Three pro football players gave their all on Iwo Jima

The United States Marines were bogged down on Iwo Jima, resulting in high casualties.

The United States Marines were bogged down on Iwo Jima, resulting in high casualties.

There has always been a close relationship between the National Football League and the the American military, most notably during World War II. Approximately 1,000 active or former NFL players and coaches served in uniform during the war, and 23 of them died. Three pro gridders, all Marine lieutenants, were killed on Iwo Jima, the most iconic battle in the long and honored history of the U.S. Marine Corps. One of them received the Medal of Honor for his heroism. With the Marine Corps’ birthday and Veterans Day annually observed on consecutive days, November 10 and 11, and the football season in full swing, now seems an appropriate time to remember their stories and recall their sacrifice.

Lieutenant Jack Chevigny was part of the first wave of Marines that assaulted Iwo Jima on the morning of February 19, 1945. The handsome, dark-haired Chevigny was a bit of a celebrity, owing to his part in one of the most storied games in college football history. On November 10, 1928 (ironically, the 153rd birthday of the Marine Corps), Notre Dame met the mighty and undefeated Army team at Yankee Stadium. Army was ahead, 6-0, when coach Knute Rockne gave his famous “Win one for the Gipper” halftime speech. In the third quarter, Chevigny, who played right halfback for the Fighting Irish, scored a touchdown to tie the game, yelling “That’s one for the Gipper” as he crossed the goal line. Notre Dame went on to beat Army that afternoon, and the Gipper—a reference to halfback George Gipp, a Rockne favorite who had died prematurely a few years earlier—became part of football lore.

After three years as an assistant coach under Rockne, Chevigny coached the Chicago Cardinals for a single losing season in 1932, then left the NFL for the University of Texas. On October 6, 1934, in only his second college game, he upset his alma mater, 7-6, in South Bend. At season’s end Chevigny was presented with a commemorative pen inscribed: “To a Notre Dame boy who beat Notre Dame.”

Chevigny held onto the keepsake as he drifted out of football and into law and then the oil business. A restless sort who enjoyed a good time, he went through jobs, money, and women. He golfed with Hollywood celebrities and dated starlets. In 1943, the 36-year-old bachelor was drafted into the army. He wrangled a discharge so he could accept a commission in the Marines. There his star power earned him a spot on a recruiting poster and the head coaching position of the Camp Lejeune Leathernecks. In 1944, as the 5th Marine Division was organizing for overseas deployment, he requested a combat assignment. His superiors obliged.

That was the prelude to February 19, 1945, when Lieutenant Chevigny wound up on a congested, chaotic beach with several thousand other wide-eyed Marines sloughing across the black volcanic ash. Rockets, mortar rounds, and artillery shells rained down. At one point he and several other men dove into a shell crater to try to escape the blistering barrage. One of them had a bad feeling and decided to seek shelter elsewhere. That Marine’s name was George Franck—ironically, a halfback who played for the New York Giants before and after the war. Franck used his speed and broken-field running ability to dodge enemy fire before burrowing into a foxhole he felt safer in.

The next day Franck asked about Chevigny. “He’s gone,” he was told. “They’re all gone.” A Japanese shell had scored a direct hit on the crater, killing Chevigny and the other hunkered-down Marines.

Elsewhere on the island that murderous first day was Lieutenant Howard “Smiley” Johnson.

Johnson was a clean-living, Bible-reading Tennessee native who had played two seasons with the Green Bay Packers as a guard and linebacker. Undrafted out of the University of Georgia, Johnson had impressed Packers coach Curley Lambeau with his grit and athleticism. On December 14, 1941, one week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged America into war, the Packers lost to the Chicago Bears in a divisional playoff. It was Johnson’s last pro game. He joined the Marines a short while later. He went in as an enlisted man, then later accepted a commission.

As a platoon commander in the newly formed 4th Marine Division, Johnson saw combat at Kwajalein, Saipan, and Tinian. It was during the invasion of Saipan that he was awarded his first Silver Star. His commendation read, in part: “When the enemy counterattacked the flank position held by his platoon, First Lieutenant Johnson daringly directed the defense, exposing himself to heavy fire and helping annihilate in hand-to-hand conflict the Japanese who penetrated the position.”

