Sports, War, Fairness, and Fate: Lessons from My Dad

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My dad (left) during armored desert maneuvers in California

W.J. Astore

Life isn’t fair: that’s a lesson my dad learned growing up during the Great Depression and working hard in the Civilian Conservation Corps and local factories in the 1930s.  He also learned it during World War II, when he was drafted and eventually assigned to an armored headquarters company at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  In fact, before World War II, my dad tried to enlist in the Navy, only to discover he was too short to make the grade (he was just under 64″, the Navy minimum, and recruiters were picky before Pearl Harbor).  A half-inch or so probably saved my dad’s life.  After that experience, my dad vowed he wouldn’t volunteer for war; he’d wait until he was drafted, which he was in 1942 by the Army.

My dad was on track to be a surgical technician for the 7th Armored Division; he would have gone overseas and faced combat.  But another soldier on the dental technician track talked my dad into switching positions with him.  My dad agreed, only to learn a dental technician was limited to a corporal technician’s rating, whereas a surgical tech could become a sergeant with higher pay.  My dad was also “excess” on the table of organization when he finished training, so he was reassigned from the 7th Armored to the 15th Armored Group.

My dad had to transfer and got less pay, but he got lucky: his new unit didn’t go overseas, whereas the 7th Armored did.  A guy he knew, Danny Costellani, was transferred from medical battalion to armored infantry while in France and was killed in action.  My dad knew this could have been him.

While my dad was assigned to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, late in 1944, there was a frantic call for more soldiers to be sent overseas in response to high losses during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of World War II.  Many “green” recruits were rushed through basic training and shipped overseas to fight the Germans.  But a few local Southerners noticed that highly qualified soldier-athletes at Fort Jackson weren’t being sent anywhere.  They just seemed to stay in place while playing baseball, football, tennis, and other sports.  I’ll let my dad take the story from here:

During the Battle of the Bulge some Southern civilians were wondering why their sons, after Basic Training were shipped overseas as replacements.  While the Post Commander had on station complement a group of about fifty soldiers who played sports for the Ft Jackson baseball, basketball, football and even tennis teams.  Well the general got an order from higher echelons to put all able bodied troops into a combat outfit.  Well fifty of our soldiers were shipped overseas and fifty of the general’s athletes were put into our company.  When that happened the rest of our company figured we would never go overseas.  As time showed 99% stayed state side.  The 15th Armored Group took all the athletic honors.  Very seldom did our sports teams lose.

My dad saved newspaper clippings that celebrated the athletic achievements of the 15th Armored Group.  One photo showed the 15th Headquarters and Headquarters Company orientation room, which included a prominent section on “The World of Sports” and a table showcasing all individual and team trophies.

My dad may have owed his life to a picky Navy recruiter and a fellow soldier who wanted sergeant’s stripes.  These athletes at Fort Jackson may have owed their lives to a post commander who preferred winning at sports to shipping the most able-bodied troops overseas to fight the enemy.

Yes, life isn’t fair.  And fate sure does have an odd sense of humor.

7 thoughts on “Sports, War, Fairness, and Fate: Lessons from My Dad

  1. Truth is always stranger than fiction, almost like a Holywood script not too unlike “From Here to Eternity” minus the juiciness of that Script! Good stuff, and good to see anyone remembering and honoring the World War ll Generation nowadays who fought for really something: Freedom…


  2. During the Civil War the rich could buy their way out of the draft . The idea that some citizens deserved a protected status carried forward to the Vietnam War Era. There were many ways to avoid the draft, but it came down to money (to go to college) or clout. I had a co-worker back in 1967 or 1968 who was in the National Guard in Chicago. He told me you needed a “sponsor” to get into the Guard. A sponsor in Chicago talk is someone who is politically connected. I thought he was going to crap his pants when he was called up and assigned to riot duty to help the Chicago Police.

    The professional athletes of the Vietnam Era must have been included in the protected status one way or another. One who was not protected was Muhammad Ali, who refused to play the game and was crucified by the press and was stripped of his championship. Ali was expected to follow along like other athletes such as Joe Louis, Willie Mays or celebrities like Elvis. Not only did Ali not follow along he was a very vocal critic of the Vietnam War.


  3. re: military academy grads playing pro sports
    I got into it some time ago with Tom Ricks, a military blogger and author, when he favored recent grads going pro and I didn’t, considering the large public expense of educating these young people. The Pentagon has on-and-off on this policy. . . .some recent reports. . .

