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Why I owe my life to baseball

(Note: This is a very personal guest column by Paul Ivice. While you may know Paul from his work as The Cardinal Nation’s Gulf Coast League Cardinals reporter, he has been around the game most of his life. You can read Paul’s bio here, but this story precedes his arrival on earth.)

By Paul Ivice

Before World War II, my father, Jerry Ivice, was a semipro baseball player of some renown in Chicago.

In 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II, many of the major- and minor-league players had gone into the military. So the White Sox offered Jerry a minor-league contract.

Before he signed, though, Jerry checked with his draft board, which told him he would soon be drafted.

So he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, which was looking for athletes to train as pilots.

Though Jerry dropped out of high school after 10th grade, his first stop after boot camp was aerodynamics school at Gettysburg College. He was there in July 1943 because he remembers a big parade, which was the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. This summer, by the way, they will be observing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

To keep up morale and provide recreational activity, most U.S. military bases had a baseball team, which would play teams from nearby bases. More a school than a base, though, Gettysburg didn’t have a team when Jerry arrived, so he started one.

Though a high school dropout, Jerry was always good in math, so he tutored classmates in his aerodynamics classes who were college graduates but were struggling with the math.

Both of these things demonstrated leadership abilities, which impressed Jerry’s superior officers.

At every stop in his training progression toward becoming a B-24 pilot, he would play on the base’s baseball team.

After receiving his commission and wings in Blytheville, Ark., Jerry was shipped to Smyrna, Tenn., for B-24 flight training.

When he arrived in Smyrna in early 1944, he went to the recreation/morale officer in charge of the baseball team to ask if he can play on the team.

“You’re a pilot, right?” the officer replied.

“Yes,” Jerry answered.

“We can’t use you,” the officer said.

“Why not?” Jerry asked.

“Because you’ll be here only six to eight weeks and we want guys for the team who will be here the whole season.”

“Well,” Jerry asked. “Can I come work out with the team?”

The officer said, “Sure.”

A week later, Jerry is the team’s starting first baseman.

His training at the Smyrna base ended around mid-May, and his orders came in to be shipped to Westover Field, Mass., to get his crew and prepare to go overseas to England.

So he goes to the recreation/morale officer to tell him of his orders and say goodbye.

The officer asks Jerry, “Do you want to go?”

He replies, “No, I’d rather stay here and play ball.”

With one phone call, the morale officer has Jerry’s orders changed to keep him in Smyrna until the end of August.

That time was crucial, because instead of going into action in May 1944, before D-day, when the survival rate for bomber crews to complete their required number of missions was still about 25 percent, he doesn’t get into action until November, by which time the survival rate had increased to about 60 percent.

Jerry was shipped to Lemoore, Calif., and then to Walla Walla, Wash., where he picked up his crew and finished their training before being shipped to England as replacements in the 491st Bombardment Group. The 491st needed replacements urgently after 16 planes had been shot down on Nov. 26, 1944, out of 36 that flew to bomb an oil refinery in Misberg, Germany, east of Hanover. Most were shot down when they were jumped by a couple of squadrons of Focke-Wolfe 190s after they’d dropped their bomb load.

I will digress here to tell of an incident that occurred shortly after Jerry arrived in England.

Jerry and Lynne were married in December 1942, after he joined the Air Corps. They didn’t have kids till after the war, so while he was in training at the various bases, Lynne would follow along.

Once he was sent to England, though, she went back to Chicago to live with her mother.

One day while Lynne was at work, a telegram from the War Department was delivered to their home. Those telegrams were met with dread because they usually brought news that a serviceman was killed or missing in action.

Because of that, Lynne’s mother was too afraid to open it. And there was much consternation when Lynne finally arrived home and summoned the courage to open the telegram.

Like most such telegrams, the message was simple and direct: “Lynne, Please send baseball shoes and glove. Love, Jerry”

As it is, Jerry flew 18 missions, the 16th of which was in Operation Varsity on March 25, 1945, when the 491st Bomb Group was among many bombers assigned to fly to Wessel, Germany, and drop supplies to British Col. Bernard Montgomery’s troops that had parachuted across the Rhine River earlier that morning.

