Chapter 16 - Touching the Divine 1936 - The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown

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

Chapter 16

Good thoughts have much to do with good rowing. It isn’t enough for the muscles of a crew to work in unison; their hearts and minds must also be as one.

—George Yeoman Pocock

As Joe drifted into sleep aboard the Manhattan, the first light of dawn crept over Berlin, revealing small groups of men, women, and children being marched through the streets at gunpoint. The arrests had begun hours earlier, under the veil of night, when police and SA storm troopers broke into the shanties and wagons that were home to Roma and Sinti families—Gypsies—and rousted them from their beds. Now they were on their way to a sewage-disposal site in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn, where they would be kept in a detention camp, well away from the eyes of foreigners arriving in Berlin for the Olympics. In time they would be sent east to death camps and murdered.

Their removal was just one more step in a process that had been unfolding for months as the Nazis transformed Berlin into something resembling a vast movie set—a place where illusion could be perfected, where the unreal could be made to seem real and the real could be hidden away. Already the signs prohibiting Jews from entering public facilities had been taken down and stored for later use. The fiercely anti-Semitic Der Stürmer newspaper—with its grotesque caricatures of Jews and its slogan, “The Jews Are Our Misfortune”—had been temporarily removed from newsstands. In Der Angriff, his principal propaganda publication, Joseph Goebbels had handed Berliners the script for their part in the performance, detailing how they should conduct themselves toward Jews and how they should welcome the foreigners when they arrived: “We must be more charming than the Parisians, more easygoing than the Viennese, more vivacious than the Romans, more cosmopolitan than London, more practical than New York.”

When the foreigners arrived, all would be pleasant. Berlin would become a sort of benign amusement park for adults. Strict controls would limit what visitors could be charged for everything—from rooms at luxury hotels like the Adlon to the bratwurst sold by street vendors all over town. To improve the scenery, not only the Gypsies but more than fourteen hundred homeless people had been collected and removed from the streets. Hundreds of prostitutes had been seized, forcibly examined for venereal disease, and then turned loose to ply their trade for the carnal satisfaction of the visitors.

Visiting journalists, who would convey their impressions of the new Germany to the rest of the world, would be given special accommodations, the finest equipment, the best vantage points for viewing the games, free secretarial services. There was one contingency, though, that would have to be handled delicately, should it arise. If foreign journalists attempted to interview German Jews or investigate “the Jewish question,” they were to be politely directed to the nearest gestapo office, so that they could be questioned as to their intentions, and then trailed secretly.

Along the railroad tracks on which the visitors would travel into Berlin, grimy buildings had been whitewashed, vacant apartment buildings had been rented out inexpensively, and identical window boxes full of red geraniums had been placed beneath windowsills of even the apartments that remained vacant. Virtually every home along the tracks now displayed the red, white, and black swastika flag. Many also flew the white Olympic flag. A few—mostly Jewish homes—flew only the Olympic banner. Thousands more swastika flags hung in railroad stations. Indeed all of Berlin was draped with swastikas. Along the central promenade on Unter den Linden, Berlin’s wide central boulevard, the hundreds of linden trees that had given the street its name had been replaced with regimented colonnades of flagpoles bearing enormous forty-five-foot red banners with swastikas. Equally tall banners hung from the Brandenburg Gate. At Adolf-Hitler-Platz, concentric rings of tall masts flying Olympic flags surrounded a central tower, sixty-two feet high, draped with twenty swastika flags, forming a dramatic, blood-red cylinder in the middle of the grassy square. On the pleasant, shady streets leading to the rowing course out in Grünau, strands of smaller flags with swastikas were strung from tree to tree.

The streets had been swept and reswept. Shop windows polished. Trains freshly painted. Broken windows replaced. Dozens of new courtesy Mercedes limousines had been parked in neat rows outside the Olympic Stadium, awaiting VIPs. Nearly everyone from taxi drivers to sanitation workers had been outfitted in some kind of smart new uniform. Foreign books, banned books, books that had escaped the bonfires of 1933, suddenly reappeared in bookshop windows.


Berlin decked out for the Olympics

With the set fully decorated, Leni Riefenstahl was busily at work mobilizing dozens of cameramen and sound technicians, putting scores of cameras in place. In the Olympic Stadium, out at the Reichssportfeld, she set up thirty cameras for the opening ceremony alone. She dug pits for low-angle shots and erected steel towers for high-angle shots. She constructed rails on which camera dollies could run alongside the red-clay track. She immersed cameras in waterproof housings in the Olympic swimming and diving pools. She attached cameras to saddles for equestrian events and floated them on pontoon boats for swimming events. In central Berlin she set cameras on strategic buildings, mounted them on the tops of trucks, suspended them from blimps, and dug more pits—all to capture ground-level footage of the marathon runners and the torch-relay runners as they made their way through the city. Out at the rowing course at Grünau, she constructed a jetty in the Langer See, running parallel to the racecourse, and installed rails along which a dolly with a camera could follow the shells for the final hundred meters of the races. She borrowed an antiaircraft balloon from the Luftwaffe and tethered it near the finish so a cameraman could dangle from it for aerial shots.

Everywhere she set up cameras, Riefenstahl made sure she had the most flattering angles, generally cast upward, for filming the ultimate stars of the show, Adolf Hitler and his entourage. Then, with the cameras mostly in place, she and all of Berlin waited for the rest of the cast to arrive.

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Don Hume and Roger Morris lay retching in their berths aboard the Manhattan that morning. Al Ulbrickson felt fine, but he was worried about Hume and Morris, laid low by seasickness. They were already the two lightest oarsmen in the boat, and he had planned to make sure they put on some weight during the voyage.

