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
To see a winning crew in action is to witness a perfect harmony in which everything is right… . That is the formula for endurance and success: rowing with the heart and head as well as physical strength.
—George Yeoman Pocock
The weather on the Langer See turned positively wintry in early August. A cold, cutting wind blew relentlessly down the racecourse at Grünau. The boys rowed into the wind dressed in sweat shirts, their legs slathered in goose grease. With the preliminary races less than two weeks away, they still hadn’t regained their form. The boat checked on the catches and bounced in the rough water rather than slicing efficiently through it. Their timing was off. They caught crabs. Their bodies were still not in condition. They littered their journals with self-deprecating commentary. “We went lousy,” Johnny White noted simply.
All the boys were worried, but off the water they continued to exult in the heady atmosphere that enveloped Berlin that summer, and to revel in one another’s company, meandering through the city, eating schnitzel, drinking beer, hoisting steins, and singing “Bow Down to Washington.” When the athletic director from Stanford, Jack Rice, invited them to dinner at the posh Adlon hotel, they jumped at the chance. Wearing everyday trousers and their crew sweaters with big Ws on the front, they made their way through a police cordon and into the hotel’s ornate lobby, where the scents of leather and malt whisky mingled with gales of laughter, the clinking of glasses, and the tinkling of soft, slow piano music. In the high-ceilinged dining room, a waiter in coattails led them to a table with ivory candles and a white linen tablecloth. They sat wide-eyed, gazing around the room at the other diners—international Olympic officials; well-heeled Americans and Brits; elegant German women in flowing evening gowns of silk or chiffon, sleek lamé, or satin studded with sequins. Here and there SS officers sat apart, at their own tables, chatting, laughing, drinking French wine, and attacking beefsteaks or sauerbraten with knives and forks. In their gray-and-black dress uniforms, their peaked hats adorned with silver skulls and crossbones sitting on their tables, they stood out from the rest of the crowd—neat, severe, and ominous. But no one seemed to mind their presence.
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On August 6, Al Ulbrickson grounded the boys. There would be no more trips into Berlin or anywhere else until after the games. With just six days to go now until their preliminary race, Ulbrickson wasn’t at all happy with their progress. He wasn’t happy, in fact, with any number of things. The cold, wet weather and the lack of heating in the police barracks were making it hard for Don Hume to throw off the cold—or whatever it was that was lingering in his chest. Since he’d first gotten sick at Princeton in early July, Hume had never really stopped coughing and dragging around. “Hume means everything to us. Unless he recovers quickly and regains condition we won’t have much chance,” Ulbrickson had griped to the Associated Press a week before. Hume was still at least as sick as he had been then.
And then there was the matter of the racecourse. On August 5, Ulbrickson had gotten in an argument—loud, multilingual, and largely incomprehensible to all involved—with officials from the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron and German Olympic officials. The course at Grünau was six lanes wide, but the outermost two lanes—lanes five and six—were so exposed to the prevailing winds on the Langer See that they were at times all but unrowable. Earlier that day, in fact, Ulbrickson had canceled a workout rather than have his boys risk drowning out in the far lanes. Lanes one through three, on the other hand, came in so close to the southern shore of the lake that they were almost entirely protected through much of the course. The disparity made for a very uneven playing field. If the wind was blowing on race day, whoever was assigned lanes five and six would likely start off with about a two-length handicap to overcome relative to the inside lanes. Ulbrickson wanted the two outside lanes ruled out of commission. In all previous Olympic rowing competitions, he pointed out, preliminary heats as well as finals had been limited to four boats. But after a long, heated exchange Ulbrickson lost the argument. All six lanes would be used.
Ulbrickson’s concern ratcheted up another level when he started taking a good look at the British crew. At the heart of the outfit were two Cambridge men in the rear of the boat: John Noel Duckworth, the coxswain, and William George Ranald Mundell Laurie, the stroke. Duckworth was, as someone would later say about him, “Short of stature, great of heart.” The stature part was obvious just by looking at him. The heart part he showed every time he took to the water. He would also show it a few years later in the South Pacific when, against orders, he stayed behind with wounded British soldiers as Japanese troops surrounded them. When the Japanese arrived and prepared to execute the wounded, Duckworth berated them so roundly that they beat him severely but spared his companions. They sent him to the infamous Changi POW camp in Singapore. Then they marched him and 1,679 other prisoners 220 miles through the jungle to the Songkurai No. 2 Camp in Thailand and put them to work as slave labor on the Thailand-Burma Railway. There, as they began to die of beriberi, diphtheria, smallpox, cholera, and torture, Duckworth ministered to them as chaplain even as he worked side by side with them. In the end, only 250 survived, and Duckworth was one of them.
