TED WILLIAMS AT WAR.
On Feb. 16, 1953, a badly damaged Grumman F9F-5 Panther jet (Bureau #126109, nose #10) approached airfield King-13 at Suwon, Korea. The aircraft’s radio was inoperable, its hydraulic system was gone, and it was trailing smoke and fluids. Unable to communicate or control his speed, the pilot brought his wounded plane in for a spectacular belly landing, skidding the length of the field, showering sparks and debris.
Fire and rescue crews quickly doused the burning aircraft with foam, but it was a total wreck. This incident was unique because the pilot was probably the most famous Marine Reserve officer in Korea: Captain Theodore S. Williams, better known as Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox.
Ted Williams was arguably the best baseball hitter of all time. By the end of his career he was a six-time American League batting champ, and four times he led the league in runs-batted-in and runs scored. He was voted the AL Most Valuable Player twice, was the last man to hit .400 for a season and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966.
A colorful but mercurial player, Ted was an astute student of the game possessing an unmatched commitment to excellence. His keen eyesight, drive to excel and outstanding reflexes made him a great ballplayer, an avid sportsman and a superb photographer; these qualities also made him an excellent pilot.
Most books about “Teddy Baseball” focus on his sports achievements, devoting little space to his military service. The only question usually asked is, “What would have happened had Ted Williams not lost his prime baseball years serving his country?” Bill Nowlin’s fine book “Ted Williams at War” takes the opposite approach. It focuses on Ted’s wartime service as a naval aviation cadet, Stateside flight instructor duty from 1943 to 1945 and again as a recalled Reserve pilot in 1952 to 1953.
Ted’s baseball achievements take a backseat to his performance as a “Flying Leatherneck.” Nowlin uses almost 200 interviews and cites written records, such as command histories, squadron logs and personal flight records, to document his assertions. The result is neither a fawning, grossly embellished heroic saga nor a bitter, scathing indictment. Every controversy is impartially examined. Nowlin sometimes debunks persistent rumors using facts; at other times he questions the official record or the veracity of some alleged eyewitness statements.
Bill Nowlin is well qualified to write about “The Splendid Splinter.” He has written or edited more than a dozen books about baseball, and he was the 2004 vice president of the Society for American Baseball Research. The book is meticulously researched, wonderfully written and very well organized. More than 100 carefully selected photographs and more than a dozen informative sidebars enhance the narrative. Unlike so many other biographies, Nowlin gets all the details right: All military organizations, unit designations, aircraft specifications and airfield locations are correctly identified.
Readers will learn other major league baseball players also flew combat missions in Korea and will discover that Ted Williams and future astronaut John Glenn often flew missions together, sometimes as wingmen. Some readers will be chagrined to find out that a Boston sportswriter who took Ted to task for “avoiding the draft” hypocritically relied upon the very same III-A deferment he vilified to retain his own civilian status.
This book is highly recommended for Marines and baseball fans alike. Ted Williams was a baseball star for 19 seasons and a proud Marine for five seasons. In the words of Senator John Glenn, “Ted may have batted .400 for the Red Sox, but he hit a thousand as a U.S. Marine.”