The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part IV. Touching the Divine 1936
Therein lies the secret of successful crews: Their “swing,” that fourth dimension of rowing, which can only be appreciated by an oarsman who has rowed in a swinging crew, where the run is uncanny and the work of propelling the shell a delight.
—George Yeoman Pocock
“For four straight years now, coarse outlanders from the Far West have dominated the Hudson,” Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram spat out the day following the Poughkeepsie races. “The regatta has lost all its original form and pattern. It is no longer an eastern show… . When one western team doesn’t win, the other does… . Washington took everything there was to be taken on the river yesterday. The townspeople were relieved that the visitors had the decency to leave the bridges and the fat-bodied ferries.” Williams then went on, presumably in jest, to call upon President Roosevelt to do something about the “very disturbing situation.”
The tone may have been tongue-in-cheek, but the substance of Williams’s piece was no joke for thousands of eastern crew fans—their schools seemed to be falling out of contention in a regatta they had designed to test and demonstrate their own rowing prowess.
And it wasn’t just eastern sports scribes and fans who found themselves facing a new reality after the 1936 regatta. Ky Ebright knew exactly what he had seen in the varsity race, and he was smart enough and diplomatic enough to acknowledge it straight out. Packing up his own boys for their trip to Princeton and the Olympic trials, where he would take one more stab at defeating Washington, he pointed to Joe and his crewmates and said, “There’s the best crew in America. That’s the boat that should go to Berlin, and the rest of the world will have to produce something pretty hot to beat them in the Olympics.” This wasn’t the usual prerace “downplay your chances” banter that both he and Al Ulbrickson regularly engaged in. Ebright was dead serious, and he needed to tamp down expectations in Berkeley. He’d go to Princeton and compete and try to win the Olympic berth, but when Bobby Moch engineered that cold, calculating, come-out-of-nowhere victory, Ebright quickly saw the demoralizing effect it had on his own crew. The deliberate way Washington rowed that race had seemed partly a challenge, partly a dare, but mostly it had seemed a warning. As he made his way down the course, Moch might as well have raised over his stern a flag emblazoned with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” and the figure of a coiled rattlesnake.
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On July 1, after a week of working out and relaxing in Poughkeepsie, the boys packed up their possessions, loaded the Husky Clipper onto a baggage car, and headed for the 1936 U.S. Olympic trials. By six that evening, they had arrived at Princeton and entered the world of the Ivy League, a world of status and tradition, of refined tastes and unstated assumptions about social class, a world inhabited by the sons of bankers and lawyers and senators. For boys who were the sons of working-class parents, this was uncertain but intriguing terrain.
They moved into the stately Princeton Inn, perched majestically on the edge of the Springdale Golf Club’s manicured fairways, a building that made even the president’s home at Hyde Park look a bit cramped and shabby. From their rooms, the boys watched Princeton alumni stroll around the golf course wearing their knickerbockers, high argyle socks, and tweed caps. The boys explored Lake Carnegie and stopped by the Princeton Boathouse to check the facilities. It was a large stone structure, complete with Gothic arches over the entrances to the boat bays—a structure far more elegant than the clapboard homes most of them had come from. It was a far cry from their old airplane hangar; it looked more like the new Suzzallo Library back in Seattle. Even Lake Carnegie itself was an emblem of wealth and privilege. Until early in the twentieth century, Princeton crews had rowed in the Delaware and Raritan Canal, which ran directly along the south side of the campus. The Princeton boys, though, found it inconvenient to row among the coal barges and recreational vessels that also made use of the canal, so they got Andrew Carnegie to build them a private lake. For roughly one hundred thousand dollars, about two and a half million in today’s dollars, Carnegie quietly bought up all the properties along a three-mile stretch of the Millstone River, dammed it, and produced a first-class rowing course—shallow, straight, protected, lovely to look at, and quite free of coal barges.
For the first few days at Princeton, the boys kicked back and luxuriated in the posh surroundings of the hotel and country club. Don Hume tried to throw off the effects of a nasty cold. Twice a day they took light workouts in the shell. Mostly, they practiced rowing high-stroke-rate sprints and racing starts. Starts were among the most critical component of a two-thousand-meter race, and something they were having trouble with lately.
Six crews were competing for the right to go to Berlin: Washington, California, Penn, Navy, Princeton, and the New York Athletic Club. The field would be divided into two groups of three for a preliminary elimination heat on July 4. The top two boats in each heat would advance to a final contest of four boats the next day.
As the elimination heats approached, the weather grew oppressively warm—the first intimations of what was about to become a lethal heat wave all across the East. By the night of July 3, the boys had grown nervous and unsettled, the magnitude of what was at stake starting to sink in. They had trouble sleeping in the damp heat. Al Ulbrickson went from room to room telling them to settle down, but there was an edge to his voice that betrayed his own anxiety. That night, long after lights-out, Joe and Roger sat up in the dark, joking, telling stories, trying to talk themselves down from an emotional cliff. Now and then the darkness was punctuated by an orange glow as Chuck Day took another drag on a forbidden cigarette.