Laurie, who went by Ran, was perhaps the best British stroke of his generation—188 pounds of power, grace, and keen intelligence. His son, Hugh, the actor, would also eventually row for Cambridge. Ran was, by all accounts, an unusually gracious young man. Together, Duckworth and Laurie had piloted Cambridge to three consecutive victories—adding on to a string of seven previous wins—over Oxford in the annual Boat Race, despite the fact that the Oxonians had recently switched from beer to milk at their training table in a desperate bid to reverse the trend. Ulbrickson figured that experience alone—racing in front of the half million to million fans who crowded the banks of the Thames for the Boat Race each year—had to give the British boys an edge in the confidence department.
What most concerned Al Ulbrickson, though, as he watched the British crew working out at Grünau, was how much they reminded him of his own boys. Not that any of them particularly resembled his boys physically—they didn’t. And it wasn’t that their rowing styles were similar. In fact the British boys still rowed with the long layback that English prep schools and universities had taught for generations. Washington, of course, used the shorter, more upright stroke that George Pocock had adapted from the Thames watermen’s style and taught Hiram Conibear twenty years earlier.
Where the British boys resembled Ulbrickson’s was in strategy. They liked to do exactly what the Washington boys did so well. They excelled at sitting back but staying close, rowing hard but slow, pressuring their opponents into raising their stroke rates too high too soon, and then, when the other crews were good and fagged out, suddenly sprinting past them, catching them unawares, unnerving them, mowing them down. Except for the cricket cap and neck scarf that Duckworth wore in the coxswain’s seat, he coxed an awful lot like Bobby Moch. And Ran Laurie handled the stroke oar an awful lot like Don Hume. It was going to be interesting to see what happened when two crews playing the same game met on the Langer See.
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As the Olympic preliminary heats approached and the gravity of what was coming settled on them, Ulbrickson’s boys began to get tense and fidgety again. Those who were keeping journals or writing letters home began to confide in them about nervousness as they had before the Olympic trials at Princeton. Chuck Day began to seek out Al Ulbrickson for confidence-building sessions. Between them, he chain-smoked Lucky Strikes and Camels, laughing off the other boys as they tried to get him to cut back.
The Americans weren’t alone in feeling edgy. Twenty-four international teams shared the same rowing and dining facilities in Grünau and Köpenick. All were composed of large, healthy, and highly competitive young men, each of whom was about to face a defining moment in his life. For the most part, the Olympic spirit prevailed among them, and many new friendships had emerged during the three weeks that they had lived and competed in Germany. The boys from Washington, in particular, fell into an easy comradeship with the all-police crew from Australia, with whom they shared not only a more or less common language but also a kind of easy, confident, and swaggering approach to life. They also hit it off well with the Swiss crew. They were “big devils,” Johnny White noted, but full of mirth and goodwill, and the boys got a kick out of riding with them in the bus between Köpenick and Grünau as the Swiss belted out full-throated yodeling songs.
But with the preliminaries approaching, nerves began to grow raw among all the crews in Grünau and Köpenick. The Aussies made no effort to conceal their contempt for the Brits. The Brits could not look at the Germans without remembering the last war and worrying about a future one. And the boys from Washington were having a hard time sleeping. Almost every night there was some kind of disturbance in the cobblestoned street below their windows. One night it was brown-shirted storm troopers singing and parading past in hobnailed boots. Another it was military night maneuvers—roaring motorcycles with sidecars, trucks with glowing green night-lights in their cabs, caissons carrying field artillery—all rattling past under the streetlamps. Then it was police cadets drilling at odd hours. Then German oarsmen singing. Then a contingent of canoeists who had finished their races, and been badly beaten, and were bent on holding a consolation party downstairs.
Exasperated, the boys decided to do something about it. Six of them were engineering students, so they took an engineer’s approach to the problem. They contrived a device whereby they could, while lying in their bunks, yank on some strings, dump buckets of water on whoever happened to be down in the street annoying them, and retrieve and conceal the buckets quickly and without getting out of their beds. They got an opportunity to put it to use that night when the Yugoslavian team decided to raise a ruckus down in the street. The boys yanked their strings and water cascaded down, not only on the Yugoslavians but also on some German police cadets who were trying to quiet them down. Drenched, outraged athletes and police cadets stormed into the building hollering. More athletes poured from their rooms and into the stairwell. Everyone was yelling in a different language. Finally the boys from Washington emerged, looking sleepy, confused, and decidedly innocent. When someone demanded to know where the water had come from, they shrugged their shoulders and pointed meekly upstairs toward the Canadians.
The next day, at lunchtime, things erupted again. It had become a tradition for different crews to sing national songs during meals. When it came time for the Yugoslavian crew to rise and sing, they launched into an odd rendition of “Yankee Doodle.” Nobody could quite tell what the point was. It wasn’t even entirely clear if they were singing in English or one of the several languages of Yugoslavia. But the American boys knew the tune, and something about the way certain lines were delivered convinced Chuck Day that the Yugoslavians had figured out the previous night’s shenanigans and now were directing a mortal insult at the United States of America. Day bolted out of his seat and plowed into the Yugoslavians, fists flying. Bobby Moch charged in right behind him, going not for the Yugoslavian coxswain but for the biggest man on the crew. Right behind Moch came the rest of the Washington boys, and behind them, just for the hell of it, the entire Australian team. The German crew rushed to the side of the Yugoslavians. Chairs flew. Insults were hurled. Chests bumped into chests. Boys shoved other boys. A few more fists flew. Everyone was yelling again, and again nobody could understand what anybody else was saying. Finally the Dutch national crew dove into the melee, separating boys, pulling them back to their tables, smoothing out their feelings in crisp, perfect, diplomatic English.