Joe Rantz woke up feeling great. He made his way up to the promenade deck, where he found a riot of athleticism unfolding. Lithe gymnasts twirled on parallel bars and uneven bars and took long running leaps at pommel horses, trying to time their precise movements to coincide with the slow roll of the ship. Stout weight lifters hoisted enormous hunks of iron over their heads, quivering and swaying slightly beneath their loads. Boxers sparred in a makeshift ring, dancing to keep their feet under them. Fencers lunged. Sprinters jogged by, running slow laps, taking care not to turn an ankle. In the ship’s small saltwater swimming pool, coaches had tied rubber ropes to their swimmers, keeping them in place as they swam, and making sure they didn’t get sloshed onto the deck when particularly large waves rolled the boat. Rifle shots cracked from the stern as decathletes fired their weapons out over the empty ocean.

When the gong sounded for men’s breakfast, Joe went to his assigned table and was disappointed to find that athletes were permitted to order only from a special restricted menu, designed, apparently, to feed canaries or coxswains. He ate everything he could order and tried to order seconds but was denied. He left the room nearly as hungry as he had entered it. He resolved to talk to Ulbrickson about it.


On the boat to Berlin

Meanwhile he had a look around. Belowdecks he found a gymnasium full of exercise apparatus, a children’s playroom, barbershops, a manicure shop, and a beauty salon. He discovered a comfortable lounge in tourist class, complete with a screen for what were then still often called “talking pictures.” All of it seemed pretty swell to Joe. But when he ventured up on the first-class decks he found another world entirely.

The cabins there, paneled in exotic woods, were spacious, with built-in vanities, plush upholstered furniture, Persian rugs, bedside telephones, and private bathrooms with hot and cold freshwater showers. Joe wandered quietly on plush carpeting through a maze of corridors, leading to a full cocktail bar, then a cigar shop, then a writing room, and then a library with oak paneling and heavy beams. He found a smoking lounge with a wood-burning fireplace that stretched the width of the room and murals and carvings meant to suggest that the smoker had entered an Aztec temple. He found the Veranda Café, its walls painted with Venetian scenes and featuring a large elliptical dance floor. He found the Chinese Palm Court, complete with not only live palm trees but high white-plastered rococo ceilings, marble columns, delicate hand-painted Asian wall murals, and Chippendale furniture. He found the first-class dining room, with its own orchestra balcony, cove lighting behind recessed windows to create the illusion of perpetual daylight, and round dining tables, each draped with an elegant tablecloth and carrying its own Louis Seize-style brass lamp, all arranged under a domed ceiling painted with murals of mythological scenes like the feast of the Bacchanalia. And finally he found the Grand Salon, featuring its own theatrical stage and talking-picture screen, with more Persian rugs, formal divans and armchairs, fluted walnut pilasters, hand-carved molding, wide windows hung with velvet curtains, and another high, domed rococo plaster ceiling.

Joe tried to look inconspicuous, or as inconspicuous as a six-foot-three boy could look. He wasn’t, technically speaking, supposed to be wandering around in such places. The athletes were expected to remain in the tourist-class areas, except when exercising on the promenade deck during daylight hours. This was intended to be the province of the sort of people Joe had seen on the golf course at Princeton or on the manicured lawns of estates he had glimpsed up the Hudson. But Joe lingered, mesmerized by his peek at how the other half still lived.

When he returned to his cabin, he found something waiting for him that made him feel pretty classy himself. In New York the boys had been measured for their Olympic outfits, and now Joe found a double-breasted blue serge sports coat and matching blue slacks spread out on his bunk. The coat had the U.S. Olympic shield emblazoned on the breast and bright brass buttons, each with a miniature shield. There was a pair of white flannel slacks; a white straw boater with a blue hatband; a crisp white dress shirt; white socks with red, white, and blue edging; white leather shoes; and a blue-striped necktie. There was a blue sweat suit, with “USA” printed boldly across the chest. And there was a rowing uniform—white shorts and an elegant white jersey with a U.S. Olympic shield on the left breast and red, white, and blue ribbons stitched around the neck and down the front. For a boy who had worn the same rumpled sweater to rowing practice for a year, this was an astonishing collection of sartorial treasure.

The fabric of the jersey was smooth, almost like silk, and it shimmered in the afternoon light streaming in through his porthole when he held it up for a better look. He had never yet been beaten, had never been obliged to surrender a jersey to a rival oarsman. He had no intention of letting this jersey be the first. He was taking this one home.

✵ ✵ ✵

Over the next few days, Don Hume and Roger Morris slowly recovered from their seasickness, and the boys began to roam the boat together. They found a rowing machine on deck and tried it out, posing on it for news photographers. Al Ulbrickson posed with them, but when the photographers were done he quickly chased the boys off the apparatus, saying, as he often did, that the only proper way to develop rowing muscles was by rowing in a real shell. As they wandered away, Roger Morris gave him a grin over his shoulder and said, “Heck, if you want us to row in a shell just lower the Clipper over the side and we’ll row the rest of the way over.”

When Ulbrickson wasn’t watching, they ran laps around the deck, worked out in the gym, played shuffleboard and Ping-Pong with other athletes, and got on a first-name basis with a few who already were or would soon be household names, among them Ralph Metcalfe, Jesse Owens, and Glenn Cunningham. Johnny White went prowling for girls and returned unhappy with the prospects. And, except for Don Hume, all of them began to put on weight.

