Remembering Ted Williams: A Marine Fighter Pilot

By LtCol Ronald J. Brown, USMCR (Ret) - Originally Published October 2002

United States Marine ground crewmen at Suwon's K-13 Airbase in Korea were alerted that trouble was afoot when they noticed the crash, fire and rescue crews hurriedly manning their emergency vehicles on 16 Feb. 1953. The source of that trouble quickly became apparent when a Marine fighter plane appeared on the horizon.

The midnight-blue F9F "Panther" jet was coming in "heavy" and very fast. Its sluggish movements, trailing smoke and streaming 30-foot ribbon of fire all indicated serious danger. The pilot obviously was having difficulty controlling his aircraft, but he was too low to eject. His only course, therefore, was to try to bring his crippled aircraft in.

An already tense situation became worse when an explosion rocked the undercarriage as the plane approached the airstrip. The stubby fighter plane made a wheels-up "belly" landing, skidding along the tarmac with sparks flying for almost a mile before coming to a stop. The nose promptly burst into flames that threatened the cockpit. The trapped aviator blew off the canopy, struggled out of the plane and limped away, hitting the ground in a less-than-perfect baseball slide.

The plane was a total wreck, but the fortunate pilot suffered only minor scrapes. Later, the airmen at Suwon learned they had witnessed the dramatic escape of the most famous flying leatherneck in Korea; that lucky pilot was none other than Ted Williams, a star professional baseball player who was serving as a Marine reservist.

Theodore Samuel Williams was born in San Diego on 30 Aug. 1918. The child of absentee parents, he endured a tough home life that made sports his salvation. The wiry teenager played sandlot baseball and starred at Herbert Hoover High School.

During those formative years, Williams decided his life's ambition was to become the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. Whether he actually accomplished that or not remains arguable, but there is no doubt that he put every ounce of his energy into achieving that goal.

Williams never attended college. Instead, right out of high school at age 17, he signed a professional baseball contract with the San Diego Padres, then a minor league team in the Pacific Coast League. (There were no major league teams west of St. Louis at the time.) Williams played for his hometown team for three years until he migrated to Minnesota for one year and then signed with a major league team, the Boston Red Sox.

Williams produced what many called "the finest rookie year in the history of baseball" in 1939. He hit .327 with 31 home runs and 145 runs batted in. This initial season also marked the onset of his tempestuous relationship with the press and fans. Critics that year dismissed him as a gifted athlete with a brash manner who would not last long. They were wrong. His unbearably cocky attitude masked several laudable traits that would stand him in good stead as time passed: a singleness of purpose, an analytical mind, keen observation skills and an unsurpassed work ethic.

Williams turned the "art" of hitting a baseball into a "science" by dividing the strike zone into small segments, then devising strategies whereby he would swing only at certain types of pitches in certain areas under very specific circumstances. This maximized his chances to get a solid hit. By not attempting to hit "iffy" pitches, he often walked, and he habitually led the league in getting on base-- something he did more than half the time, an astonishing statistic. Ted Williams arguably would become baseball's best pure hitter. (Legendary Babe Ruth hit more home runs, but Williams eclipsed the Babe in most other hitting categories.)

During those days a benchmark season was one in which a player hit more than 30 home runs, had at least a .300 average and got on base at least 100 times; amazingly, Williams accomplished this feat routinely until near the end of his career. He was the last man to hit more than .400 in a season, led the American League in home runs four different years (1941, 1942, 1947 and 1949), was the runs-batted-in leader in four different years (1939, 1942, 1947 and 1949) and was the batting champ six different times (1941, .406; 1942, .356; 1947, .343; 1948, .369; 1957, .388; 1958, .328). Additionally, he was kept from that coveted title twice due to red tape and lost once by a single hit.

He won the "triple crown" for leading the league in home runs, batting average and runs batted in twice (1942 and 1947). He hit a record-tying three consecutive home runs in a game on three different occasions, hit 15 bases-loaded "grand slam" home runs (second only to Lou Gehrig), tied a record with four consecutive home runs on two different occasions and got on base a record 16 times in a row.