It wasn’t that they were seriously concerned about their preliminary heat. They would race against Princeton and the Winged Footers of the New York Athletic Club. Neither was a real contender. California, on the other hand, would have to face Penn and Navy, both excellent sprinting crews. The worry came from what would happen after the preliminaries. Penn had swapped out three of its eight Poughkeepsie oarsmen, replacing them with recent graduates not eligible to race in the intercollegiate regatta but perfectly legal in Olympic trials. Navy had inserted Lieutenant Vic Krulak of the marine corps as its coxswain. California had also moved recent alumni into its boat. Washington, in fact, was the only crew that would be made up entirely of undergraduates. Assuming the boys qualified in their own preliminary, whichever crews they met in the final would, to some extent, be made up of unknowns—unknowns who were presumably superior to the boys they had just defeated in Poughkeepsie.
On Saturday, the Fourth of July, the boys left the Princeton shell house for their race a little before six thirty. It was a buggy, sultry evening. Several thousand people had gathered along the shores of the lake for the qualifying heats, most of them climbing into the newly constructed grandstands at the finish line. The boys backed the Husky Clipper into their starting stall, on a floating platform that had been specially built for the Olympic trials, and waited.
At the gun, Washington charged out of the stall at a high beat of thirty-eight. The Husky Clipper began to move out in front almost immediately. After about a minute, Moch told Don Hume to drop the rate. Hume went down to thirty-four. In the third minute, Hume dropped it to thirty-two, and even as the boys dropped the rate, the boat stayed out in front and began to widen its lead. The New York Athletic Club’s Winged Footers and the Princeton boys were both rowing at thirty-five. By the halfway mark, Washington had open water on both boats. As they began to approach the finish line, the Winged Footers made a move, sprinting past Princeton and challenging Washington. Moch told Hume to ease the stroke rate back up to thirty-eight. The Husky Clipper pulled briskly ahead and sliced across the line two and a half lengths ahead of the Winged Footers.
Confident as they had been, the Washington boys were nevertheless surprised at just how easily they had won. Even in the muggy evening air, they’d hardly broken a sweat. They paddled out of the racing lanes and took up a position along the bank at about the fifteen-hundred-meter mark. The real question of the day was how California would do in their qualifying heat, and the boys wanted to see the answer for themselves.
At 7:00 p.m. Navy, Penn, and California left the mark, all rowing hard and high. For the first thousand meters, the three boats settled in and contended more or less evenly for the lead. At that point, Penn picked up its pace and began to move slowly out in front. As they entered the final five hundred meters, though, it was Cal that brought the fans in the grandstands to their feet. The boys from Berkeley executed a tremendous surge, suddenly blowing past both Navy and Penn, seizing the lead and winning by a quarter of a boat length. It was an impressive show, and it reinforced the long-standing belief—shared by many of the coaches and writers present that day—that despite Washington’s wins in the long races at Poughkeepsie and in Seattle, California remained the superior sprinting crew. It was hard to argue otherwise. California had won its heat in 6:07.8; Washington had taken 10 full seconds longer, 6:17.8, to cover the same distance. “An almost insurmountable handicap for the Huskies,” declared the New York Sun’s Malcolm Roy.
As the Washington boys retreated to the Princeton Inn that night, anxiety cascaded down on them again. Al Ulbrickson once more spent much of the evening going from room to room, sitting on the ends of bunks, reassuring his boys, reminding them that they had in effect won a sprint in the last two thousand meters at Poughkeepsie, telling them what they already knew in their hearts but needed to hear one more time—that they could beat any crew in America, at any distance, including California. All they had to do, he told them, was to continue to believe in one another.
They nodded and agreed with him. The spring campaign—the instant fellowship they had all felt when they took to the water together for the first time, their commanding victory over Cal on Lake Washington, their stunning come-from-behind triumph at Poughkeepsie, and their almost effortless qualifying race earlier that day—had more than convinced them that together they were capable of greatness. None of them doubted anyone else in the boat. But believing in one another was not really at issue anymore. What was more difficult was being sure about one’s self. The caustic chemicals of fear continued to surge in their brains and in their guts.
Late that night, after Ulbrickson had finally retired to his quarters, the boys stole out of the hotel singly or in pairs and walked along the shore of Lake Carnegie. The moon was full, the lake silver and glimmering. Crickets sang in the grass at their feet; cicadas buzzed in the trees overhead. They gazed into the moon-washed stars above, talking quietly, reminding themselves of who they were and what they had done. For some of them, that was enough. Joe remembered years later that a sense of calm had come over him that evening. Resolve had begun to flow into him, at first like a freshet, then like a river. Eventually, in the wee hours, they returned to their rooms and slept—some peacefully, some fitfully.
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In the morning Chuck Day got up and wrote in his journal, “Final Olympic trials, very nervous but confident.” Johnny White wrote, “We woke up all scared and having frequent visits with Alvin.”
Alvin Ulbrickson couldn’t have been exactly relaxed himself. This was his day of judgment. Many of his peers would be on hand to watch the race that evening—not just Ebright, but old Jim Ten Eyck from Syracuse, Ed Leader from Yale, Jim Wray from Cornell, and Constance Titus, an Olympic champion sculler from 1904. More than that, though, Royal Brougham was there, getting set to broadcast the race live to fifty stations around the country on the CBS network. All of Seattle—and much of the rest of the country—would be listening. There would be no place to hide if the boys didn’t come through for him.