Al Ulbrickson had talked to someone in the galley and someone on the AOC, making the case that a menu suitable for a thirteen-year-old gymnast might not be appropriate for a six-four oarsman, explaining that a boatload of skeletons was not likely to win any medals. The strict menu restrictions had promptly been lifted, and the boys began more or less living in the tourist-class dining salon. Free now to order anything from the menu as often as they wanted, except for sugary desserts or items excessively high in fat, they did just that, eating helping after helping of the main courses, just as they had on the train to Poughkeepsie. They were the first of the athletes to sit down and the last to get up. And no one—with the possible exception of Louis Zamperini, the long-distance runner from Torrance, California—out-ate Joe Rantz. Stub McMillin gave it a try, though. One morning he sneaked into the dining salon ahead of the rest of the crew. He ordered two stacks of hotcakes, slathered them with butter, drowned them with syrup, and was just about to dig in when Al Ulbrickson entered the room. Ulbrickson sat down, cocked an eye at the plate, slid it to his side of the table, and said, “Thanks a million, Jim, for fixing those for me,” and slowly devoured both stacks as McMillin glowered at him over a plate of dry toast.

After dinner each evening, there were more formal entertainments—a variety show, an amateur hour, mock trials and mock weddings, bingo games, checkers and chess tournaments, and a casino night during which the athletes wagered stage money. There were raucous sing-alongs and a captain’s ball, for which everyone was given balloons and noisemakers and party hats. There was a formal debate on the always contentious proposition that “the East is a better place to live than the West.” Talking pictures were shown in the tourist lounge for the athletes and in the Grand Salon for first-class passengers. The Washington boys didn’t think much of the class business, though, and they flouted it. They soon discovered that when five or six big oarsmen sat down in the Grand Salon, and they just happened to be Olympic athletes representing the United States of America, there wasn’t much anybody was going to do about it. So they took to visiting the upper decks for their movie viewing, stopping each evening on their way into the Grand Salon to swipe one of the large platters of hors d’oeuvres and then passing it around as they watched the show.

✵ ✵ ✵

It soon became clear that there were limits beyond which one could not transgress on the Manhattan. Eleanor Holm was twenty-two years old, beautiful, married, and a minor celebrity, having performed bit parts in several Warner Brothers movies. She was somewhat notorious for having sung “I’m an Old Cowhand” in a cabaret while wearing only a white cowboy hat, a white swimsuit, and high heels. She was also a very good swimmer and had won a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Now she was widely favored to win the hundred-meter backstroke in Berlin. On the second day out of New York, a group of journalists invited her up to the first-class decks for what turned out to be an all-night party, during which she drank a good deal of champagne, ate caviar, and entranced many of the writers, among them William Randolph Hearst Jr. By six o’clock the next morning, she was dead drunk and had to be carried back to her cabin in tourist class. When she came to, she was summoned into the presence of Avery Brundage, who read her the riot act and told her he would throw her off the team if she continued drinking. She did. Several nights later she again attended a party held by the hard-drinking news writers. This time the swim team’s chaperone, Ada Sackett, caught her in the act.

In the morning Sackett and the ship’s surgeon awoke a badly hungover Holm in her cabin. The surgeon took one look at her and pronounced her an alcoholic. Dee Boeckmann, coach of the women’s team, then marched a number of Holm’s teammates through the cabin, pointed at the pale, disheveled, and retching Holm, and expounded on the diabolical effects of alcohol. Later that day, Avery Brundage expelled Holm from the U.S. Olympic team.

Holm was devastated, and many of her fellow athletes were outraged. Some felt that Holm had been deliberately set up by the journalists in order to manufacture a story. Others felt that she had been dropped not so much for drinking as for defying Brundage. Although the athlete’s handbook prohibited drinking, Brundage had convened a meeting of the entire U.S. team on the first day out of New York and told them that the matter of “eating, smoking, and drinking” was one of individual judgment. And indeed Brundage later wrote that Holm had been removed partly for “insubordination.” More than two hundred of Holm’s fellow athletes signed a petition asking that she be reinstated. All of them knew that in fact alcohol was widely available and widely used belowdecks. In fact even as Holm and the writers were partying up in first class, Chuck Day and some of his mates were holding their own all-nighters down in tourist class, merrily mixing milk, Ovaltine, and alcohol. But discipline was sacrosanct for Brundage.

The Eleanor Holm story, as at least some of the journalists had calculated, made headlines for days back in the United States, and in the long run it did wonders for her career. In the wake of Prohibition, many Americans were sick and tired of hearing about the dangers of Demon Rum, and the press coverage was largely sympathetic to Holm. Alan Gould of the Associated Press promptly hired her to cover the Berlin Olympics as a reporter, though in fact her pieces would be ghostwritten. Within a few years, she would land roles in major feature films and appear on the cover of Time magazine. The story made headlines in Europe as well, and it caught the eye of Joseph Goebbels, who found himself decidedly in accord with Brundage’s thinking. “It wasn’t herself who mattered. It was the others—and discipline. For that, no sacrifice is too great, no matter how many tears are shed,” proclaimed a statement from the Ministry of Propaganda.

✵ ✵ ✵

By the night of July 21, the boys could see the glimmer of lighthouses on the southwest coast of Ireland. At three the next morning, the Manhattan put into the small port of Cobh. From there she proceeded around the Cornish coast to Plymouth and then across the channel to Le Havre, where she arrived early on the morning of July 22. The boys were not allowed off the ship, but they spent much of the day at the railings on deck, watching French longshoremen load and unload cargo. This was the first good look at Europe any of them had ever had, and they were intrigued by simple details—the crumbling old buildings, Frenchwomen on bicycles carrying loaves of bread as long as their arms, boys in jaunty berets, men at work on the docks stopping periodically to drink some wine, in no apparent hurry to complete their tasks.


