Though the recent polar vortex may have tempered my enthusiasm a bit, this January I’ve been pulling on my running shoes and hitting the pavement with renewed focus. The resolution to exercise more in the new year led me to think about the role that sports have played in military life over the years.
Athletics have long been a part of military culture and the day-to-day routine of service members. Sports teams in military leagues provide opportunities for physical release and conditioning outside of the gym, as well as a chance to strengthen ties with comrades. For service members who grew up taking part in Little League and pickup basketball games, athletic teams offer a chance to return to a familiar hallmark of civilian life. Perhaps most importantly, sports act as entertainment, for both players and observers alike, and a way to combat boredom and boost morale. Because of these benefits, sports have long been organized on a wide range of levels, from within the unit to intramural leagues, to international competitions such as the 1919 Interallied Games played after World War I.
VHP collections provide visual testimony of the wide range of athletic endeavors pursued by service members. Navy Lieutenant Robert Mackey played with the USS Missouri baseball team during World War II. The team photo above was taken in the fall of 1945, after Mackey witnessed the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the Missouri (see his VHP interview for the inside story on the unique role he played in the surrender ceremony).
In addition to his duties as a Pharmacist’s Mate, Coast Guard veteran Irwin Robinson also participated in sports aboard ship. As he explains in his VHP interview, the Coast Guard had an active boxing program, in which boxing great Jack Dempsey was involved. As this photo demonstrates, Robinson’s bouts aboard the USS Bibb captured his shipmates’ attention, eventually leading to his nickname—“Rocky.”
Serving with the 520th Signal Base Depot in Pusan, Korea, Private First Class Eban Franklin Fisher, Jr. not only played flag football, but also participated in a clinic for officials of the sport. The military papers in his VHP collection illustrate the high degree to which sports were organized in the military. Fisher’s training paid off—his team came in second in the Pusan Flag Football Championships.
A pilot who served with the 188th Assault Helicopter Company during the Vietnam War, Kjell Tollefson discusses “living on adrenaline” during his time stationed at Landing Zone Sally near Khe San in 1968 . His collection contains a snapshot of a pickup football game, which hints at the ways in which spontaneous pickup games were used to relieve battlefield stress.
So, whether you play sports yourself or just root, root, root for the home team, don’t miss these collections of soldier athletes that are part of the Veterans History Project. And don’t miss out on future news and updates from VHP: subscribe to our RSS feed for periodic emails on VHP news, events, and collection highlights.