Thunderstorms rumbled over New Jersey that morning, and rain pounded the roof of the Princeton Inn. By noon, though, the clouds had scudded off to the horizon and the day had grown hot and muggy but clear. Lake Carnegie lay mirror smooth, reflecting a translucent blue sky. The final Olympic trial was not scheduled to begin until 5:00 p.m., so the boys spent most of the day lounging in the Princeton shell house, trying to stay cool. Late in the afternoon, black sedans and coupes full of crew fans began to arrive at Lake Carnegie. Their drivers eased their vehicles under shade trees along the last few hundred meters of the racecourse, then spread picnic blankets on the grass and opened hampers full of sandwiches and cold drinks. The grandstands at the finish line slowly filled with people fanning themselves with their programs—men in fedoras and Panama hats, women in flat-brimmed hats perched on their heads at jaunty angles. All told, perhaps ten thousand people braved the heat to witness just six minutes of racing—six minutes that would shatter the dreams of all but nine of the boys about to take to the water.
At 4:45 the first- and second-place crews from the previous day’s trials—California, Pennsylvania, Washington, and the New York Athletic Club—paddled from the Princeton shell house out onto Lake Carnegie. They made their way under the graceful arches of a stone bridge, around a long, sweeping bend in the lake, and up the straightaway to the starting stalls. The Winged Footers swung their boat around and backed it into its stall first, then Penn did the same. As Washington tried to back into its stall, a large and recalcitrant white swan blocked the way until Bobby Moch, yelling at it with his megaphone and waving his arms furiously, finally persuaded it to move slowly aside. Then California backed in.
In the late afternoon sun, tall trees growing along the bank cast long shadows over the starting stalls and the boats, but the heat had not abated appreciably. The Washington boys were bare chested, having stripped off their jerseys just before climbing into their boat. They sat now with their oars in the water ready for the first hard pull, each staring straight ahead at the neck of the man in front of him, trying to breathe slow and easy, settling their hearts and minds into the boat. Bobby Moch reached under his seat and touched Tom Bolles’s lucky fedora, a few extra ounces of weight in exchange for a lot of luck.
A little after five, the starter called out, “Are you all ready?” All four coxswains raised their hands, and the starting gun flashed immediately.
Washington got off to a poor start. Four or five strokes into the race, Gordy Adam and Stub McMillin “washed out,” their oars popping out of the water before they had completed their pulls. The effect was to throw the boat momentarily out of balance and to abruptly check the crucial momentum that the crew was trying to build up. The other three boats surged ahead. On the next stroke, all eight of the Washington oars caught the water cleanly, perfectly, at once.
The New York Athletic Club went briefly to the head of the pack, but Penn, pounding the water at a high cadence of forty strokes per minute, quickly snatched the lead back. California, rowing at thirty-eight, settled into third place, ten feet in front of Washington’s bow. Bobby Moch and Don Hume took the rate up to thirty-nine to regain momentum, but once that was accomplished they immediately began to lower it again, to thirty-eight, then to thirty-seven, then to thirty-six, then to thirty-five. As the rate dropped, the Husky Clipper continued to hold its position just off of California’s stern. Out front, Penn was still thrashing the lake white at thirty-nine. A quarter of the way down the course, Bobby Moch found himself creeping up on California. He told Hume to drop the rate yet again, and Hume settled at a surprisingly low thirty-four. As they approached the halfway mark, the New York Athletic Club suddenly began to fade and quickly fell away behind Washington. Penn remained out in front by three-quarters of a length, and even continued to slowly draw farther ahead of California. The Husky Clipper remained stuck on California’s tail. The boys continued to row at thirty-four.
But what a thirty-four it was. Don Hume on the port side and Joe Rantz on the starboard were setting the pace with long, slow, sweet, fluid strokes, and the boys on each side were falling in behind them flawlessly. From the banks of Lake Carnegie, the boys, their oars, and the Husky Clipper looked like a single thing, gracefully and powerfully coiling and uncoiling itself, propelling itself forward over the surface of the water. Eight bare backs swung forward and backward in perfect unison. Eight white blades dipped in and out of the mirrorlike water at precisely the same instant. Each time the blades entered the lake, they disappeared almost without a splash or ripple. Each time the blades rose from it, the boat ghosted forward without check or hesitation.
Just before the fifteen-hundred-meter mark, Bobby Moch leaned into Don Hume and shouted, “Here’s California! Here’s where we take California!” Hume knocked the stroke rate up just a bit, to thirty-six, and Washington swiftly walked past Cal seat by seat. They began to creep up on Penn’s stern. Penn’s stroke man, Lloyd Saxton, watching the bow of the Husky Clipper coming up behind him, raised his beat to a killing forty-one. But as Penn’s strokes grew more frequent, they began inevitably to grow shorter. Glancing at the “puddles” Washington’s blades left behind in the water, Saxton was shocked at the distance between them. “They were spacing five feet to our three. It was unbelievable,” he said after the race. Washington pulled abreast of Penn.
