- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
After the 1950 All-Star Game, when I hurt my elbow, the balls never really flew off the bat the way they had before. The next year there was enough weakness in the elbow for me to know that I wouldn't be hitting with authority for a long time. Despite the injury and despite my previous service and despite approaching my 34th birthday, I was called into the Marines in 1952 for the Korean war. I would not return until late the next season. Together, the war in Korea and World War II took four and a half years out of my career. Much has been made of this, and much speculation over what I could have done or would have done with those vital years. I wonder myself. I was not alone, of course. Hank Greenberg lost three years, most of a fourth and part of another in World War II. Bob Feller lost three years plus. Joe DiMaggio lost three.
I was singled out for sympathy because I was called up twice. In my heart I was bitter about it, but I made up my mind I wasn't going to bellyache. I kept thinking one of those gutless politicians someplace along the line would see that it wasn't right and do something. They haven't called up the Reserves for Vietnam yet, and for flyers that has been a bigger war. The unfairness of the Selective Service is obvious when you know how the draft laws and exemptions work. If you are going to have a draft, there is only one way to do it, of course and that's to draft everybody.
I felt we should have been in Korea, just as we should be in Vietnam, but I also felt we only half tried to win. I'll tell you one thing, though. The men I met in the Marine Corps were the greatest gung-ho guys I ever met. I gripe, but there were guys in there with four kids, right out of the Reserves, too, and I'd hear them say, "I'm not going to bitch about it, this is the right thing we're doing."
Two weeks after the 1952 season started, I was on my way to Willow Grove, Pa. for a refresher course in flying. By this time my old Navy Corsair was practically obsolete. Jets were the thing. A friend of mine, Bill Churchman, had just come back from Korea where he had flown the Corsair, and he said, "Listen, if you can get in jets, do it. If you take a Corsair into a target at 400 miles an hour, you have to go out at 400 miles an hour. You take a jet in, you're going 420, you release your bombs, you get the hell out of there at 500." I could certainly see the logic in that. I kind of wanted to fly jets, anyway.
Well, one Saturday afternoon, a real pleasant, clear day at Willow Grove, I was warming the top bunk when swisssssssssh, a plane came over the field. Little while later, swissssssssh, the plane again. Finally I got down and looked out, and sure enough it was an F-9 jet, zooming around the field and raising hell. About 15 minutes later you could hear the sirens and the fire engines, everything beating it out of the base. I jumped into my car and chased after the commotion, not knowing what had happened. When I got to where the engines stopped, they were trying to put out a fire. The F-9 had gone down, exploded and was burning. There were people crowding around. A big crane was pulling out part of the tail and part of the engine, pulling out a tire, pulling out this and that. When they neared the bottom somebody said, "Hey, it looks like the fellow got out; he must be over there someplace." Then they dragged out a shoe with a foot in it. Oh, Jesus, he was mangled. The worst thing I'd ever seen. I saw two guys spin in and crash one time, but they were in one piece. This guy was crunched.
Despite that, I was impressed with the jets the minute I got in one; easy to fly, easier than props because they had no torque, less noise, tricycle landing gear. Wonderful flight characteristics. Turn one over and it would just r-o-l-l, nothing to it. We rushed into ground school at Cherry Point, N.C. After that we went to cold-weather training school in the Sierra Nevada, living on canned stuff, spruce boughs for beds, parachute for a tent, and I liked to froze my tail off. Sure enough, down with another virus. When we got to Tokyo, everybody went out on the town except me. I stayed in bed for two days, feeling lousy.
Somebody wrote one time that I had privately resigned myself to my fate, that I thought I was going to Korea to die. That's not true. The thing that always brought me to my senses about relative dangers was the F-9. When I flew it I always marveled at how good a plane it was and how much better off I was than some of those guys in the South Pacific who flew over water all the time and in equipment that wasn't as good.
After about eight or 10 missions, I began to get real sick. The weather was miserable, cold, foggy, misty. My ears and nose plugged up. I was going to the infirmary every other day. Well, I was out on this one mission, far above the 38th parallel, and we had dropped our bombs when sure as hell I got hit with small-arms fire. We were in pretty low, using daisy cutters that day, antipersonnel bombs that hit and spread out. All the red lights went on in the plane and the damn thing started to shake. I knew I had a hydraulic leak: fuel warning light, fire warning light. There are so many lights on a jet that when anything serious goes wrong the lights almost blind you.
I started to call right away. I had a plane in front and one to the side, but I couldn't pick anybody up. All of a sudden this plane was right behind me. The pilot was a young, sandy-haired lieutenant named Hawkins. He could see I was calling, nodding my head, and the last I heard was, "I can barely read your transmission," and the radio pooped out. He came up close and signaled with his thumb: "Let's get up." So we climbed. Altitude is a safety factor. The thinner air helps in case of fire, and if you get up another 10,000 feet you can glide 35 to 40 miles if the engine fails.
I got up to 18,000 feet, and I could see frozen water on my right. Any minute I expected I'd have to bail out, a prospect I had always dreaded having to face. Among other things, the cockpit is small. For a big guy, cramped in like I was, I thought I'd surely leave my knees right in there.