Jerry’s bomber, Miss Alda Flak, was in a three-plane echelon, with another of the B-24s piloted by his best friend, Paul Fox from Brooklyn, N.Y.

The mission was a milk run. The bombers were supposed to fly in at 100 feet so they could make a precise drop on the small foothold the paratroopers held.

But the wind had changed or the British messed up the smokescreen, so the orders were revised so the bombers were instructed to come in at 50 feet.

At that level, they had to make a much wider turn after making their drop or they would dig a wing into the ground. Unfortunately, that wider turn made them fly over the Wehrmacht’s positions in and around Wessel.

At one of their reunions a decade or so ago, I talked to Jerry’s co-pilot, Jimmy Campbell, who described how he was pointing out hazards, such as “Tree!” and “Steeple!” while Dad maneuvered the B-24 Liberator as snipers were shooting down at them.

Of course, there was a heavy cost. The bombers on either side of Dad’s plane were shot down and went right in to the ground, giving crew members no chance to bail.

It was the deadliest day in their unit’s history (I think they lost 8 planes and crews).

So among those killed that day was Jerry’s best friend, Paul Fox of Brooklyn, N.Y.

According to one eyewitness account, Fox’s B-24 “was seen to pull up into a steep climb with its bomb bay on fire. The pilot was evidently trying to reach a safe bail out altitude, but the plane went out of control, rolled over on its back and crashed hopelessly in an ugly burst of black smoke and orange flame.”

Fox had been on his last mission before he could go home to his wife and newborn daughter.

Jerry’s plane was shot up by small-arms fire so badly that he had two wounded crewmen and had to make a forced landing in Brussels, but Miss Alda Flak was patched up and they returned to their base in North Pickenham before nightfall.

After that mission, Jerry and his crew were given flak leave (R&R) to Scotland.

While there, Jerry came down with pneumonia. By that time, the Air Corps had sufficient bomber crews so his entire crew was on stand-down until he recovered.

By the time he was well enough to fly again, it was late April. Jerry and his crew flew two more missions, April 16, 1945, to Landshut, Bavaria, and April 17 to Beroun, which is 30 miles southwest of Prague in Czechoslovakia. Germany surrendered on May 8.

The 491st Bombardment Group was then ordered to begin training for action in the Pacific, but by the time they were ready to go, Truman ordered the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The war was over.

Shortly after the war ended, Jerry flew his B-24 back to the states, was mustered out of the Air Corps and went back to work in the auto parts business. Moreen was born in 1948, Roger in 1950 and me in 1954, but if not for Dad’s playing baseball, it is likely that none of us would exist.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul Ivice. Any reproduction or retransmission without permission is strictly prohibited.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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6 Responses to “Why I owe my life to baseball”

  1. JumboShrimp says:

    Very fine article. Baseball and real life intertwine.

  2. blingboy says:

    Fun read, Paul. I’m grateful for his service.

  3. Nutlaw says:

    That was a great story, Paul. Thanks for sharing something so personal.

  4. Gatordog says:

    Kind of ironic that I stumbled across “Why I owe my life to baseball” in a web search that began after a realization you could title “Why I owe my life to Bert Stiles”. My father was the pilot of one of those 36 bombers that came under attack on the 26th of November 1944. The Misberg oil refinery mission was the only one he ever spoke of with any specificity. It must have been as bad as they get. Long story short… I saw a History Channel documentary awhile back called “WWII in HD”. It featured a P-51 pilot named Bert Stiles who died on Nov. 26, 1944. Couldn’t figure out why that date sounded familiar. Then I remembered my father’s stories about Misberg. Did a search and learned that Bert Stiles was a published author, B-17 co-pilot and later one of the P-51 pilots who came to the rescue of my father and the others whom the FW-190s hadn’t gotten to yet. Lt. Stiles died during his efforts to keep the Luftwaffe busy, giving the bombers a chance to make a run for it. Without the “little friends” coming to their rescue none of those planes would have had a chance. I give thanks to your father and all who have served our country. A personal thanks to Bert Stiles who gave his life so that my father and countless others could make it home to start families and enjoy the freedoms that he had fought and died for.

  5. Brian Walton says:

    Here is a B-17 story related to the Cardinals, expertly told by RetroSimba.

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