But Bobby Moch still hadn’t really turned the boys loose. Coming inside five hundred meters, he finally did so. He barked at Hume to pick up the tempo. The rate surged to thirty-nine and then immediately to forty. For five or six strokes, the bows of the two boats contested for the lead, back and forth like the heads of racehorses coming down the stretch. Finally Washington’s bow swung decisively out in front by a few feet. From there on, it was, as Gordy Adam would later say, “duck soup.” With four hundred meters to go, Washington simply blew past the exhausted boys from Penn, like an express train passing the morning milk train, swinging into the last few hundred meters with extraordinary grace and power. The last twenty strokes, Shorty Hunt wrote his parents the next day, were “the best I ever felt in any boat.” At the finish they were a full length ahead and still widening the lead. As they crossed the line, Bobby Moch, defying the laws of physics and common sense, suddenly stood bolt upright in the stern of his twenty-four-inch-wide shell, triumphantly thrusting one fist into the air.
Penn came in second; California, third. The New York Athletic Club’s shell finally more or less drifted across the finish line, three and three-quarter lengths behind the Washington boat, half her crew lying prone across their oars, having collapsed in the heat.
All over Washington State—in smoky little mill towns out on the Olympic Peninsula, on soggy dairy farms nestled up against the Cascades, in posh Victorian homes on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, and in the Huskies’ drafty shell house down on the Montlake Cut—people stood and cheered. Mothers and fathers rushed off to Western Union offices to send congratulations to their sons back east. Newspapermen frantically scrambled to compose headlines. Bartenders served rounds on the house. What had been a dream was a reality. Their boys were going to the Olympics. For the first time ever, Seattle was going to play on the world stage.
Sitting by the radio at Harry Rantz’s unfinished home on Lake Washington, Joyce and the kids cheered too. Harry said nothing but suddenly, beaming, he began rummaging around in a box, pulled out a large American flag, tacked it on the wall above the radio, and stood back to admire it. The kids ran off to tell their friends in the neighborhood the good news. Joyce, quietly jubilant, set about cleaning up the peanut shells the kids had let drop on the floor as they listened nervously to the race. A small sadness niggled at the back of her mind: this meant Joe would not be coming home until the end of the summer. But that was a trifle, she knew, and it was swept away by sheer joy as she began to contemplate the prospect of Joe, dressed in an Olympic uniform, climbing off a train in Seattle when he did finally come home in the fall.
Flashing broad, white grins, Joe and his crewmates paddled back to the Princeton shell house, tossed Bobby Moch in the water, fished him out, and then lined up for the press and newsreel photographers waiting for them on the float. Henry Penn Burke, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Rowing Committee, positioned himself next to Bobby Moch and extended a silver cup to him. As the newsreel cameras whirred, Moch, dripping wet and bare chested, held one of the cup’s handles and Burke, in a suit and tie, held the other. Then Burke began to speak. He spoke and he spoke and he spoke. The boys were tired, and it was blazing hot out on the float, and they wanted to hit the showers and start celebrating. Still Burke continued to talk. Finally Moch gave a little tug on the cup and it popped free from Burke’s hand. Burke kept right on talking. Eventually, with Moch clutching the cup, the boys just drifted away, leaving Burke alone on the float, still talking as the newsreel cameras continued to roll.
Al Ulbrickson also made a few, much briefer, remarks to the press. When asked how he accounted for his varsity’s success this year, he went straight to the heart of the matter: “Every man in the boat had absolute confidence in every one of his mates… . Why they won cannot be attributed to individuals, not even to stroke Don Hume. Heartfelt cooperation all spring was responsible for the victory.”
Ulbrickson was no poet. That was Pocock’s territory. But the comment was as close as he could come to capturing what was in his heart. He must have known, with a kind of certitude that he felt in his gut, that he finally had in his grasp what had eluded him for years. Everything had converged: the right oarsmen, with the right attitudes, the right personalities, the right skills; a perfect boat, sleek, balanced, and wickedly fast; a winning strategy at both long and short distances; a coxswain with the guts and smarts to make hard decisions and make them fast. It all added up to more than he could really put into words, maybe more than even a poet could—something beyond the sum of its parts, something mysterious and ineffable and gorgeous to behold. And he knew whom to thank for much of it.
Walking back to the Princeton Inn that evening with George Pocock, the two men holding their suit coats over their shoulders in the warm, humid twilight, Ulbrickson stopped suddenly, turned abruptly to Pocock, and extended his right hand. “Thanks, George, for your help,” he said. Pocock later remembered the moment: “Coming from Al,” he mused, “that was the equivalent of fireworks and a brass band.”
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Later that night the boys were treated to the annual Loyal Shoudy banquet, where they found the traditional purple necktie and a five-dollar bill waiting at each place setting. But even as they dined and celebrated, disturbing rumors began to circulate in the hallways of the Princeton Inn.
By eight o’clock, the rumors were confirmed. After his windy speech on the float in front of the Princeton shell house, Henry Penn Burke had taken Al Ulbrickson, George Pocock, and Ray Eckman, the athletic director at Washington, into a room and given them, in effect, an ultimatum. If Washington wanted to go to Berlin, the boys were going to have to pay their own way. “You’ll have to pay your own freight, or else,” Burke said. “We just haven’t got the dough.” Burke, who was also, coincidentally, the chairman of and a major fundraiser for the Pennsylvania Athletic Club in Philadelphia, went on to say that he understood that Penn had plenty of money and as the second-place finisher they would naturally be glad to take Washington’s place in Berlin.
