football

God, Country, Notre Dame: Part II

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Running back Rocky Bleier was the captain for the 1967 Notre Dame team coached by Ara Parseghian before heading off to the Vietnam War.
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Yesterday we reviewed how the military became a part of Notre Dame’s fabric in its early years and right through World War I. Now, we delve into World War II and beyond.

Engraved deep into the stone on the side door of the Basilica of Sacred Heart Church at Notre Dame are not merely words but a way of life: “God, Country, Notre Dame.”

It weaves together the school’s spiritual and patriotic elements while enjoining its loyal sons and daughters who are, as the Victory March states, “strong of heart and true to Her name.” The relationship between the military and Notre Dame goes far beyond football rivalries with Army, Navy and Air Force

“Ever since 1858 when the student-organized Continental Cadets began marching across campus in their blue and buff American Revolutionary-style uniforms, Notre Dame has been teaching students how to be good soldiers,” wrote John Monczunski in the Spring 2001 Notre Dame Magazine.


Navy Saves Irish From Sinking

While World War II raged in Europe during the early 1940s, Notre Dame was in need of better cash flow as a private school. Thus, school president Rev. Hugh O’Donnell C.S.C. offered the school’s facilities to the armed forces as a training ground.

The Army did not respond to O’Donnell’s invitation — but the Navy did. In September 1941, it established the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) where approximately 150 Notre Dame students per year enrolled.

In early 1942, Notre Dame turned over four of its resident halls on the South Quad to the Navy for its V-7 program, which also was known as the Midshipmen’s School. During that transformation, the Navy constructed a drill hall and a headquarters/classroom building on the north side of the campus — where today’s Hesburgh Memorial Library is located

With the United States fully engaged in World War II by 1943, the Navy needed more men to serve and it again teamed with Notre Dame to form the V-12 program. An estimated 12,000 officers completed their training at Notre Dame between 1942 and 1946.

“We were out of business during World War II,” noted 1952-87 Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C., in a 1992 interview with the South Bend Tribune. “Navy came in and kept us afloat until the war was over.”

Hesburgh vowed that under his watch the football series between the two schools would be kept as long as Navy wanted it continued.

The 1943 Irish national title football team included 14 Navy apprentice seamen, most notably sophomore quarterback John Lujack, who would win the 1947 Heisman Trophy, 12 transfers who were part of the Marine branch of the V-12, and 17 Marine privates — among them future College Football Hall of Fame inductees Ziggy Czarobski at right tackle, All-American right end John Yonakor, starting left guard Pat Filley and 1943 Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli at quarterback.

At the halfway point of Notre Dame's 1943 drive to the national title, Bertelli had to leave to begin an officer's training corps. Lujack filled in to complete the championship march — and then he too was shipped overseas in 1944.


All Gave Some…Some Gave All

Several members of Irish teams won Purple Hearts during World War II: George Dickson (1949), who fought in Normandy on D-Day, Bob McBride (1941-52, 1946), a top assistant for head coach Frank Leahy after the war, Gus Cifelli (1946-49), and Luke Higgins (1942).

Awarded the Bronze Star for his reconnaissance work while swimming through underwater mines in the Pacific Ocean was future College Football Hall of Fame inductee “Jungle Jim” Martin, who never lost a game while he starred at Notre Dame from 1946-49. On his bicep was a tattoo with a sword slaying a dragon that succinctly summarized his ethos: Death Before Dishonor.

Joining the military overseas in 1944-45 were head coach Leahy and top assistant Ed “Moose” Krause. It was Krause who recommended the move not just for service but future credibility as well. The future 1949-81 Notre Dame athletics director noted how once the war finished, the troops would return to college on the GI bill. Respect for their coach(es) would be enhanced with the knowledge that they too were overseas.

Tragically, former Irish players who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War II included Jack Chevigny (1926-28), George Murphy (1940-42), Hercules Bereolos (1939-41), Harold Borer (1938), Frank Cusick (1942), Tom Creevy (1942) and Jack McGinnis (1942).