The U.S. Olympic team arrives in Berlin

That night they sailed up the channel with the lights of Calais blazing brightly to the east. By dinnertime on July 23, they were finally in Germany. At Cuxhaven a motor launch flying Nazi flags pulled alongside the ship to take off German news writers and photographers who had boarded at Le Havre. The Manhattan started up the Elbe River toward Hamburg just at dusk. The boys crowded onto the deck along with everyone else. They were edgy, anxious to get off the boat. Except for Don Hume, who seemed to again be fighting some kind of cold, they had put on five or six pounds each. They were starting to feel flabby, decidedly unathletic. They wanted to stretch their legs and arms and climb into a racing shell. They wanted to get a look at this Nazi state.

What they saw surprised them. Years later nearly all of them remembered the voyage up the Elbe that night as one of the highlights of the trip. The Manhattan’s crew had trained floodlights on the enormous white Olympic flag flying from the after mast, on the American flag on the foremast, and on the ship’s red, white, and blue funnels. As the ship made its way up the river, throngs of Germans rushed to docks and quays along the way to watch her pass. They waved, they shouted bits of broken English, and they cheered. The boys waved back and gave Indian whoops. The big liner passed smaller ships and pleasure craft flying swastikas from their sterns. Almost every boat they passed blinked its lights on and off or sounded its whistle or horn in greeting. They made their way past beer gardens illuminated by bright strings of electric lights, full of people singing gaily, dancing polkas, and hoisting steins of beer in their direction. Up on the sundeck, the first-class passengers drank champagne and sang as well. Everyone was starting to feel pretty good about being in Germany.

✵ ✵ ✵

The next morning, in Hamburg, the boys awoke at five and struggled to unload the Husky Clipper from the Manhattan in a hard, driving rain. Dressed in their formal Olympic uniforms, they maneuvered the shell from one deck down to the next, trying to stay clear of lifeboat davits and guylines. George Pocock and Al Ulbrickson looked on anxiously. Eager German longshoremen tried to help, but Pocock chased them off, employing nearly the full extent of his German vocabulary, shouting, “Nein! No thanks! Danke!” afraid the longshoremen would put a hand or foot through the delicate skin of the shell. When they finally got the shell onto the dock, the boys trooped back onto the Manhattan, their serge coats soggy and their straw hats starting to droop, and waited for the formal disembarking.

When they marched back off the ship with the rest of the U.S. Olympic team an hour later, they made their way through a shed full of barrels and shipping crates into a high-ceilinged reception hall where hundreds of cheering Germans and an oompah band playing Sousa marches greeted them. They waved and smiled and climbed aboard buses and were driven through narrow streets to Hamburg’s Rathaus, its old city hall. There the city’s Bürgermeister, a staunch Nazi by the name of Carl Vincent Krogmann, delivered a long welcoming oration in German. Not understanding a word of it, the boys, as Shorty Hunt put it, “just sat and took it.” They perked up, though, when city officials began passing out free cigars, wine, beer, and orange juice.

By noon they were on a train to Berlin. When they arrived in the city’s palatial old Lehrter Station, just north of the Tiergarten, that afternoon, they were stunned by the reception that greeted them. As they clambered down from the train and formed columns with their teammates, another brass band struck up another Sousa march. Avery Brundage and Duke Adolf Friedrich Albrecht Heinrich of Mecklenburg exchanged kisses on the cheeks. Then the American athletes marched down the platform, past a looming black locomotive with swastikas emblazoned on its sides. They entered another reception area, where thousands of Germans had packed the station to get a glimpse of them. Shorty Hunt was immediately taken aback at the scene: “It made you feel very much like a freak in a sideshow—pointing at you with their mouths open and saying something about zwei meter, meaning, of course, that we were two meters tall—over six feet.” Statuesque young men dressed in white led them through the crowd and onto open-top, mud-colored military buses flying American flags.

The bus procession made its way past the Reichstag building, through the Brandenburg Gate, and then eastward down the flag-draped Unter den Linden. Here tens of thousands of Germans—perhaps as many as a hundred thousand by some estimates—lined the route, cheering and waving Olympic, Nazi, and occasionally American flags, shouting greetings in German and English. With the roof of their bus rolled back, the Washington boys stood waist-high above the top, more or less gaping in astonishment but waving back enthusiastically as they began to absorb just how friendly the Berliners seemed to be. At the redbrick city hall, the Rotes Rathaus, Avery Brundage accepted the keys to the city and made a brief speech. After the long battle over the boycott issue, Brundage was clearly thrilled to be here. Basking in the applause of his German hosts, he exulted: “No nation since ancient Greece has captured the true Olympic spirit as has Germany.”

As Brundage spoke, Joe and his crewmates warily eyed the large number of sober German dignitaries lined up behind him. The boys were exhausted. They’d begun the day at five that morning on the Manhattan. They didn’t really want to hear any more speeches they couldn’t understand. Mercifully, when Brundage stopped speaking the athletes were ushered back outside, where a light rain was falling and the crowds had begun to disperse. Most of the athletes boarded buses heading west to the new Olympic village in Charlottenburg, but the American oarsmen climbed onto two buses bound for the little village of Köpenick southwest of Berlin.

That same day, back in the States, a New Yorker named Richard Wingate sat down and penned what would turn out to be a prophetic letter to the sports editor of the New York Times. “Mr. Brundage,” he began, “has reached his destination, the Utopia of sportsmanship and good-will, where Nazi beer and Jewish blood flow freely—where Hitler-made robots torment and persecute the living dead… . For two months the dead will be buried. But with the conclusion of the Olympics in September, their graves will be desecrated … and dead men once more will walk the streets of Germany.”