Similar dramas were playing out across America that week. The American Olympic Committee had come up short of funds. Swimmers, fencers, and dozens of other teams were being asked to finance or partially finance their fare to Berlin. But until this moment, neither the AOC nor the Olympic Rowing Committee had hinted that they would be unable to send the winning crew to the games. Caught unawares, Ulbrickson was stunned and livid. The university had already had to beg and scrape every dime it could from alumni and the citizens of Seattle just to send the boys east to Poughkeepsie and Princeton. And there was no chance any of these boys could contribute their own funds. These weren’t the heirs and scions of industry; these were working-class Americans. The whole thing stank. The Washingtonians were ready to storm out of the room, but Burke kept on talking. He pointed out that California had paid its own way in 1928, as well as 1932. Yale, he said, had no problem raising “private funds” in 1924. Surely somebody in Seattle could come up with the money.
Ulbrickson knew full well that money more or less grew on the trees at Yale, and that funds had been vastly easier to come by in 1928, before the Depression, than in 1936. In 1932, Ebright had been faced only with transporting his crew 350 miles, from Berkeley to Los Angeles. Icily Ulbrickson asked Burke how much he needed to come up with and how soon. Five thousand dollars by the end of the week, Burke replied. Otherwise, Penn would go.
After the meeting, Ulbrickson huddled with Royal Brougham and George Varnell, and within minutes they were composing headlines and writing special columns to be wired to the Post-Intelligencer and the Times for the next day’s editions. In Seattle, a few minutes later, phones began to ring. Ray Eckman called his assistant, Carl Kilgore, who in turn started making local calls. By 10:00 p.m. Seattle time, Kilgore had enlisted dozens of civic leaders and put a rough plan in place. In the morning they would open their headquarters at the Washington Athletic Club, name a chairman, and set up teams. In the meantime everyone began placing more calls. Al Ulbrickson tried not to alarm his athletes. This was exactly the kind of nonsense he didn’t want them fretting about. He told them as little as possible about the funding shortage, and they went to bed that night believing all would be well.
The next morning Shorty Hunt jotted off a short letter to his parents: “A dream come true! Oh boy, what lucky kids we are! Nobody can tell me we didn’t have Old Dame Luck perched on our shoulders.” Then he and the rest of the crew chowed down on cantaloupe and ice cream for breakfast before turning out to row in front of Fox Movietone’s newsreel cameras.
A few hours later, Seattleites awoke to alarming headlines and radio news bulletins. The entire town went to work. Coeds on summer break grabbed tin cans and began going door-to-door in their neighborhoods. Paul Coughlin, president of the alumni association, started placing calls to some of the university’s more prominent graduates. Thousands of lapel tags were quickly printed up, and students on campus for summer session began to sell them for fifty cents apiece in the hallways. Radio announcers broke into their morning programming to appeal for funds. Downtown, I. F. Dix, the general manager of Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, signed on as chairman of the campaign. In short order, telegrams began to rattle out of Dix’s office to the chambers of commerce of every city, town, and hamlet in the state. More than a thousand letters were mailed out to American Legion posts and other civic and fraternal organizations.
By afternoon the money and pledges had begun to pour in: a hefty $500 from the Seattle Times to get things started; $5 from the Hide-Away Beer Parlor; $50 from mighty Standard Oil; $1 from a donor who wished to remain anonymous; $5 from Cecil Blogg of Tacoma, one of Hiram Conibear’s coxswains. Money began to come in as well from the boys’ hometowns, where their accomplishments had been making local headlines for weeks: $50 from Bobby Moch’s Montesano; $50 from Bellingham, the nearest town of any size to the dairy farm on which Gordy Adam had grown up; $299.25 from Don Hume’s Olympia; $75 from Joe Rantz’s Sequim. By the end of the first day of the drive, volunteers had sold $1,523 worth of fifty-cent tags. At the end of the second day, T. F. Davies, chairman of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, put a $5,000 certified check in an envelope and airmailed it to Al Ulbrickson.
By then Ulbrickson and the boys were blithely getting ready to sail for Germany on the SS Manhattan on July 14. Just hours after the meeting with Henry Penn Burke and his brief conversations with Royal Brougham and George Varnell that evening, Ulbrickson had put on his best poker face—which is to say his natural face—gone back to Burke and the AOC, and declared that as a matter of fact Washington did have the funds to pay its way to Berlin. Then, before anyone could raise any awkward questions about just how he’d managed to get his hands on five thousand dollars so quickly, he’d speedily accepted the invitation of the New York Athletic Club to use its training facilities, in a nearby suburb on Long Island Sound, and quickly slipped out of Princeton.
As the boys—now officially the U.S. eight-oared Olympic rowing team—settled in at Travers Island they were, largely unbeknownst to them, beginning to become national celebrities. Back home in Seattle, they were already full-blown superstars. Eastern coaches and sportswriters had been following them with increasing interest ever since their freshman victory at Poughkeepsie in 1934. And now, after watching those last twenty strokes at Princeton, newspapermen from across the country were starting to put down in print what many of them had first begun to think when they saw Joe and his crewmates emerge suddenly out of the twilight that evening in Poughkeepsie two weeks before. These young men just might be the greatest collegiate crew of all time.