    >The old Department of Defense Pro Sports Policy reads: “Officers appointed from cadet or midshipman status will not be voluntarily released from active duty principally to pursue a professional sports activity with the potential of public affairs or recruiting benefit to the DoD during the initial 2 years of active commissioned service.
    > On Monday, the Air Force Academy provided an updated policy to The Colorado Springs Gazette, making it clear that a professional sports career is possible directly upon graduation. High-caliber cadet-athletes at the three Department of Defense run service academies can thank former Navy Midshipman standout Keenan Reynolds for changing service academy protocol. The quarterback was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens with their sixth-round pick after lighting up college football.
    >Top-tier athletes enrolled at US military service academies must, once again, serve out their mandatory two-year active duty stints upon graduation before they can pursue a career in professional sports. The Department of Defense announced Monday that it had rescinded a policy from 2016 that had allowed some service academy athletes to request to be placed on reserve status, rather than assigned to active duty posts, in order to accept contracts from pro sports teams.


    1. Thanks for the report, Don.

      Frankly, though, I would rather have these people playing at sports than playing at war, which their ilk has not done well at since 1945. Graduate/athletes can repay the U. S. government for the cost of their “educations” from their own salaries or from up-front payment by their employers. Letting these shave-tails play at war will cost the taxpayers not just $4 million per year (per soldier in Afghanistan, for example) but will get a lot of enlisted men killed and maimed in the process. The fewer military officers, and the smaller the U.S. military, the better. In fact, given the monetary costs for just a single year of deploying one of them abroad — not to mention all the dead, maimed, and displaced foreign nationals — it would probably make sense to just let these people go back to civilian life where they might even find something useful and productive to do with their lives. Letting Americans, of any age, play at war has not made the world a better place, to say the least.

      Or, the U.S. could just scrap these academies and promote qualified enlisted men to Officer Candidate School after completion of at least one four-year enlistment. Why even bother with college kids in the military when war ought to involve — at the least — minimally experienced adult NCOs?


  4. Speaking of sports, war, fairness and fate …

    Because I had orders to Vietnam after completing language training at Defense Language Institute (West Coast) at Monterey in July of 1970, my younger brother — just completing his U. S. Army Basic Training at Fort Ord, California — didn’t have to do time in Southeast Asia, as well. It seems that the DOD had a policy of not sending both sons in a two-son family into a combat zone at the same time. “Sole surving son,” or something like that. So, I had to go but my brother didn’t. Unfair to me, perhaps, but fair enough to my brother. I could live with that and, besides, I had no choice in the matter, one way or another.

    At any rate, after Advanced Infrantry Training and Military Police school, my brother got orders to Okinawa, Japan. Lucky for him, the Army had a football team there, the “Gunners,” and my brother got to play for them when not breaking up bar fights in Naha or baby-sitting Nike missile batteries out in the cane fields. My brother got the chance to play with older guys — some of them NCOs with previous tours in Asia — who had played at Division I colleges, and, in one case, even the NFL. A great sports experience for him, and it pretty much set the course of his life. After getting out of the Army, he went back to college, played football on several athletic scholarships (as well as his G. I. Bill), graduated, and became a high-school teacher and football coach. Still at it today, he says that he will probably die on the sidelines of a high-school football game, in large part because he didn’t have to die in the rice-paddies of Southeast Asia. Good for my brother.

    My own life took quite a different turn because of the eighteen months that I spent in the now-defunct Republic of South Vietnam. A time of great and justified demoralization in the U.S. military forces deployed to Southeast Asia, I got to experience life near the bottom of the human barrel, so to speak, and I came to understand some of the things people will do to survive and remain sane in the middle of a vast and murderous madness. I almost didn’t make it, mentally, but I did. “Close enough for government work,” as we used to say in the Canoe Club.

    No sports for me; all the war I’ll ever want to experience; probably some unfairness, all things considered; but mostly just fate or, in my case, dumb luck and a little talent for learning foreign languages when required by circumstances or offered by opportunity. The eight months I spent at DLIWC paid off in many ways for me, personally, but only marginally in any way that the U.S. government ever intended. Just a surplus sailor with three years left on his six-year enlistment who might as well — given no better use for him — help drag out the long defeat in Southeast Asia until President Richard Nixon could get re-elected and toss the blame onto someone else, the usual strategy for U.S. presidents in my lifetime.

    “Surplus Sailor.” Sounds like a good name for Chapter I of my anti-autobiography: “Memoirs of a Misfit.” Perhaps I should get started writing that, just in case any descendants of mine ever wonder what their unimportant anscestor did in the War that never seems to end. The years go by so swiftly now …

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  5. Nobody should ever claim that he/she, alone, is responsible for their position or achievements in life. This claim (repeated endlessly) is one of the many things that makes it evident Trump is a fool. Yes, we make decisions but our opportunities come depending on circumstances – where we are, who we know, something we could do when it could be done, and a host of things that take place beyond our knowledge or ability to change. It is said that each of us makes up our own life story into a coherent account that feels good to us.

    Oprah has said that she doesn’t believe in luck, an example of how self-regard almost always strengthens as position in the world rises. This allows every millionaire to sleep soundly, because if it is all my own doing then I have no responsibility to others whose lack of fame and fortune is their own doing. Is it any wonder that this view is emphasized in America where individualism is more highly held than anywhere else?


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