✵ ✵ ✵

Later that afternoon, the boys arrived at what would be their home for the next several weeks, a police cadet training academy in Köpenick, just a few miles down the Langer See from the Olympic rowing course at Grünau. The building—all glass, steel, and concrete—was brand-new and so modern in design that to latter-day eyes it would look as if it had been built in the 1970s or 1980s rather than the 1930s. Most of the police cadets who ordinarily inhabited it had been moved out to make room for the American rowers as well as oarsmen from several other nations. The only thing the cadets had left behind was a stable full of police horses on the ground floor. As the boys explored the building, they found it to be squeaky-clean, well lit, and efficient but perpetually cold and equipped only with cold-water showers—an unwelcome reminder of their old shell house in Poughkeepsie.

After visiting the dining room, where caterers from the North German Lloyd company served up hearty helpings of American-style food, most of the boys stretched out on their bunks to read or write letters home. Joe decided to take a walk and see where he was. He quickly felt as if he had wandered into a German fairy tale. To Joe, Köpenick felt medieval, though in fact much of what he saw was eighteenth century in origin. On narrow cobblestone streets, he walked past bakeries and cheese shops and butcher shops, each with a hand-carved or painted sign hanging outside and proclaiming its function in Gothic script: Bäckerei, Käserei, Fleischerei. He passed the town’s Rathaus with its tall clock tower, slender side towers, and Gothic arches. Music and laughter and the sweet smell of German beer poured from the rathskeller in the building’s basement. He passed a quaint old synagogue on Freiheit street, a bright Star of David rising above its peaked roof. At the southern end of town, he crossed a bridge over a moat and came to a castle built by a Prussian prince in 1690. Behind the castle he found formal gardens. There he sat down on a bench and looked down the length of the Langer See, toward the regatta course at Grünau where his Olympic hopes would be realized or crushed in a little more than two weeks. The sun had all but set, the skies had cleared, and the lake spread out before him like a polished stone, glowing in the last reflected light of day. It was, he thought, one of the most peaceful things he had ever seen.

He had no way of knowing about the bloody secret that Köpenick and its placid waters concealed.

✵ ✵ ✵

The next morning, the boys awoke early, eager to get out on the water. After breakfast a gray German army bus transported them three miles down the Langer See to the regatta course at Grünau, where they discovered that they were to share a fine new brick and stucco shell house with the German national rowing team. Over the entrance, an American flag and a Nazi flag faced each other. The German oarsmen were courteous but hardly gushing with enthusiasm to see them. George Pocock found them to be a bit arrogant. Products of Berlin’s Viking Rowing Club, where they rowed as the Glider crew, they seemed, on average, to be a bit older than the Washington boys. They had excellent equipment. They were also exceptionally fit and disciplined, almost military in their bearing. Unlike every other German crew at Grünau that summer, they had not been individually selected by the Nazi state. Instead they had emerged as the German national team through their obvious prowess as a unit. George Pocock and Al Ulbrickson strongly suspected, though, that the Nazi government had heavily subsidized their extensive training.

As the boys prepared to take the Husky Clipper out on the Langer See for the first time, a photographer who had crawled under her to take a shot stood up too abruptly and hit his head on the shell, ripping open a long, thin crack in her hull. She was out of commission until George Pocock could repair her. Frustrated, Al Ulbrickson turned the boys loose until Pocock could work his magic on the Clipper. The boys returned to the police academy, stole lumps of sugar from the kitchen to feed the police horses in the stables, quickly grew bored, and then wandered around Köpenick in the rain, drawing crowds of curious villagers wherever they went.

When Pocock had repaired the shell, and the boys took to the water again, the results were spectacularly disappointing. Their timing was all off, their pulls weak and inefficient. The Canadian and Australian crews, practicing sprints, blew past them with smirks on their faces. “We went lousy,” Johnny White wrote in his journal that night. Al Ulbrickson agreed. Since he had first put them together in a boat in March, he had never seen them row so badly. There was a lot of work to do, and for most of them there was a lot of weight to burn off. To make matters worse, almost all of them had colds to some extent, and Don Hume’s seemed to be settling into his chest, becoming something more worrisome than a case of the sniffles. It didn’t help that a steady rain driven by a chilling wind continued to blow across the Langer See almost continuously, and that the police barracks soon proved cold and drafty.

Over the next few days, the boys fell into a routine: rowing badly in the morning and then heading into Berlin to play in the afternoon. Their Olympic passports gave them free access to nearly everything in the city. They went to a vaudeville stage show, visited the tomb of an unknown soldier from the Great War, and took in a light opera. They went to the Reichssportfeld and came away impressed by the immensity and modernity of the stadium. They rode the S-Bahn into the center of the city, where everyone except Joe, who could not afford the twenty-two-dollar price tag, bought or ordered a Kodak Retina camera. They made their way up and down Unter den Linden, where the sidewalks were jammed with foreign visitors and provincial Germans, more than a million of whom had poured into the city in recent days. They bought bratwurst from street vendors, flirted with German girls, and gawked at black-shirted SS officers rushing by in sleek Mercedes limousines. Over and over again, ordinary Germans greeted them by extending their right hands palms down and shouting, “Heil Hitler!” The boys took to responding by extending their own hands and shouting, “Heil Roosevelt!” The Germans, for the most part, pretended not to notice.

In the evenings they returned to Köpenick, where the town fathers seemed bent on providing nightly entertainment whether the athletes wanted it or not. One night it was an exhibition of trained police dogs at the castle. Another night it was a concert. “It was a lousy orchestra. All out of tune,” Roger Morris grumbled in his journal. Johnny White concurred, employing what was rapidly becoming his favorite term of displeasure: “It was foul.” Wherever they went, townspeople surrounded them, asking for autographs as if they were movie stars. At first it was amusing, but it soon grew tiresome. Finally the boys took to renting boats in the evenings and rowing around the castle in the rain, keeping company with the white swans that plied the same waters, just to get some peace and quiet.