On Iwo, Johnson’s battalion came ashore late in the afternoon of the first day. He oversaw his platoon dig in on the edge of an airfield. As he was returning to his command post, a shell exploded nearby. Shrapnel ripped through him and several enlisted men. Although badly wounded, Johnson selflessly refused treatment. While a Navy corpsman tended to the others, Johnson succumbed to his wounds. The 28-year-old lieutenant left behind a young wife—his former college sweetheart—and an infant daughter. He was posthumously awarded his second Silver Star.

The battle of Iwo Jima would last 36 days until the island was declared secured. It was on the fourth day of fighting, February 23, that the most famous and reproduced image of the war was captured by photographer Joe Rosenthal: the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. Three of the six men who raised the flag would not survive the battle.

Neither would Lieutenant Jack Lummus, a liaison officer in the 5th Marines who, two weeks into the fighting on Iwo, was given command of a rifle platoon and immediately proved he was more than up to the task.

The 27-year-old officer had grown up on a Texas cotton farm during the Depression, then starred in football and baseball at Baylor. He was a rookie end on the 1941 New York Giants, who lost to the Bears in the championship game two weeks after Pearl Harbor. Eager to serve, Lummus enlisted in the Army Air Corps. After washing out of flight training, he joined the Marines.

On March 8, 1945, Lummus was the kind real-life action hero that Hollywood stars can only dream of becoming, urging on his men during an attack on a dug-in network of enemy pillboxes and spider holes. Lummus, after being bowled over by a grenade blast, singlehandedly wiped out one entrenched position. He was then blown off his feet by another grenade blast that shredded his shoulder. Terribly wounded, he nonetheless continued his one-man assault, taking out two more Japanese emplacements with his carbine. He continued to rally and direct his men until he suddenly disappeared in a huge explosion.

Years later, author Richard F. Newcomb graphically described what happened next. As the cloud of rock, dirt, and debris slowly cleared, “his men saw him rising as if in a hole. A land mine had blown off both his legs that had carried him to football honors….They watched in horror as he stood on the bloody stumps, calling them on. Several men, crying now, ran to him and, for a moment, talked of shooting him to stop the agony. But he was still shouting for them to move out, move out, and the platoon scrambled forward. Their tears turned to rage, they swept an incredible 300 yards over the impossible ground and at nightfall were on the ridge, overlooking the sea. There was no question that the dirty, tired men, cursing and crying and fighting, had done it for Jack Lummus.”

His legs gone, his shoulder in tatters, and his body filled with shrapnel, Lummas was evacuated to a field hospital. “I guess the New York Giants have lost the services of a damn good end,” he managed to wisecrack as surgeons desperately worked to stem the bleeding. They went through 18 pints of blood before he died.

On Iwo Jima, Admiral Chester Nimitz famously said, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” During the five-week battle, there were more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,821 killed. A total of 27 Medals of Honor were awarded, 14 of them posthumously. Among the recipients of the country’s highest award for valor was Lieutenant Jack Lummus.

Several months later, on September 2, 1945, Nimitz formally accepted Japan’s surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. There occurred the most amazing thing.

According to legend, one of the Japanese envoys set to sign the surrender documents was found in possession of a remarkable war souvenir: the pen that Jack Chevigny had been presented with after his Texas squad had upset Notre Dame a decade earlier. Somehow the dead Marine’s keepsake had found its way off bloody Iwo and into the hands of the enemy. The pen was repossessed and its original inscription later changed to the following: “To Jack Chevigny, a Notre Dame boy who gave his life for his country in the spirit of old Notre Dame.”

3 replies on “Three pro football players gave their all on Iwo Jima

  • Mike Jackson

    This story is one I wish I could frame and post on a wall! It’s one that truly describes what lengths people will go through to protect our country, our culture, our way of life. The three former football players are legends not because of their football accomplishments, but because of the men they were in upholding our country resolve for freedom.

  • Jeff Walker

    Sonny Franck was quite a character and I was graced to know him for the last 7 or so years of his life. At 80, he could bowl around a 180 avg – after taking up bowling in his 70’s! An incredible athlete – once the fastest man in the NFL – and a heck of a fun person and mentor. He loved his days as a high school football coach. I miss him greatly.

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