Bob Feller: Gun-Captain to Legendary Pitcher

Chief Specialist Robert William (Bob) Feller by a 40mm quadruple anti-aircraft gun mount.
Chief Specialist Robert William (Bob) Feller by a 40mm quadruple anti-aircraft gun mount, probably on board USS Alabama (BB-60) in late 1942 or early 1943.

From the days of the Minutemen, America has always had its citizen soldiers. Over the years, their contribution to the nation's armed forces has been enormous. Invariably, their time in uniform also has had a lasting impact on their lives.

With this issue, we inaugurate a new feature, Answering the Call, in which men and women who served a few years in the military, then went back home to notable civilian careers, talk about their days in uniform and how their experiences affected their lives.

Our first guest columnist is Bob Feller, the legendary pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, who interrupted a stunning career in the major leagues to enlist in the Navy at the start of World War II. As Navy Chief Petty Officer Robert Feller, he participated in some of the best-known sea battles in the Pacific. When the war was over, he returned to the mound and resumed a straight shot to station -- the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here's his account of his military service and what it has meant to him.

I never have to strain my memory to recall the day I decided to join the Navy. It was 7 December 1941. I was driving from my home in Van Meter, Iowa, to Chicago to discuss my next contract with the Cleveland Indians, and I heard over the car radio that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. I was angry as hell.

I'd spent almost six full seasons in the major leagues by then, with a record of 107 victories and 54 losses, and I had a family-related draft exemption, but I knew right then that I had to answer the call. I arrived in Chicago late that afternoon to meet Cy Slapnicka, the Indians' general manager who had come there to talk about my contract for 1942, and told him about my decision. I then phoned Gene Tunney, the former world heavyweight boxing champion and an old friend. A commander, Gene was in charge of the Navy's physical training program. He flew out from Washington and swore me in on Tuesday, 9 December.

After my basic training, the Navy made me a chief petty officer and assigned me as a physical training instructor. It was valuable in its way, but I wanted to go into combat. I'd had a lot of experience with guns as a kid, so I applied for gunnery school and sea duty. After four months of naval gunnery school in Newport, Rhode Island, I was assigned to a battleship, the USS Alabama (BB-60), as a gun-captain on a 40-mm anti-aircraft mount that had a crew of 24.

Action in the North Atlantic -- and the Pacific

I got what I wanted. The Alabama spent six months escorting convoys in the North Atlantic, and then -- in August 1943 -- went through the Panama Canal and headed for the central Pacific. Over the next two years, we saw action off Tarawa, and in the Marshalls, the Carolines and the Philippines.

We bombarded beaches to support amphibious assaults, served as escorts for aircraft carriers and fended off kamikaze attacks. Two enemy bombs hit the ship during the Marianas Turkey Shoot, and we survived a typhoon that pummeled us with 80-knot gusts off the Philippine coast. The Alabama never lost a man to enemy action. The people we had on the gun crews were very good shots.

In March 1945, I was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Center and managed the baseball team there. In the third week of August, just 15 days after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, I went on inactive duty. It was back to baseball after that. I rejoined the Indians on 23 August and pitched eight games. I won five and lost three.

Serving in the military is almost always a defining moment for any young man or woman. You're young and impressionable. You meet a lot of new people, and you travel to new places. You learn to be on time, how to follow and, eventually, how to lead.

You Never Forget Combat

But it makes a difference when you go through a war, no matter which branch of the service you're in. Combat is an experience that you never forget. A war teaches you that baseball is only a game, after all -- a minor thing, compared to the sovereignty and security of the United States. I once told a newspaper reporter that the bombing attack we lived through on the Alabama had been the most exciting 13 hours of my life. After that, I said, the pinstriped perils of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial. That's still true today.

You and your comrades never lose touch. I've gone to my share of Alabama reunions, and all of us treat each other as shipmates no matter what else we've done or accomplished -- or haven't -- over the years. I still remember with pain the sailor who stopped by my compartment to talk baseball during one of our North Atlantic convoy runs. A few minutes later, he was missing. Apparently, he'd fallen overboard into rough seas -- an accident of war.

Like anyone who has been under fire, I'm certainly not a war booster. But I still believe, as I did that grim Sunday afternoon in December 1941, in a strong and well-equipped military and in the values that being in the service instills in the young men and women who don the uniform. I'm well aware of the hardships that our service members are enduring right now.

Serving Your Country

For myself , I wouldn't be unhappy if they re-imposed a draft -- not just because we need more troops to meet our needs, but because going through military training is such a character-builder for young people. Everyone ought to serve his or her country for a couple of years or more, even in times of peace.

I was at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center a few months ago, where I'd been invited to speak to the graduates of the Navy's basic school, and someone asked whether I'd urge my grandson to sign up, as I had done. My answer was a resounding yes.

I'm still a Navy man at heart. And I'm proud to have served.

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