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Travers Island sat on Long Island Sound, just south of New Rochelle. The New York Athletic Club’s facility there, completed in 1888, sprawled over thirty neatly manicured acres at the center of which stood a posh, sprawling clubhouse. With a formal dining room and an oyster bar, a billiards room, a full-featured gymnasium, a boathouse, every conceivable sort of athletic training equipment, trap-shooting facilities, a baseball diamond, a bowling alley, a boxing ring, tennis courts, squash courts, a cinder running track, Turkish baths, a swimming pool, a barbershop, valet services, and wide, sweeping lawns, it was, for all practical purposes, a country club for amateur athletes, as well as a prominent venue for Westchester County society events. It afforded easy access to excellent rowing water on the sound. And, best of all, for boys from the fields, forests, and small towns of the Pacific Northwest, it was just a few miles from all the manifold mysteries and wonders of New York City.
The sweltering heat continued to build over the East Coast and over much of America that week, but the boys weren’t going to let a little heat keep them from taking a bite of the Big Apple. They visited Grant’s Tomb, tried to board the Queen Mary but were turned away, inspected Columbia’s campus, toured Rockefeller Center, walked up and down Broadway, and ate at Jack Dempsey’s. They trooped into Minsky’s Burlesque and came out with wide eyes and sheepish grins, though Johnny White confided his personal opinion in his journal: “It was foul.” They walked around Wall Street, recalling the hushed tones in which their parents had talked about the place in 1929.
They rode the subway out to Coney Island and found that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers had beaten them there, fleeing the stifling heat of Manhattan even in the middle of the workweek. From the crowded boardwalk, as far as they could see up and down the shoreline, the beaches were a dark, seething mass of bodies packed together on the sand. They made their way through the throng, fascinated by the thousand voices of New York—Italian-speaking mothers and Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican boys, Yiddish-speaking grandfathers and Polish-speaking girls, giddy children calling out to one another in dozens of tongues and all varieties of English, their voices tinged with the inflections of the Bronx and Brooklyn and New Jersey. They shoveled down five-cent hot dogs at Nathan’s, ate cotton candy, guzzled ice-cold Coca-Colas. They rode on the 150-foot Wonder Wheel and the hair-raising Cyclone roller coaster. They wandered through the spires and turrets of Luna Park, rode more rides, gobbled peanuts, and guzzled more Cokes. By the time they headed back to the city, they were exhausted and not entirely impressed by Coney Island. “What a hole,” Chuck Day confided in his journal. “Dirty, crowded, gyp joints.” And he wasn’t much impressed by the hot, sweltering citizens of Greater New York either: “People in New York are all very tired looking, pale, & soft. The people seldom smile & don’t look healthy & full of vigor as out west.”
As they explored New York, they began to come, one by one, to a new realization about how things stood for them. In Times Square one afternoon, a tall, somewhat heavy man rushed up to Shorty, took a good look, and said, “You’re Shorty Hunt!” He looked at the other boys. “You fellows are the Washington crew, aren’t you?” When they assured him they were, he gushed that he had recognized Shorty from a picture in the newspaper. He was a former Columbia oarsman himself, he said, and after watching their recent exploits he had decided to send his son west for college so he too might become a great crewman. It was the first time any of them really began to understand that they were now America’s crew, not the University of Washington’s—that the W on their jerseys was about to be replaced with “USA.”
For Joe, the moment of epiphany came on the eighty-sixth floor of the new Empire State Building. None of the boys had ever ridden an elevator more than a few floors in a hotel, and the rapid ascent both thrilled and frightened them. “Ears popped, eyes bulged,” Shorty Hunt wrote home breathlessly that night.
Joe had never flown in an airplane, never seen a city from any higher vantage point than that afforded by his own six-foot-three frame. Now, standing on the observation deck, he looked out at the many spires of New York rising through a pall of smoke and steam and heat haze and did not know whether he found it beautiful or frightening.
He leaned over the low stone parapet and peered down at miniature cars and buses and swarms of tiny people scurrying along the streets. The city below him, Joe realized, murmured. The cacophony of honking horns and wailing sirens and rumbling streetcars that had assaulted his ears at street level were reduced up here to something gentler and more soothing, like the sonorous breathing of an enormous living thing. It was a much bigger, more connected, world than he had ever thought possible.
He dropped a nickel in a telescope for a better view of the Brooklyn Bridge, then swept across Lower Manhattan and out to the distant Statue of Liberty. In a few days, he would be sailing under her on his way to a place where as he understood it, liberty was not a given, where it seemed to be under some kind of assault. The realization that was settling on all the boys settled on Joe.
They were now representatives of something much larger than themselves—a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together—trust in each other, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another—those were also part of what America meant to all of them. And right along with a passion for liberty, those were the things they were about to take to Berlin and lay before the world when they took to the water at Grünau.
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Sudden revelation paid Bobby Moch a visit as well. His came as he sat, in the shade under a tree in a wide-open field on Travers Island, opening an envelope. The envelope contained a letter from his father, the letter Bobby had requested, listing the addresses of the relatives he hoped to visit in Europe. But the envelope also contained a second, sealed, envelope labeled, “Read this in a private place.” Now, alarmed, sitting under the tree, Moch opened the second envelope and read its contents. By the time he had finished reading, tears were running down his face.
The news was innocuous enough by twenty-first-century standards, but in the context of social attitudes in America in the 1930s it came as a profound shock. When he met his relatives in Europe, Gaston Moch told his son, he was going to learn for the first time that he and his family were Jewish.