They weren’t entirely averse to attention, though. On July 27 they amused themselves by wearing their Indian headbands and feathers from Huckleberry Island to practice in Grünau. The result was what Johnny White called “a small riot,” as German fans crowded around them trying to get a glimpse of what they half believed to be members of some pale northwestern tribe. It was mostly for fun, but also an effort to improve slumping morale in the shell house.

The boat still wasn’t going as well as it should, and though most of the boys were recovering from their colds, Gordy Adam and Don Hume were still sick. By July 29, Hume was too ill to row. Too ill, in fact, to get out of bed. Ulbrickson put Don Coy, one of two substitute oarsmen who had made the trip, in at the critical stroke position. But the boys were as unfamiliar with Coy’s stroke as he was with rowing at that position. The boat just didn’t feel right.


Left to right: Joe Rantz, Stub McMillin, Bobby Moch, Chuck Day, Shorty Hunt

Al Ulbrickson was starting to get concerned. As crews from other nations arrived at Grünau, he and George Pocock were spending a lot of time down by the water, quietly studying the competition. After seeing just how well-disciplined the Germans were, he was beginning to take them very seriously. The Italians—four of them veterans of the crew from Livorno that had come within two-tenths of a second of beating California at the 1932 Olympics—also looked like a threat. They were big, tough, working-class young men, considerably older than his boys. Their average age was twenty-eight, and some of them were in their midthirties, but they looked to be in terrific condition. They rowed with tremendous heart, though with a tendency to throw their heads dramatically back and forth with each stroke. Ulbrickson figured they, like the German boys, had likely been subsidized by the fascist government that had sent them to the games. He wasn’t seriously concerned about the Japanese crew, from Tokyo Imperial University. They rowed in a much smaller shell, just fifty-two feet long, with short oars and small blades, all designed to accommodate their smaller bodies. They averaged just 145 pounds per oarsman. But they had startled everyone at Grünau their first day out when they suddenly demonstrated the one advantage of their smaller sweeps, raising their beat from twenty-seven to an absurd fifty-six in just fifteen seconds, suddenly flogging the water white and accelerating so rapidly that they looked, as Ulbrickson put it, “like ducks trying to rise off the water.” The Australian crew was entirely made up of big, beefy policemen from New South Wales, and although their technique didn’t look like much, they had fire in their somewhat ample bellies as well as a good dose of Australian attitude, particularly in regard to the British crew.

Earlier in the month, the Australians had arrived in England to row in the most prestigious and tradition-bound of all crew races, the Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta. At Henley they had been politely but firmly informed that the rules of the regatta, in place since 1879, prohibited the participation of anyone “who is or has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan, or labourer.” Policemen, it seemed, were deemed to be “labourers.” They could not, regrettably, row in the regatta. Men who worked for their livings, it was felt, would have an unfair advantage over young men of “sedentary occupations.” Enraged, the Aussies had left Britain and headed for Berlin, where they were determined, against all odds, to defeat what they called “the damned limeys.”

But above all, the British were, in the eyes of many—including Al Ulbrickson and George Pocock—the boat to beat in Berlin. Rowing was, after all, a quintessentially British sport, and the 1936 British Olympic eight-man crew hailed from the venerable old Leander Club. Its oarsmen and its coxswain were the best of the British best, carefully selected from the ranks of many fine oarsmen at Oxford and Cambridge, where the boys wore tweed suits and ties to class, where they sometimes sported silk ascots around their boathouses, where they were apt to climb into their shells wearing white shorts, dark knee-high socks, and neck scarves, but where they rowed nevertheless as if they had been born for it.

Ulbrickson could hardly wait to get a good look at them up close. Neither could the Aussies.

✵ ✵ ✵

By midafternoon on August 1, Joe and the rest of the American Olympic team had been standing in neatly ordered ranks for more than two hours on the vast green expanse of the Maifeld at the Reichssportfeld. They were awaiting the arrival of Adolf Hitler and the beginning of perhaps the most spectacular public ceremony the world had yet seen—the opening of the Eleventh Olympiad. Nothing on the scale of what was planned for the day had ever been attempted, but then, as Albion Ross had written in the New York Times a few days before, no Olympics before had ever been orchestrated “by a political regime that owes its triumph to a new realization of the possibilities of propaganda, publicity, and pageantry. Staging the Olympics in the past has been in the hands of amateurs. Here the work has been done by professionals, and by the most talented, resourceful, and successful professionals in history.”

Light rain had been spattering on the boys’ straw hats on and off since their arrival, but now the clouds were beginning to burn off, and in their blue blazers, neckties, and white flannel trousers, they were, along with the rest of the American athletes, beginning to get uncomfortable. Off in the distance, the Hindenburg, trailing an Olympic flag, droned over central Berlin in a lazy loop, then turned and slowly began to approach the stadium. Young German women dressed in uniforms walked among the ranks of athletes, smiling, handing out cookies and orangeade, trying to keep everyone peppy. But the Americans were tired of standing and waiting.

While the athletes of the other nations remained more or less at attention, the Americans began to meander about, checking things out—peering down the barrels of some field artillery pieces that had been arrayed facing them point-blank, studying the monolithic stone sculptures at the entrance to the stadium, or simply stretching out on the damp grass and pulling their straw hats over their faces for a nap. Joe and his crewmates wandered through a gateway to an area under the looming bell tower and came across a detachment of Hitler’s military honor guard marching back and forth, goose-stepping across stone pavement with such gusto that granite dust flew up from under their black hobnailed boots. Even the horses, Shorty Hunt noticed, were goose-stepping.

