this past week of our national Independence Day, both men were well-remembered by family, friends and football fans around the country as a couple of our thousands of “conquering heroes” of long ago.
Harmon, from Gary, Ind., and Chappuis, from Toledo, Ohio, were two of the most gifted running backs ever to play for Michigan and coach Fritz Crisler.
They both answered the call to serve in World War II and amazingly survived similar battle experiences — one in China and the other halfway around the world in Italy.
Chappuis, who finished second to Notre Dame’s Johnny Lujack in the 1947 Heisman Trophy vote, died last month. He was 89.
Harmon, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1940, died in March 1990 at the age of 70.
Each of these men led Michigan to some of its most glorious gridiron victories. And each had what many fans consider to be his best performance in his final game for the Wolverines — Harmon in a 40-0 victory over archrival Ohio State in 1940, and Chappuis in a 49-0 victory over Southern California in the Jan. 1, 1948, Rose Bowl.
Also, each of these men entered the Army Air Corps during World War II. And each of them was shot down over enemy occupied territory, only to be rescued and protected from the enemy by folks friendly to our side.
Harmon ran for 139 yards, scored two touchdowns, completed 11 of 12 passes good for 151 yards and two more touchdowns, kicked four extra points, averaged 50 yards on four punts, intercepted three passes, and returned one of them for a touchdown all in a day’s work at Ohio Stadium that November Saturday in 1940.
Thirteen months later he enlisted in the Army Air Corps a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Chappuis (pronounced CHAP-eee-us) played for Michigan in 1942 but then joined the Army Air Corps at the end of his sophomore year, in the spring of 1943.
He returned to Michigan after the war ended, playing for the Wolverines in 1946 and 1947 in a backfield that became known as the “Mad Magicians” because of their deceptive offensive plays out of Fritz Crisler’s single wing attack.
Chappuis led that team to a 9-0 season in 1947 before taking on Southern California in the Rose Bowl. He had a fine performance in Pasadena, scoring two touchdowns as he ran for 91 yards and passed for 188 yards in his Michigan finale.
Johnny Lujack, Notre Dame’s quarterback who beat out Chappuis for the 1947 Heisman Trophy, served on a subchaser in the English Channel, which was infested with German U-boats during WW II.
Both Harmon and Chappuis had worthy help toward their victories at Michigan. Harmon’s colleagues in the backfield included Davey Nelson, Forest Evashevski and Bob Westfall.
Nelson and Evashevski became successful football coaches and then athletic directors at the Universities of Delaware and Iowa, respectively.
One of Chappuis’ backfield teammates was Bump Elliott, who became the Michigan head football coach, 1959–1968.
Harmon, Chappuis, Nelson, Evashevski, Westfall and Elliott are in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Nelson, who achieved fame as the University of Delaware football coach and athletic director, was the highly respected secretary-editor of the NCAA Football Rules Committee for 30 years.
He served in the Naval Air Corps aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in the South Pacific during WW II. Evashevski also served in the Naval Air Corps during WW II.
Nine Lives and Counting
Harmon, however, was the only one of these Michigan football players who was, according to some fans, blessed with nine lives — or possibly even more.
He was the pilot of a B-17 bomber out of a U.S. Army Air Base in Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) on April 8, 1943, when his plane ran into a heavy storm at 5,000 feet over the jungle. Attempting to get below the most severe weather, Harmon did not make it before the plane was mortally damaged and went down.
Harmon parachuted to safety in a dense and swamp-plagued jungle. But the other five members of the crew were lost in the crash.
He walked, swam and, with the help of natives, canoed to safety during five days of heavy rains. He then transferred to fighter planes.
Six-and-a-half months after escaping death in that South American jungle, Harmon was piloting one of four P-38 twin-engine fighters flying escort for American bombers over Japanese occupied China on Oct. 30, 1943.
They got into a deadly dogfight when half a dozen Japanese Zeros flew up at them out of low-lying clouds below.
Harmon turned and dove, firing all guns. He downed one Zero before he was hit and set afire. Harmon was badly burned on his legs and hands.
Once again, Harmon parachuted. This time he floated downward all too slowly through a hail of bullets as Americans and Japanese fired at each other with Harmon dangling in their midst. He hung limply, feigning death, in hopes the Japanese would leave him alone.
Finally on the ground, the former Michigan tailback was picked up by friendly Chinese. Through a form of underground railway, relays of Chinese carried the wounded pilot over Asian jungle trails for 34 days until he was handed back to Americans.
Harmon received the Purple Heart and Silver Cross.
Marveled at Their Courage
Chappuis, an aerial gunner and radio operator aboard a B-25 bomber, was on his 21st mission in February 1945, when his plane was shot down over German occupied Northern Italy.
He parachuted into an olive grove, as did two other members of the B-25 crew.
Anti-Nazi Italian freedom fighters got to Chappuis and his crewmates before the Germans did, and they managed to get the Americans to a house in Asola, a small town in Lombardy. A family named Ugolini lived in that house.
The Ugolinis hid Chappuis and his buddies in a 10-by-10-foot room on the top floor of their house, which was located just down the street from the local German headquarters.
The American fliers remained hidden there for three months until V-E Day, May 8, 1945.
Chappuis went back to Ann Arbor with every intention of just finishing his college education without football. But he was persuaded to return to the gridiron.
After playing in the short-lived All America Football Conference, 1948-1949, Chappuis retired from pro football and entered a career as a corporate labor relations director in Fort Wayne, Ind.
In 1974 he returned to Italy, to visit the Ugolini family in Asola, where he was welcomed like a homecoming hero.
He always marveled at the courage of those Italians who saved his life and long after WW II continued to question his own nerve.
“I would hope that given the same circumstances, I would do what they did for me,” Chappuis said in a 2006 interview. “But to be honest, I’m not sure I’d be that brave.”
But we are sure.
And fortunately for the United States, there were millions of men like Bob Chappuis, Tom Harmon, Davey Nelson, Johnny Lujack and our Italian and Chinese friends during WW II.
May we never forget them on Independence Day or any other day of the year.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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