Bobby sat under the tree, brooding for a long while, not because he suddenly found himself a member of what was then still a much discriminated against minority, but because as he absorbed the news he realized for the first time the terrible pain his father must have carried silently within him for so many years. For decades, his father had felt that in order to make it in America it was necessary to conceal an essential element of his identity from his friends, his neighbors, and even his own children. Bobby had been brought up to believe that everyone should be treated according to his actions and his character, not according to stereotypes. It was his father himself who had taught him that. Now it came as a searing revelation that his father had not felt safe enough to live by that same simple proposition, that he had kept his heritage hidden painfully away, a secret to be ashamed of, even in America, even from his own beloved son.
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By July 9, New York City was baking in the greatest heat wave in American history. For a month, unheard-of temperatures had been searing the West and Midwest. Even the terrible summer of 1934 hadn’t been this bad. Now the dome of heat extended from coast to coast and far north into Canada. Three thousand Americans would die of the heat that week, forty of them in New York City.
The U.S. Olympic eight-oared crew was as cool as could be, though. Every afternoon they boarded a boat and made their way out to the New York Athletic Club’s private retreat, Huckleberry Island, a mile off Travers Island, out in the cool waters of Long Island Sound. The island was twelve acres of paradise, and the boys fell in love with it the moment they stepped out of their launch and onto a beach in one of its many small granite coves, wearing the Indian headbands with turkey feathers that club members donned whenever they visited the island. They leapt off stone ledges, plunged into the cool green water of the sound, swam, horsed around, then stretched out on warm flat slabs of granite, toasting themselves brown before plunging back into the water again.
Chuck Day smoked Lucky Strikes and cracked jokes. Roger Morris lay about looking sleepy, making gruff observations about Day’s smoking habit. Gordy Adam was content to bask quietly in the sun wearing his Indian headband. Joe wandered off to study the geology of the island, discovering glacial striations etched in the granite. Bobby Moch tried to organize activities, hustled the boys about, and got unceremoniously tackled and tossed in the water three or four times for his trouble. All of them were at their ease there, comfortable in their skins. With the sea and woods at hand, they were in their element in a way they could never be in Manhattan for all its glitter and glamour.
On the third day, Al Ulbrickson put the kibosh on their swimming. He was firmly of a mind that any kind of exercise other than rowing was bad for rowers—it developed the wrong sets of muscles.
Finally, it came time to pack and prepare for Germany. On July 13, Pocock supervised the boys as they carefully loaded the sixty-two-foot Husky Clipper onto a long truck and—with a police escort—drove it through the heart of New York City to Pier 60 on the Hudson River, where the SS Manhattan was being readied for its departure two days later. Pocock had spent his days at Travers Island carefully sanding down the shell’s hull and then applying coat after coat of marine varnish, buffing each coat until the shell glistened. It wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics. Pocock wanted the shell to have the fastest possible racing bottom he could impart to it. Fractions of a second might well tell the story in Berlin.
When they pulled up alongside the Manhattan, Pocock found that the dock was a jumble of offices, storage sheds, stacks of cargo, and canopied gangways for passengers. He and the boys were responsible for loading the boat onto the ship themselves, and they quickly discovered that there wasn’t any place where they could maneuver the long shell into a position to get her aboard. They were all wearing ties, for a reception to be followed by dinner at the Lincoln Hotel later that day. Carrying the shell over their heads in the stifling, humid heat, they walked carefully but wearily up and down the dock for nearly an hour, staring up at the great red hull of the ship, trying everything they could think of.
Finally, far up the dock, someone spotted a baggage chute descending at a sixty-degree angle to street level. Gingerly, they inserted the prow end of the shell into the chute. Then, crawling on hands and knees, they snaked it up the chute to the promenade deck. From there, holding it high over their heads again, they angled it all the way up to the boat deck, tied it down, covered it with a tarp, and hoped and prayed that no one would mistake it for a bench and sit on it. Then they hurried off to their reception, massively late and soaked in sweat.
At the Lincoln Hotel, they signed in officially with the AOC, then mingled for the first time with their fellow Olympians in the lobby. Glenn Cunningham was there, dressed in a sharp gray suit and a bright yellow tie. In a corner of the room, photographers had cornered Jesse Owens, dressed in an ice-cream-white suit, and talked him into posing with a saxophone. “When I give the word,” said one of the photographers, “blow on that thing.” On command, Jesse blew. The instrument emitted a long, wheezing sigh. “Better look at your tires, Jesse, that sounded like a puncture,” someone joked.
Walking around the room, the Washington boys figured they might not be the most famous people there, or the fastest afoot, or even the strongest, but—with the exception of Bobby Moch—they were probably the tallest. Then they met six-foot-eight Joe Fortenberry and six-foot-nine Willard Schmidt from the first-ever U.S. Olympic basketball team. When he went to shake their hands and tried to look Schmidt in the eye, even Stub McMillin found that he risked getting a crick in his neck. Bobby Moch didn’t even try. He figured he would have needed a ladder.
