Monday, May 26, 2014

Papa Bear George Halas in World War I and World War II

World War I Service

Anxious to serve his country at the start of World War I, with only six credit hours remaining to graduate from the University of Illinois, George Halas joined the Navy.  The University granted him a degree and sent his diploma on to the family.  George Stanley Halas entered Officer Candidate School and ended up serving at Great Lakes Naval Station as recreation officer.  A far cry from the sea duty he had envisioned, but it was a providential assignment that brought him together with many great college players.  His duties involved playing and coaching football as well as playing baseball and basketball.  The Great Lakes football team was a powerhouse in 1918.  This second “college career” gave Halas another opportunity to shine and play with a terrific group of athletes.  It also provided an opportunity to size up the best talent in football for the future.

Rose Bowl MVP

The highlight of his Great Lakes career was playing the Mare Island Marines in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1919.  On that particular day, Halas played exceptionally well on both defense and offense, perhaps the best of his long career.  He scored a touchdown on a 45-yard pass from Paddy Driscoll.  On defense, he tackled Marines all over the field and he intercepted a pass that he ran back 77 yards.  He was named the Rose Bowl’s Most Valuable Player; Great Lakes won, 17–0.

New York Yankees

Halas also played baseball at Great Lakes and he made an impression on the diamond.  After the war ended, he was invited to the Yankees’ spring training.  He was an excellent outfielder, but he had difficulty hitting the curve ball—a malady that has ended many a professional baseball career.  But because he showed so much promise in the field and he was a switch-hitter, Yankee manager Miller Huggins kept him on. 
A hip injury threatened his career early, but his condition improved after treatment by the famous hands of “Doctor” Bonesetter Reese of Youngstown. Unfortunately, he continued to have difficulties hitting and he was sent down to the St. Paul Saints, a minor league team coached by renowned manager Mike Kelley.  He was making good progress but not quick enough for his high expectations.  The Yankees were acquiring a young man named Babe Ruth and they had plenty of veteran talent on the team.  They simply did not have room for a player who needed more time to develop.  When Halas was asked to return to the minors for one more season, he declined.

Bears’ 1941 Season

Two decades after his service during World War I, Halas was the owner and coach of the NFL's Chicago Bears football team.  In 1941, the Bears  ended the regular season 10–1 on the strength of a powerful, balanced offense and a very good defense.  They didn’t just beat their opponents; they dominated them—with one exception.  The Green Bay Packers had also finished out their season at 10–1, tied with the Bears for the Western Division crown.  During the season, the Bears and Packers had split with each other.  But this season, the competitors won while away and lost at home. 

As the 1941 season was closing, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, and the United States became a combatant in World War II.  Just 7 days later, on the December 14, the Bears played the Packers in a playoff game to determine the Western Division crown.  After the Packers scored first on a short run by Clark Hinkle, the Bears came back with 30 unanswered points.  Hugh Gallarneau started the rally with an 81-yard punt return for a score.  After Bob Snyder kicked a field goal, the Bears’ 6-foot-2, 238 pound first-round draft choice, Norm Standee, crashed in for two scores to finish off successful drives.  Bob Swisher ran one in from the 9-yard line to give the Bears a 30–7 lead before the Packers answered with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Cecil Isbell to Hal Van Every.  Snyder kicked another field goal to give the Bears a final 33–14 victory.  Although he did not score, George McAfee logged in a terrific 119-yard rushing performance. 

1941 NFL Championship

The Bears played the Giants in the championship game at Wrigley Field.  It was a surprisingly balmy 47° when the teams met on December 21.  As the reality of a long war and its resulting impact on everyone seemed to settle in, the attendance was only 13,341 for the Championship Game.