✵ ✵ ✵

Inside the stadium, Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels were screaming at each other. Riefenstahl had been there since 6:00 a.m., rushing about, deploying some thirty cameras and sixty cameramen, setting up sound equipment, alternately hectoring and tearfully beseeching IOC officials to allow her to place equipment where she wanted, ordering international newsreel camera crews out of her way, relentlessly seeking and ruthlessly claiming the best possible positions from which to film the day’s events. Prime among these was a narrow strip of concrete on which she had affixed a camera to the railing of the platform where Nazi officials would preside over the ceremony. The platform was to be so crowded with members of the top echelons of the party that Riefenstahl had been compelled to station her cameraman outside the railing, tying him and the camera to the railing for safety’s sake. It was an awkward arrangement, but it would allow Riefenstahl to do what she was always driven to do—to capture the perfect shot, the ideal shot. In this case, it was to be a close-up shot of Adolf Hitler gazing out over the massed multitudes as they hailed him.

But earlier in the afternoon, Riefenstahl had discovered SS officers untying both her camera and her cameraman from the railing. Enraged, she demanded to know what they were doing and was informed that Goebbels had ordered them to remove the camera and cameraman. Riefenstahl, furious, screamed at the officers that Hitler himself had given her permission to locate the camera there. The SS men, taken aback, hesitated. Riefenstahl climbed over the railing, tied herself to the camera, and said she would remain there until the games began. High-ranking guests began to arrive and take their seats around the rostrum, staring at Riefenstahl, who was, by her own account, now in tears and shaking with anger as she clung tenaciously to the edge of the balcony.

Goebbels himself arrived. “Have you gone mad?” he screamed when he saw Riefenstahl. “You can’t stay here. You’re destroying the whole ceremonial tableau. Get yourself and your cameras out of here immediately!”

Riefenstahl hissed back at him, “I asked the Führer for permission way ahead of time—and I received it.”

“Why didn’t you build a tower next to the rostrum?” Goebbels bellowed.

“They wouldn’t let me!” Riefenstahl hurled back at him.

Goebbels was now “incandescent with rage,” as Riefenstahl later put it. But she was not about to relinquish the spot. Nothing, not even the enormously powerful minister of propaganda, was going to stand between her and her vision for this film.

At this juncture, the imposing figure of Hermann Göring strode onto the platform, outfitted in a spectacular white military uniform. Seeing Göring, Goebbels began to scream at Riefenstahl even more loudly. But Göring raised his hand abruptly and Goebbels fell suddenly silent. Göring turned to Riefenstahl and cooed, “C’mon, my girl. There’s room here even for my belly.” Riefenstahl climbed over the railing, and the camera remained in place.

Goebbels quietly seethed. But his battle with Riefenstahl—ultimately and ironically a battle over a shared goal, glorifying the ideals of the Nazis—raged on throughout the remainder of the games and beyond. A few days hence he would sit down and write in his diary, “I gave Riefenstahl, who is behaving indescribably, a dressing down. A hysterical woman. Simply not a man!”

✵ ✵ ✵

At 3:18 p.m., Adolf Hitler left the chancellery in central Berlin, standing upright in his Mercedes limousine, his right arm lifted in the Nazi salute. Tens of thousands of Hitler Youth, storm troopers, and helmeted military guards lined his route from the Brandenburg Gate through the Tiergarten and out to the Reichssportfeld. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary German citizens had massed along the way, leaning from windows and waving flags or standing twelve or more deep along the street, again using periscopes to get a glimpse of Hitler. Now, as his limousine passed, they extended their right arms in the Nazi salute, their faces upturned, ecstatic, screaming in pulsing waves as he rode by, “Heil! Heil! Heil!”

At the Maifeld, the boys began to hear the distant sound of crowds cheering, the noise slowly swelling and growing nearer, then loudspeakers blaring, “He is coming! He is coming!” The boys ambled back toward the rough formation of Americans. At 3:30 officials from the International Olympic Committee, draped in gold cords and wearing tall silk top hats and coats with long tails, walked out onto the Maifeld and formed a double cordon. At 3:50 Hitler arrived at the bell tower. He reviewed the honor guard as they marched past him, and then strode onto the Maifeld. For a few moments, he was a small figure in a khaki uniform and high black boots, alone in the great expanse of grass. Then he strode through the cordon of officials and began to pass the athletes, separated from them by a rope line. For the most part, the athletes held their formations, except for the Americans, a good number of whom rushed up to the ropes to get a better look at Hitler. The boys from Washington simply sat on the grass and gave him a wave as he passed.

At exactly 4:00 p.m., Hitler entered the western end of the stadium. A massive orchestra—the Berlin Philharmonic merged with the national orchestra and supplemented by half a dozen military bands—launched into Wagner’s Huldigungsmarsch, the March of Homage. As they saw Hitler descending the Marathon steps toward field level, 110,000 people rose to their feet, thrust out their right hands, and began to roar rhythmically, “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!”

Flanked now by gray-uniformed Nazi officers and trailed by the Olympic officials in silk hats, Hitler made his way along the red-clay running track, the Heils pulsating through the stadium. A five-year-old girl, Gudrun Diem, dressed in a light blue frock and wearing a flower chaplet in her hair, stepped forward, said, “Heil, mein Führer!” and presented him with a small, delicate bouquet of flowers. Hitler beamed at her, took the flowers, and then climbed the steps to his wide viewing platform, where he strode to his place of honor and gazed out over the crowd as the massed orchestra, conducted by Richard Strauss, began to play the “Deutschlandlied,” with its refrain of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” followed immediately by the Nazi Party anthem, the “Horst-Wessel-Lied.”

