Sgt. 1st Class Darren D. Heusel
Oklahoma Joint Force Headquarters Public Affairs
OKLA. CITY —
In Oklahoma, football reigns supreme, even for a small group of veterans who were among 128 registered veterans and spouses on hand late last month at the Biltmore Hotel in Oklahoma City for the 67th annual reunion of the 45th Infantry Division Association.
They huddled up, like they try to do every year to share stories and check on one another. Many of them travel hundreds of miles just to be with their buddies again. They are a close group tied together by more than friendship — war does that.
But before fighting started for the 45th Division “Thunderbirds” in Korea, many of the men shared a love of football. For most it was engrained in them from childhood and the gridiron was a special place to show their toughness. And they were good at it.
So when the Division leadership decided to field a football team, the Oklahomans jumped at the chance to put on the pads. About 120 soldiers tried out before the roster was eventually trimmed to 50. They came from all across the country, but about half were from Oklahoma. They built a football team out of a group of ordinary young men — some still in high school — and they went undefeated for two years. Those that played are awfully proud of that, and the stories of gridiron success flow back and forth as do the smiles and laughter. They’ve been coming to these reunions for years and pouring over old black and white photographs is a ritual.
There were guys like halfback Guy Kiker, of Wewoka,; halfback Gene Gower, of Lawton; center Martin Moore, of Wetumka; quarterback Bob Ewbank, of Norman, halfback Gene Cook, of Wewoka; halfback Charles Freel, of Marlow; halfback Bob Pyle, of Wewoka; tackle Marshall Key, of Minco; tackle Urban Schrage, of Elgin, Neb.; guard Don Wiebener, of Alva; and center James Acree, of Maud, to name a few.
And then there was Emmett “Rosy” Nolan, or simply “coach” to all the guys. Nolan, of Bixby, was an original member of the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Parachute Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, and part of the invasion of Normandy, France, during World War II.
When complete, the Thunderbirds roster read like an Oklahoma all-star team, with nearly 40 college lettermen and 60 high school letter winners, including Bob Ewbank, a former University of Oklahoma Sooner who handled legendary coach Bud Wilkinson’s unstoppable split T offense.
It all began in September 1950 at Camp Polk, La. The team played together for two years and never lost a ballgame. In fact, the second year they were together, they never gave up a touchdown, according to the 45th Division News, a military newspaper that covered literally every move the football team made. The team quickly became the pride of the entire Division and provided a welcome diversion to the challenges that lay ahead for the famed 45th when the fighting would begin.
“Twenty-eight to zero was the closest game we had,” said Bob Riddle of Fredrick, a squad leader with F Company, 179th Infantry. “That was against Gene Headquarters (Far East Headquarters) out of Tokyo. Played ’em twice. The second time we played ’em it was 32-0.”
Riddle said the team had so many players, the first team would play the first quarter, the second team the second quarter, and so on.
“Everybody got to play a quarter,” Riddle said. “Nobody scored against us, not even our third and fourth teams. We had so many good players, nobody wanted to go in there and lay down.”
Riddle said the Thunderbirds even beat one team, the Camp Mower Blue Demons, 92-0, in Sasebo, Japan.
Coach “Rosy” Nolan recalled his challenge in the game against Camp Mower was to keep the score below 100. To the spectators in attendance, that must have seemed like an impossible task, but the coach succeeded when his Thunderbirds failed to score on three of its 14 possessions and missed ten of 14 extra-point conversions.
One of the team’s better players was Tom Carroll, a member of Service Company, 180th Infantry, from Okemah, who joined the National Guard in high school. After high school, he attended the University of Oklahoma and had just finished his freshman year when he was mobilized.
As the Thunderbirds reminisced, they fondly pointed out that Carroll was one of the top running backs in the country at the time. He spent two years in the service before he was discharged in 1952.
Upon his discharge from the service, Carroll returned to OU and scored the winning touchdown the following year in a 19-14 victory over the University of Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl, the friends explained six decades later with pride.
“Rosy” Nolan got the job coaching the team when Maj. Gen. James Styron, 45th Division commander, from Hobart, Okla., called him into his office one day.