Bob Snyder led off the scoring for the Bears on a 14-yard field goal.  Hall of Famer Tuffy Leemans of the Giants hit George Franck on a 31-yard touchdown play.  In the second quarter, Bob Snyder kicked two field goals, one from 39 yards and a second from 37 yards, to give the Bears a 9–7 lead heading into the half.  In the third quarter, Ward Cuff kicked a 16-yard field goal for the Giants.  The Bears’ big back, Norm Standlee, muscled his way into the end zone for two scores, one from 2 yards out and the second from 7 yards out.  The Bears’ defense closed down the Giants’ passing game with interceptions by Danny Fortmann and Bulldog Turner.  Hall of Famer George McAfee scored from 5 yards out.  Ken Kavanaugh picked up a fumbled lateral and rumbled 42 yards for another Bears’ score.  The final was 37–9, in favor of the Bears. 

Bears’ 1942 Season

Halas wanted to contribute more actively to the war effort than his assignment had allowed him in World War I.  After he coached his near-perfect Bears to their first five wins in 1942, he left for duty at the Naval station in Norman, Oklahoma, and then on to the South Pacific.  In the South Pacific, Commander Halas, USNR, used his considerable organizational, persuasive, and leadership talents to serve as recreational and welfare officer of Admiral Thomas Kincaid’s Seventh Fleet.  Kincaid supported McArthur’s command and the commander was kept pretty busy.

Back at home, the Bears were undefeated in the regular 1942 season.  They beat the Packers by scores of 44–28 and 38–7, although the Packers had been the one team to challenge the Bears in 1941.  Only the Cardinals and Rams came within 14 points of the Bears that entire season.  Halas was gone, but most of the Bears starters from 1941 were still on the roster. 

1942 NFL Championship Game

At season’s end in 1942, the 11–0 Bears took on the Washington Redskins for the championship.  The Bears scored first in the second quarter when defensive tackle Lee Artoe recovered a fumble by Redskins’ halfback Dick Todd at the Bears 48-yard line and ran it into the end zone. Todd lost the ball when tackled after catching a Sammy Baugh pass.  The Bears missed the extra point.

Baugh threw a 39-yard touchdown strike to Wilbur Moore.  Fullback “Anvil Andy” Farkas, who is believed to be the first player to wear eye black to reduce glare, rushed for the Redskins’ second score from 1 yard out after carrying the ball nine times on an 11-play bone-crushing drive. Bears’ quarterback Sid Luckman threw two interceptions and was ineffective.  The Redskins prevailed, 14–6.

Bears’ 1943 Season

The 1943 Bears would play without Halas as the war continued.  The league suffered financially and players were in short supply.  Assistants Hunk Anderson and Luke Johnsos coached the Bears to another great season.  They were helped immeasurably when Bronko Nagurski was coaxed out of retirement after leaving football in 1937.  Nagurski had become a wrestler.  Nagurski at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, had the size to play fullback today and the heart to play it in any era.  In his first professional football stretch, he played fullback and defensive line.  When he came back to the Bears, he played tackle.  When the Bears were trailing the Cardinals in a must-win game at the end of the season, Bronko returned to his fullback position, scored a key touchdown, and turned the tide in favor of the Bears.  He returned again as fullback in the championship game in which the Bears beat the Washington Redskins 41–21.  The Bears had won three of the last four championships. 

Bears’ 1944-1945 Seasons

The Bears had done well in the early war years, but NFL teams were struggling to survive and even the best run teams were starting to unravel.  Sid Luckman had joined the Merchant Marine in 1943.  Although he was not able to practice, he was able to play on Sundays.  In 1944, the Bears were 6–3–1 and they scored 258 points and allowed 172 points from their opponents.  Green Bay beat the Giants for the 1944 championship.  In 1945, the Bears ended the season 3–7–0.  They scored 192 points and allowed 235 from their opponents.  The Cleveland (soon-to-be Los Angeles) Rams won the championship.  The Bears had dropped down in the standings in 1944 and 1945, but came back strong at war’s end as their premier players and Coach Halas returned from war.  

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press.
Material taken from Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey, grandson of Papa Bear George Halas.