Williams also holds records for the most consecutive playing years leading in runs scored (1940-42, 1946 and 1947), most consecutive playing years for bases on balls (1941-42 and 1946-49) and the most seasons with more than 100 walks. His final statistics included 521 home runs, a lifetime batting average of .344 and a slugging average (total number of bases achieved divided by number of official at bats) of .645.

Ted Williams was selected professional baseball's Most Valuable Player in 1946 and 1949. He played on American League All-Star Teams 16 times (1939-42, 194649, 1951, 1953 and 1955-58). He still holds the sixth-best all-time batting average and is second only to Babe Ruth in slugging percentage. He is the oldest man to win a batting title (in 1958 at age 40). The Sporting News named him the Player of the Decade, no small achievement when one looks at his competition: Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

After his playing days, he became the manager of the Washington Senators (later the Texas Rangers), being named Manager of the Year in 1969. The capstone of his baseball career was being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, the first year he was eligible.

Williams proved his inaugural season was no fluke when he followed it up with two more all-star seasons, and in 1941 he became the only man with a season batting average higher than .400 in the modern era.

Unfortunately, war intervened not long after the last out of the 1941 World Series. Before the war was over, "Teddy Baseball" would become Second Lieutenant Theodore S. Williams, USMC. His activation in 1943 marked the first of two major career disruptions for military service. He eventually would lose almost four years of playing time at the very peak of his career.

Williams played the 1942 season with a III-A selective service deferment because he was the sole support for his divorced mother, but following the season he enlisted in the naval aviation program. His choice of service was not surprising since he grew up in a "Navy town," and aviator Charles Lindbergh was one of his childhood heroes. Williams later noted that he first became interested in flying after watching the Navy's majestic lighter-than-air ship "Shenandoah" (ZR-1) in the sunny skies over San Diego as a lad.

Naval aviation cadet T. S. Williams was sent to Amherst College in chilly Massachusetts for preflight training, a 90-day ordeal described as a combination of Officer Candidates School and a crash course in advanced science. Prospective pilots got into shape and learned how to be military officers as they studied basic theories of how airplanes operated. The surviving cadets then moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., for three months of preflight training. There the academic load became more rigorous, but they actually got to fly. The ground-school curriculum included subjects such as engines, ordnance, aircraft characteristics, aerodynamics and navigation.

The cadets took to the skies in small two-seat, single-engine, high-wing monoplane Piper NE-1 "Grasshopper" trainers to ensure they had the requisite skills to fly an airplane. Many did not and "washed out." Ted Williams was not one of those.

Next, he was sent to Kokomo, Ind., for basic flight training. There he learned more theory, but also spent time flying Vultee SNV and North American SNJ trainers. Those two-seat planes with their dependable engines, large fuselages, wide wings and high-visibility canopies were very forgiving as neophyte fliers made numerous takeoffs and landings or practiced basic aerial maneuvers.

Upon graduation, Williams opted for the Marine Corps and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He then moved south to Pensacola, Fla., for advanced flight training as a fighter pilot. It was there that he learned to fly the propeller-driven, single-engine, single-seat Vought F4U Corsair, the famous bent-wing "U-Bird," a favorite mount of Marine aces in the South Pacific.

Williams learned about tactics and weapons as he practiced advanced navigation, aerial combat maneuvering and formation flying. His athletic ability, steady hand and excellent eyesight made him a very good pilot. In fact, he was good enough to set the Marine gunnery record at Jacksonville, Fla. Williams once again was having an outstanding "rookie" season.

In mid-1944, Marine aviation in the Pacific was in the doldrums. Japanese fighters had been swept out of the air, and the only enemy targets within range of American land-based aircraft were isolated islands left to wither on the vine as the Marines island-hopped across the Central Pacific toward Japan. Marine bombers flew daily "milk runs" to hit those bypassed bases, but the days of dogfighting fighters crisscrossing the skies over the "Solomons Slot" were gone.