Many others who played earlier in their career (such as Chevigny), practiced as freshmen but never had a chance to play because of making the ultimate sacrifice, or were shipped overseas. They included George Birmingham, Robert Callahan, Louis Curran, Ted Dorosh, Norb Ellrott, Allen Elward Jr., Vince Harrington, Wayne Johnston, John McGinnis, Martin O'Reilly and Howard Petschel.

Chevigny was the halfback who scored a touchdown in the famous “Win One For the Gipper” upset of Army in 1928, and served as an assistant for Rockne’s 1929 and 1930 national champs. The former head coach of Texas enlisted in the Army in 1943 at the advanced age of 37 and died in battle two years later in Iwo Jima, where the Marine Corps suffered 5,391 deaths during five weeks of fighting.

In 2012, an under-the-radar but well-recommended book The Last Chalkline, authored by Jeff Walker, was published to celebrate the life and death of Chevigny. Per Amazon.com it was about "weighing the tragic cost of a man's last full measure, The Last Chalkline is a true account of the man who inspired America's Greatest Generation."

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In 2012, the 408-page book om Notre Dame's Jack Chevigny, who lost his life in World War II, was told.
Amazon.com

Like A Rock

According to Monczunski in his Spring 2001 Notre Dame Magazine article, ROTC’s peak at Notre Dame came in the late 1960s when some 1,600 Notre Dame students were in uniform. However, the Vietnam War heightened an anti-military sentiment, and by 1974 the ROTC figure on campus had dropped to 442.

Still, another Notre Dame legend was established during these tumultuous times, this by 1967 Irish football captain Rocky Bleier, who started for the 1966 national champs but was only a 16th-round draft pick by the NFL. A handful of NFL players received draft notices for the Vietnam War, and Bleier was one of them during 1968 training camp.

“Having lived in Wisconsin, I knew that every Packer was in the Reserve or the National Guard, so my assumption was if you make a professional team, they get you into the National Guard,” Bleier said. “Bill Austin was the Steelers’ head coach and he took me aside about a letter that came. It was my 1-A classification up in Wisconsin.

“He told me, ‘We think you’re good enough to make the team and we’ll take care of this for you’ — whatever that meant. I didn’t care. All I cared about was the comment ‘you’re good enough to make the team.’ ”

Ultimately, everything fell through the cracks for Bleier, who was drafted into the U.S. Army in December of 1968 and shipped to Vietnam in 1969, serving with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

On August 20, 1969, Bleier was wounded in the left thigh when his platoon was ambushed in a rice paddy field. Then, an enemy grenade landed nearby, spreading shrapnel into his right leg.

“I remember scrambling to cover and trying mentally to make a pact with God,” he would recall years later. “I didn’t want to make a rash promise like becoming a priest or recluse of any kind. I just prayed and said if I got out of this and back home, I’d live a life that tries to help people.”

A recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Bleier was rated 40 percent disabled when he was discharged. During his stay in a Tokyo hospital, he was informed that he would always walk with a limp. He weighed just 165 pounds when he arrived back in the United States, where he was introduced at halftime by Notre Dame president Rev. Hesburgh in the 1969 home game with USC. On the same field where two years earlier he ran with fury, Bleier now required a cane.

“My focus was still on wanting to play football,” Bleier said. “I had family support and one of the things I most cherished while I was in the hospital overseas was I got a postcard from (Steelers owner) Art Rooney saying, ‘We’re still behind you. Team’s not doing well, we need you.’ He took that time…all those little things became positives.”

Belier became a starter for four Super Bowl champions while at Pittsburgh, and one of the most respected motivational speakers in the country. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the ROTC has thrived at Notre Dame, and each unit has been recognized among the best in the nation by its respective uniformed service.

The Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force ROTC Units eventually established the US Notre Dame Command. USNDCOM became the first unified command in ROTC in the nation.

God, Country, Notre Dame, indeed.

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