Profiles Of Valor: Ted Williams

  • Saturday, February 24, 2024

I recently had the pleasure of profiling “A Great American Patriot and Sage,” Yogi Berra, who paused his professional baseball career to serve in WWII. He was a Navy gunner’s mate in the D-Day Normandy invasion and was wounded but declined any documentation for a Purple Heart because he didn’t want his mother to receive notification of his injury.

At the time, I mentioned Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, who also interrupted his baseball career to become a Marine aviator during World War II (‘43-'45), and again during the Korean War ('52-53).

In 1945, he was a flight instructor at Naval Air Station Pensacola, where he had received his wings a year earlier. We have some personal insight into his time at NAS Pensacola because he trained both my dad and uncle in the venerable F4U Corsair. As I noted in my profile of famous Marine Aviator Pappy Boyington, who also flew Corsairs, the F4U was nicknamed “Ensign Coffin” and “Ensign Eliminator” because, though a superior fighter, it had some “challenging” flight characteristics.

Like my dad and uncle, Williams was awaiting orders to join the Pacific Fleet when World War II abruptly concluded.

Williams and his Naval trainees were preparing for Operation Downfall, the planned 1945-46 invasion of Japan to end the War. My dad recalled that he and his wingmen assumed most among them would perish during that invasion. In fact, the bold decision by Harry Truman to end the war with nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved their lives and those of an estimated 500,000 other Americans — and millions of Japanese military personnel and civilians.

According to my father, Williams was a “hard-a--” instructor! Today, along with Dad’s then-classified performance manuals for the F4U Corsair, we have military flight training logbooks signed by Ted Williams.

Williams was a native of San Diego, Ca., and named “Teddy” after former president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. His father was an Army veteran of the Philippine–American War, and his mother, May Venzor, was a Texan of Mexican heritage. She was a “soldier” in the Salvation Army and an evangelist.

At age eight, Ted’s uncle, Saul Venzor, a semi-professional baseball player, taught him how to pitch. He developed that skill into a profession, going on to play most of his 19-year Major League Baseball career with the Boston Red Sox — with the aforementioned interruptions in World War II and Korea. Williams was a 19-time All-Star, twice the recipient of the American League Most Valuable Player Award, six times the AL batting champion, and twice a Triple Crown winner. He concluded his career with a .344 batting average, 521 home runs, and a 1.116 on-base plus slugging percentage (second highest of all time).

But his service as a Marine Aviator, which few remember, meant most to him.

Williams was drafted in 1942, Class 1-A, though at that time, being the sole support for his mother after his father’s passing, he was reclassified Class 3-A. There was public disapproval of what seemed at the time to be his effort to dodge deployment. He lost his Quaker Oats sponsorship, though that year was the first of his Triple Crown wins. Soon thereafter, he sought to restore his Class 1-A certification, joined the Navy and was moved to the active duty rolls in 1943 as a 2ndLt Marine.

After his service as an instructor at NAS Pensacola, he was discharged and returned to the Red Sox in 1946.

However, he was again called up for active duty in 1952, and then-Capt. Williams retrained in the Navy’s newest generation F-9 Panther jet. After eight weeks of refresher flight training and qualification flights, he was assigned to VMF-311, Marine Aircraft Group 33 (MAG-33), at K-3 airfield in Pohang, South Korea.

His squadron leader was a man whose name would later become recognizable globally as an astronaut, John Glenn. On Feb. 20, 1962, in his Mercury spacecraft, “Friendship 7,” he became the first man to orbit the Earth.

As Glenn recalled: “By luck of the draw, we went to Korea at the same time. We were in the same squadron there. What they did at that time, they teamed up a reservist with a regular to fly together most of the time just because the regular Marine pilots normally had more instrument flying experience and things like that. So Ted and I were scheduled together. Ted flew as my wingman on about half the missions he flew in Korea.”

