How football helped win WWII and saved the world and the untold story of UNC’s pivotal role in naval aviator history

GUEST COLUMNS

By Carey Henry Keefe

December 7th. The anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour serves as a reminder of the call to action our nation experienced on that day in 1941; a day that President Roosevelt famously described as one that would live in infamy when the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. After the attack, Americans started volunteering in unheard-of numbers because of the great amount of anger and resentment that the Americans had toward the Japanese. But what the Navy knew prior to the bombing was that the youth of the country were “soft”, physically and mentally, for a wartime experience, and they were racing to design what would become the most transformational program embarked upon by the Navy: a revolutionary new physical training designed for aviators to help them survive a war that had shifted from the land and sea to the air.

Carey Henry Keefe, tells the story of how the Navy’s V-5 Pre-Flight Training Program, a little known, lost piece of WWII history, in her book A TIDE OF DREAMS, the untold backstory of the legendary college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, her grandfather, Carney Laslie, best known for being Bryant’s right-hand man, and Frank Moseley, her godfather, best known for his years at Virginia Tech from 1951 – 1970. It was during the eight years of research delving into their friendship, their service together in the Navy, and their long partnership that led her to the unearthing of this fascinating account.

Growing up, Keefe knew her grandfather was an all-star football player at the University of Alabama. It was there the three men met as players. Upon departing Alabama for their first coaching jobs they made a vow that whoever got a head coach job first would bring the other two along with him. Little could they foresee that eight years later the country would be at war and it would be their participation in one of the most transformative programs of WWII that would bring them together as a powerhouse coaching trio and usher in a new brand of college football post WWII.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, a group of 800 elite coaches, which included Bryant, Laslie, and Moseley, were chosen from 20,000 that applied, fast-tracked into the Navy as officers at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where in 30 days they were trained to implement a radical program using sports to get aviation cadets into shape before being deployed overseas.

By early 1942, these coaches turned Naval officers were then assigned to four designated college campuses across the country where the cadets would be housed and trained. UNC-Chapel Hill, one of four first selected, chosen for its existing infrastructure which included housing for cadets and numerous playing fields, as well as its strategic location in the southeast. Lt. Charles De Gaulle, who visited the campus in 1944, declared after his tour of the facilities and observation of the training techniques, that he now understood what made the US forces the toughest in the world. The V-5 Pre-Flight at UNC-Chapel Hill became the most prestigious of the programs in the country, that location being the only place where foreign troops, the French, were trained on U.S. soil.

The program used sports as the central component of its training focus. Swimming was a crucial skill for survival since there would be long bombing missions over water and aviators would need to be able to swim in order to survive a crash landing in the sea. But the Navy quickly identified that it was football above all others that embodied most of the skills the pilots would need. Skills like quick reaction time and concentration under pressure. Games with explosive violence, like experienced on the football field, helped develop courage needed for the battlefield. Football required synchronized play on the field. Likewise, American air missions in World War II required groups to work in a synchronized aerial motion. The goal of the program, its creator Admiral Thomas Hamilton passionately explained to a crowd of football coaches, was to give the Navy the best pilot possible: “..to put learning in his head, muscles on his bones, fire in his heart, and steel in his soul.”

In essence, football became the Navy’s secret weapon.

The coaches were told to be merciless in their demands, no sympathy extended. The life of each cadet depended on it. The lives of their fellow soldiers depended on it. The Navy was depending on the coaches to carry out a brutal, physically demanding regimen to give their aviators the best chance for survival. And so was the country.

Ed McMahon, a celebrity best known for his many years as the side-kick of Johnny Carson, described his experience in the V-5 Pre-Flight program as being one you couldn’t pay him a million dollars to go through again. Then again, he said, he wouldn’t trade the experience for 10 million dollars. For some cadets, it killed their interest in ever paying organized sports for the rest of their lives.


You can read more about the V-5 Pre-Flight program, and the unique role these men played in it in A Tide of Dreams, available online on Amazon, or at your favorite bookstore. To arrange for the author to speak at your next event, contact her at carey@authorcareyhkeefe.com.

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