As the last strident strains of the latter song faded away, there was a moment of silence. Then the enormous bell out beyond the Maifeld began to toll, slowly and softly at first, then growing louder, more insistent, and more sonorous as the athletes began to parade into the stadium, led, as always, by the Greek national team. As each team passed Hitler, it dipped its flag. Most also rendered some form of salute to him. Some offered the Olympic salute, which bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Nazi salute—the right arm extended, palm down, but held off to the right side of the body rather than straight ahead as in the Nazi version. Some offered the straightforward Nazi version. Many, including the French, offered various ambiguous versions somewhere between the two. A few offered no salute at all. In response to each of them, the crowd responded by applauding enthusiastically or unenthusiastically, depending on how closely the gesture matched the Nazi salute.

Out on the Maifeld, the Americans finally mustered themselves into proper columns, straightened their ties or smoothed their skirts, adjusted their hats, and began to stroll toward the tunnel through which they were to enter the stadium. Marching was not their strong suit, certainly not compared to the Germans. But as they entered the tunnel, hearing a flurry of Heils inside the stadium, they threw back their shoulders, picked up the pace, and started to sing spontaneously, belting it out:

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here

What the deuce do we care?

What the deuce do we care?

Hail, hail, we’re full of cheer

What the heck do we care … ?

Lead by gymnast Alfred Joachim, the American flag bearer, they emerged singing from the darkness of the tunnel and marched out into the vast interior of the stadium. It was a world of sights and sounds that few of them would ever forget, even when they were old men and women. As the orchestra played a light, airy tune, they marched eight abreast out onto the track. Coming even with Hitler, they turned their heads to the right, gazed expressionless up at him on his high platform, removed their straw hats, placed them over their hearts, and walked on by as Joachim held the Stars and Stripes defiantly aloft. For the most part, the crowd applauded politely. Mixed in with the applause, though, was a spattering of whistles and the stamping of feet, the European equivalents of catcalls and boos.

But the sounds of dissent were quickly drowned out. Even as the last Americans were still passing Hitler, the first German athletes began to emerge from the tunnel, dressed in crisp white linen suits and sporting white yachting caps. Immediately, an enormous, rumbling roar went up from the crowd. Virtually all of the 110,000 spectators again leapt to their feet and raised their right arms in the Nazi salute. The orchestra shifted abruptly from the light march tune it had been playing to another swelling rendition of the “Deutschlandlied.” The crowd, frozen in place, their thousands of arms outstretched, sang along lustily. On the dais, Hitler’s eyes glistened. As the German flag bearer carried the swastika past him, he saluted and then touched his heart with his right hand, as Riefenstahl’s cameras rolled. The Americans marched awkwardly on around the track and onto the infield to the strains of the “Deutschlandlied.” George Pocock would later say that when they heard the strains of the German anthem they began to march deliberately out of step with the music.

When all the athletes were assembled in ranks on the infield, Theodor Lewald, president of the German Olympic Organizing Committee, stepped to a bank of microphones on the dais and launched into what soon turned into an interminable speech. As it went on and on, a British radio announcer broadcasting it back home struggled to keep his audience entertained: “We’ll have Herr Hitler in just a moment… . There’s the cheering. I believe Dr. Lewald has finished. No, he’s going on again.” Lewald’s voice echoed in the background as the announcer labored to fill the air, describing the uniforms of various teams, the platform on which the speakers stood, the Hindenburg circling overhead like a near moon.

Finally Lewald broke off. Hitler, who had been chatting with Leni Riefenstahl, stepped to the microphone and pronounced the games open in one brief sentence. The British announcer, caught unawares, broke back in, excited and relieved, “That was Herr Hitler! The games are open!”

The ceremony rose to a crescendo. Ranks of trumpeters on the Marathon Gate sounded a fanfare. The Olympic flag was hoisted. Richard Strauss conducted the enormous orchestra in the debut of his Olympic Hymn. The artillery outside the stadium thundered. Thousands of white pigeons suddenly rose from cages on the field, swirling through the stadium in a white whirlwind. Another fanfare sounded and a slender, blond young man dressed in white and holding aloft a torch appeared at the eastern gate of the stadium. A hush fell over the crowd as he loped gracefully down the eastern steps, around the red-clay track, and up the western steps, where he paused again, silhouetted against the sky, holding the torch high over his head. Then, with the Olympic bell tolling in the background, he turned, rose on his toes, and touched the torch to an enormous bronze cauldron on a tripod. Flames leapt from the cauldron. Finally, with the sun beginning to decline behind the Olympic flame, a choir of thousands dressed in white rose en masse and began to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. The spectators stood and joined in. The music and the voices rose and melded and surged through the vast interior of the stadium, filling it with light and love and joy.

As the athletes began to march out of the stadium that evening, nearly everyone on the field and off felt more or less stunned. Nobody had ever witnessed anything quite like what had just transpired. International journalists rushed to their Teletypes and flooded the wires, and by the next morning newspapers around the world carried rapturous headlines. The boys from Washington were impressed too. It was “the most impressive sight I have ever seen,” said Roger Morris. Johnny White said, “It gave you a grand feeling.” And that was precisely what it had been carefully crafted to do—give you a grand feeling. It had begun the process of determining the world’s opinion about the new Germany. It had hung out a sign for all to see: “Welcome to the Third Reich. We are not what they say we are.”


Ulbrickson’s final advice