“He (Gen. Styron) saw I was a paratrooper in World War II,” Nolan recalled. “He figured I could coach ‘em up and, when we got into combat, they would already be proven leaders. He called me in his office and basically told me I had free reign to build a team. I got to pick my assistant coaches, we got brand new equipment, the whole nine yards,” Nolan said.
When the team showed up for their first practice on Monday, Sept. 18, 1950, the players didn’t have much equipment. But they enjoyed the game so much they showed up wearing steel pots for headgear and tennis sneakers or GI shoes instead of cleats.
One of the highlights of their brief military football careers was playing Louisiana College from Pineville, La., in the 5th Annual Cosmopolitan Bowl on Dec. 8, 1950 in Alexandria, La.
The Thunderbirds won the game, 26-7.
“The Thunderbirds beat ‘em,” Riddle exclaimed, proudly. “They were undefeated at the time. And, we raised $50,000 and donated it all to the Mid-State Polio Center Fund.”
Riddle, who was 19 when he served in Korea, said it was pretty unusual for a service team to beat a college team, adding, “But we were pretty unusual ourselves.”
“We practiced all the time,” he said, “probably more than any college team.”
They don’t recall playing any service academies over the two years they were together, but they did play other Army and Air Force teams around the country, including games with the Barksdale (La.) Air Base team and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
“We played a bunch of fliers at Randolph Field in San Antonio,” Riddle remembers.
“One game, we were tied 20-20 at the half, but those fly boys ran out of gas in the second half and we ended up beating ‘em 41-20,” Rosy injected.
“They couldn’t stand the heat,” offered former Thunderbirds quarterback Bill Reeves, a member of Company B, 120th Combat Engineers, from Tulsa. “It was in October and it’s hot in South Texas in October.”
Football coaching legend Buddy Ryan, a native Frederick, would stop by on occasion for a visit to reminisce about his tour of duty with the 45th Division, but he didn’t make it to last month’s reunion.
“He even attended a couple of our reunions,” Riddle explained proudly as they continued to talk football. Then out of the blue Reeves got Ryan on the phone for a few minutes as they seemed to enjoy their long and winding trek down memory lane.
“They (the Thunderbirds) were great several years ago,” said Ryan, 78, via cell phone, who coached in the National Football League for 30 years and helped guide three different teams to the Super Bowl, including the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI and the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX.
“Tom Littrell was a great player,” continued Ryan, who currently hails from Shelbyville, Ky. “Undefeated. I thought that was pretty good. They were a great group of guys.”
Ryan joined the National Guard at the age of 17, because his friends were doing it to earn $10 a week. He recalls thinking at the time “it was easy money.”
His father warned him that if there was a war, Ryan would be among the first group to go. Turns out, his father was right. Ryan’s unit was mobilized, and he was shipped to Camp Polk.
A few months later, Ryan was deployed to Korea and arrived on the front lines on Christmas Day in 1951.
While at Camp Polk, Ryan remembers his attitude “wasn’t exactly what it ought to be.” But, once he got to Korea, he quickly decided he would be the best soldier he could be.
Ryan quickly rose up the ranks and was promoted to platoon sergeant, sergeant first class and master sergeant.
“I led by natural ability, even though I didn’t know it,” he remembers.
He said he was too “young and dumb” to be scared. But, he saw his buddies die and even rescued one from a rice paddy after the friend had been shot in the shoulder.
Ryan came back from the war and enrolled at Oklahoma State University, where he was a four-year letterman in football, playing guard and linebacker. He started coaching after graduating from OSU in 1957 and never lost that drill sergeant mentality.
While the team originally was organized to improve morale they knew in the back of their minds their primary mission when called upon would be to combat the People’s Volunteer Army of China in the Korean War, Nolan explained.
In November 1951, the 45th Division would be the first National Guard division to face the enemy in Korea. The men of the 45th were on the front lines at Old Baldy and Pork Chop Hill and would endure 429 days of combat before returning to the states.
“We used to fill this place up,” said Riddle, motioning to the north end of the hotel atrium that was practically empty on this day. “But, as you can see, our attendance has kinda dwindled over the years … everyone’s dyin’ off.”
The old friends, many who still proudly display their medals on vests, are bound together forever by an admiration for each other and war.
They don’t number what they used to these days because some pass away between each reunion. But, you get the feeling that as the leaves begin to change they’ll be back if they can to share memories again and peer over those old black and white photos when they were football heroes.