With fighter pilots no longer in high demand, the most promising student aviators were made flight instructors, and that is what happened to 2dLt Williams. He finally received orders for the combat zone in the summer of 1945 and was in San Francisco when the war ended. Although the fighting was over, Williams still went to Hawaii, where he played service ball and fished the Hawaiian waters while waiting to muster out.

Ted Williams enjoyed a triumphant return to baseball. He smashed a home run during his first game after a threeyear layoff and then led his Red Sox to the 1946 World Series. He led the American League in at least one or more batting statistics in each of the next four years and played for the American League All-Star Team each year from 1946 to 1951. The low point of his career occurred when he broke his elbow in the 1950 All-Star Game in July, not long after the North Korean People's Army invaded South Korea.

Williams, a 33-year-old married father with a bum elbow, was unconcerned about being called back to active service while he recuperated. As the Korean War heated up, however, the Marines desperately needed pilots-and Williams was one of the best. He returned to active duty six games into the 1952 season. After hitting a home run in his last at bat, he hung up his spikes to don flying boots to patrol the skies of Korea instead of Fenway Park's outfield. Although initially bitter at being called up, Williams later remarked, "The guys I met in the Marine Corps were the greatest ... guys I ever met. " Like them, he reluctantly accepted that going to Korea was the right thing to do.

He attended flight-refresher training at Willow Grove (Pa.) Naval Air Station and then went to Cherry Point, N.C., for ground school before transitioning into jets. Williams liked the rugged Grumman F9F-5 Panther, a subsonic, straight-wing, single-seat, single-jet engine, carrier-- borne day fighter often used for ground attack in Korea. He remarked that flying jets was "easier than props because they had no torque, less noise, tricycle landing gear [and] wonderful flight characteristics." He "marveled at how good the [Panther] was and how much better [he] had it than those guys that flew in the South Pacific."

Over the years Theodore S. Williams accumulated a number of nicknames: The Kid, The Splendid Splinter and Teddy Baseball among others, but his squadron mates in Marine Fighter Squadron 311 gave him a new one. They called him Bush (as in "bush league")-an appellation meant to "get his goat," according to his operations officer, frequent wingman and future astronaut and U.S. senator, Major John H. Glenn Jr. Although it may have rankled him at first, Williams eventually accepted his new moniker.

Williams joined the "Willing Lovers" (a nom de guerre taken from the squadron's "WU tail letters) of VMF-311 at Pohang on Korea's eastern coast in early 1953. Captain Williams flew 39 combat missions, his plane was hit by enemy gunfire on at least three occasions, and he was awarded three Air Medals before being sent home with a severe ear infection and recurring viruses in June. Williams was formally discharged from active duty on 28 July 1953, the day after a cease-fire in Korea went into effect.

Once again he picked up where he left off. He returned to the playing field in August 1953, hitting a home run on his second at bat. He wound up the year hitting .407 in 37 games. He played six more seasons, had the highest batting average twice (1957 and 1958) and played in seven All-Star games after returning from Korea despite impaired hearing as a result of his Korean service.

After leaving baseball, Williams became a well-known outdoorsman and was often seen duck hunting or fishing with his good friend Curt Gowdy on the popular television show "American Sportsman." The Splendid Splinter succumbed to cardiac arrest at Crystal River, Fla., on 5 July 2002. He was 83 years old. Ted Williams may or may not have become the "greatest hitter in the history of baseball" and his unauthorized title of the "greatest fly fisherman in the world" was jocularly self-proclaimed, but there is one title that even his critics all agree he certainly earned: "U.S. Marine."

Editor's note: LtCol Brown, a retired teacher and currently a freelance journalist, is the author of "A Few Good Men! The Story of the Fighting Fifth Marines," and the Marine Corps History and Museum Division's Korean War Commemorative series monograph, "Counteroffensive: U.S. Marines from Pohang to No Name Line."