The next day was a whirl of activity—picking up their Olympic credentials and their German visas, stocking up on a few last-minute sundries, buying travelers’ checks. Johnny White didn’t know what he was going to do for money in Europe. He still had most of the fourteen dollars he’d left home with, but that wasn’t going to last long. Then, at the last minute, an envelope with a hundred dollars arrived from Seattle. His sister, Mary Helen, had sent it—nearly all her savings—saying she’d take his old violin in exchange. Johnny knew full well she had no interest at all in the violin.
Joe’s Olympic passport
They capped off their tour of New York that evening with a trip to Loew’s State Theatre, where Duke Ellington and his orchestra were finishing up a weeklong engagement. For Joe and Roger especially, it was the highlight of the stay in New York. Under the theater’s huge Czech-crystal chandelier, sitting in red-plush theater seats and surrounded by gilded woodwork, they listened entranced as Ellington and his orchestra lilted through “Mood Indigo,” “Accent on Youth,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Uptown Downbeat,” and a dozen and a half more tunes. Joe basked in the bright, brassy music, soaking it in as it washed over him, feeling it swing him.
Late that night they settled in at the Alpha Delta Phi Club for one last night’s sleep before their even grander adventure commenced the following morning. As they turned out the lights, fifty miles to the south of them, the zeppelin Hindenburg cast off from its mooring place in Lakehurst, New Jersey, and lumbered out over the Atlantic on its way home to Germany and its own small role in the 1936 Olympics, looming dark against the night sky, large black swastikas emblazoned on its tail fins.
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With newsreel cameras rolling and flashbulbs popping, the boys bounded up the gangplank and onto the Manhattan at ten thirty the next morning. Like the 325 other members of the U.S. Olympic team boarding this ship, they were giddy, charged with earnest excitement. None of them had ever been on a boat any larger than the ferries back in Seattle, and the SS Manhattan—668 feet long, weighing in at 24,289 tons, with eight passenger decks, and able to accommodate 1,239 passengers—was no ferry. She was in fact a full-fledged luxury liner. Just five years old, she and her sister ship, the SS Washington, were the first large North Atlantic liners to be built in America since 1905 and the largest that Americans had ever built.
Lying at berth on the Hudson that morning, the Manhattan was about as all-American a sight as one could imagine, her red hull and gleaming white superstructure topped by twin funnels, each swept jauntily back and painted with red, white, and blue horizontal stripes. As the athletes piled gleefully on board, each was given a small American flag, and soon the rails were crowded with bright-faced young people waving the flags and calling out to family and well-wishers gathered on the dock below.
The boys found their quarters down in tourist class and stowed their gear. They met and shook hands with the other oarsmen who would represent the United States in Berlin: Dan Barrow, a single sculler from the Pennsylvania Athletic Club; two pairs, one with and one without a coxswain, also from the Pennsylvania Athletic Club; a double sculls crew from the Undine Barge Club in Philadelphia; and two four-oared crews, one made up of Harvard boys from the Riverside Boat Club in Massachusetts, with a coxswain, and one from the West Side Rowing Club in Buffalo, New York, without a coxswain.
Then, with the formalities over, they joined the flag wavers up on deck. As the noon sailing time approached, more than ten thousand spectators crowded onto Pier 60. Blimps and airplanes circled overhead. Newsreel photographers shot a few more feet of film on deck and then scampered off the ship to set up their cameras for shots of it leaving. Black smoke began to billow out of the red, white, and blue funnels. Nautical pennants fluttered from rigging on the fore and after masts in a light, hot breeze.
Just before noon the athletes assembled on the sundeck, gathering around Avery Brundage and other AOC officials as they unfurled an enormous white flag with the five interlocking Olympic rings and began to raise it on the after mast. The crowd on the dock, doffing their hats and waving them over their heads, began a thunderous chant: “Ray! Ray! Ray! For the USA!” A band struck up a martial tune, the lines were cast off, and the Manhattan began to back slowly out into the Hudson.
Joe and the other boys rushed back to the rails, waving their flags now, unabashedly taking up the chant: “Ray! Ray! Ray! For the USA!” On the dock people shouted, “Bon voyage!” The whistles on tugs and ferries and nearby ships began to shriek. Out on the river, fireboats let loose with their sirens and shot white plumes of water high into the air. The planes overhead tipped to one side and circled in tight loops as photographers snapped aerial views.
Tugs pushed the bow of the Manhattan until she pointed down the river, and the ship began to power majestically down the west side of Manhattan. As she made her way past the Battery, Joe felt the first cooling breeze in days. When she passed Ellis Island and then the Statue of Liberty, he, like everyone, dashed to the starboard rail to watch her pass. He stayed on deck as the ship made her way through the narrows, with Staten Island on one side and Brooklyn on the other, and then progressed through the lower bay and out finally into the Atlantic, where she began to roll slightly as she made a long, slow, sweeping turn to port.
Still Joe stayed on deck, leaning on the rail, enjoying the cool air, watching Long Island pass by, trying to absorb everything, to remember everything, so he could tell Joyce all about it when he returned home. It was only hours later, when the sun had begun to decline in the west and Joe had finally grown downright chilly on deck, that he retreated into the bowels of the ship, starting to get his sea legs, looking for the rest of the boys and food.
As the Manhattan sailed northeast that night and darkness enveloped her, she was ablaze with lights and loud with music, alive with the laughter of young people at play, having the time of their lives, venturing out onto the black void of the North Atlantic, on their way to Hitler’s Germany.
The SS Manhattan