On the first of Williams’s 39 combat missions in Korea in February 1953, he was part of a large attack flight against a tank and infantry training facility. It would prove his most dangerous. As Williams dove on the target, his Panther was hit by anti-aircraft fire, which disabled his hydraulic and electrical systems. He recalled: “I didn’t feel anything. I knew I was hit when the stick started shaking like mad in my hands. Then everything went out: my radio, my landing gear, everything. The red warning lights were on all over the plane.”

His plane was on fire, and because the F-9’s centrifugal flow engine would often blow the tail off the plane in an engine fire, the standard procedure was to eject. Glenn and others were yelling for Williams to get out, but he had no radio coms. At that point, Glenn and another Panther pilot, Larry Hawkins, joined on each side of Williams’s plane in order to guide him to the nearest friendly field. Hawkins said: “I moved up on Williams on his starboard wing. I wanted him to eject and save his life because his landing gear was not down. We kept talking by hand signals. He kept signaling he was getting lower and lower on fuel.”

According to Williams: “Why a wing didn’t go was just an act of God. The plane was still together and flying, but I knew something bad was happening. Hawkins saved my life; he got me back to the base.”

Williams “limped” his plane to the K-3 air base, where he crash-landed his flaming Panther at almost 180 knots. He recalled: “I hit flush and skidded up the runway, really fast, no dive brakes, no flaps, nothing to slow the plane. For more than a mile, I skidded, ripping and tearing up the runway, sparks flying. … I always get mad when I’m scared, and I was praying and yelling at the same time. … I stopped right at the end of the runway. The canopy wouldn’t open at first, then I hit the emergency ejector. … Boy, I just dove out, and kind of somersaulted, and I took my helmet and slammed it on the ground; I was so mad.”

Williams was back on another mission a day later against a target just south of Pyongyang. Later that year, he would be disqualified for flight status after a severe inner-ear infection.

Of Williams’s time in his squadron, Glenn said: “He didn’t shirk his duty at all. He got in there and dug 'em out like everybody else. He never mentioned baseball unless someone else brought it up. He was there to do a job. We all were. He was just one of the guys.”

Regarding his missions in Korea, Williams observed: “Everybody tries to make a hero out of me over the Korean thing. I was no hero. There were maybe 75 pilots in our two squadrons, and 99 percent of them did a better job than I did. But I liked flying. It was the second-best thing that ever happened to me. If I hadn’t had baseball to come back to, I might have gone on as a Marine pilot.”

He returned to baseball and won batting titles in 1957 and 1958, finished in the AL MVP Top 10 in five of the seven seasons, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966. In a later Hall of Fame interview, Williams said: “I know how lucky I’ve been in life, more than anybody will ever know. I’ve lived a kind of precarious lifestyle, precarious in sports, flying, and baseball. I worked hard [at flying]. I wasn’t prepared to go into it. Then I had to work as hard as hell to try to keep going, to try and keep up. I think that’s as great an accomplishment as any in my life.”

After his retirement as a player, he held training and management roles with the Red Sox and later with the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers. He became an avid fly and deep-sea fisherman and hunter. He was politically active, and one biographer noted he was “to the right of Attila the Hun,” while another declared him “ultraconservative in the tradition of Barry Goldwater and John Wayne.” Well, after all, he was a combat-seasoned Marine, not a member of the pansy class of biographers who write about them.

Ted died in July 2002 at age 83. Glenn said: “Much as I appreciate baseball, Ted to me will always be a Marine fighter pilot. He did a great job as a pilot. Ted was a gung-ho Marine.”

Ted Williams: Your example of valor — an American Patriot devoted to Liberty for all — is eternal. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

(Join us in prayer for our nation’s Military Patriots, Veterans, First Responders, and their families. Please consider a designated gift to support the National Medal of Honor Sustaining Fund through Patriot Foundation Trust (https://patriotfoundationtrust.org), or make a check payable to NMoH Sustaining Fund and mail to: Patriot Foundation Trust, PO Box 407, Chattanooga, TN 37401-0407. Visit the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center at Aquarium Plaza. (https://www.MOHHC.org))

Mark Caldwell
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