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Yet even as they fretted and fumed, something else was quietly at work among Ulbrickson’s boys. As they began to see traces of tension and nervousness in one another, they began instinctively to draw closer together. They took to huddling on the float before and after workouts, talking about what, precisely, they could do to make each row better than the one before, looking one another in the eye, speaking earnestly. Joking and horseplay fell by the wayside. They began to grow serious in a way they had never been before. Each of them knew that a defining moment in his life was nearly at hand; none wanted to waste it. And none wanted to waste it for the others.
All along Joe Rantz had figured that he was the weak link in the crew. He’d been added to the boat last, he’d often struggled to master the technical side of the sport, and he still tended to row erratically. But what Joe didn’t yet know—what he wouldn’t, in fact, fully realize until much later, when he and the other boys were becoming old men—was that every boy in the boat felt exactly the same that summer. Every one of them believed he was simply lucky to be rowing in the boat, that he didn’t really measure up to the obvious greatness of the other boys, and that he might fail the others at any moment. Every one of them was fiercely determined not to let that happen.
Slowly, in those last few days, the boys—each in his own way—centered and calmed themselves. Huddled on the dock, they draped arms over one another’s shoulders and talked through their race plan, speaking softly but with more assurance, accelerating their advance along the rough road from boyhood to manhood. They quoted Pocock to one another. Roger and Joe took walks along the shores of the Langer See, skipping stones, clearing their minds. Johnny White took some time to lie shirtless in the sun on the lawn in front of Haus West, working on a tan to complement his Pepsodent-white smile but also thinking through how he was going to row. Shorty Hunt wrote long letters home, purging his anxiety by leaving it behind on pieces of paper. And finally the boat beneath them began to come to life again. Rowing twice a day, they began to release what was latent in their bodies and to find their swing. Everything began to feel right again, so long as Don Hume was in at stroke. And Hume seemed to be key. As soon as Hume returned, the tentativeness, awkwardness, and uncertainty they had felt when Ulbrickson had taken him out evaporated. George Pocock had seen the difference at a glance. They were back. All they needed now, Pocock told them on August 10, was a little competition. The next day a British reporter watching them warned readers back home that the boys from the Leander Club might just meet their match in the American crew: “The Washington University [sic] eight is the finest eight here, and it is as perfect as a crew can be.”
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By the rules devised for the 1936 Olympic rowing regatta, each of the fourteen eight-oared crews was to have two chances to make it into the medal race on August 14. If a given crew won its preliminary race on August 12, it would proceed directly to the medal round, and have a precious day off. Each of the losing crews would have to race in a repechage, a re-rowing, on August 13 and would need to win that heat to advance to the medal race the following day. For their preliminary, the boys from Washington were assigned to race against France, Japan, Czechoslovakia, and the crew they were most concerned about, Great Britain.
View from the grandstands at Grünau
With the boat finally performing as it should, Al Ulbrickson did what he always did before big races: he backed off the training and, except for some light paddling, he told the boys to rest up for their first race. On August 11 they sat in the Grünau grandstands and watched the preliminaries in all the rowing events except their own eight-oared contest, scheduled for the following day. The entire American rowing team had arrived in Berlin with high hopes and expectations. “Rowing experts and critics were unanimous today in predicting the United States will carry off its share of the Olympic crew races,” one sportswriter had proclaimed boldly back on July 28, under a confident headline, “Experts Figure U.S. to Sweep Rowing Events.” George Pocock wasn’t so sure about that. He had examined the equipment of the other American crews and found it heavy, shoddy, old, and decrepit.
In the six events held that day, the United States finished second to last in three and dead last in the other three. To the great delight of the crowd surrounding the boys in the grandstands, Germany came in first in all six heats. “A very rotten performance,” Chuck Day wrote that night. “The rowing started today but the old USA seemed to forget to start,” Roger Morris said. “I guess it is up to us to come through,” said Johnny White.
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By August 12, the day of the eight-oar preliminaries, Don Hume had lost a worrisome 14 pounds from his normal weight, the 172 pounds he had carried in Poughkeepsie. At 158 pounds, his six-foot-two frame was down to skin and bones. His chest was still congested, and he was running a low fever on and off. But he insisted that he was ready to row. Al Ulbrickson kept him in bed in Köpenick for as long as he could. Then, late that afternoon, he rousted him out and put him on the bus, with the rest of the boys, headed for the regatta course.
Conditions were almost ideal for rowing. The skies were lightly overcast, but the temperatures were in the low seventies. Only a hint of a wind out on the Langer See ruffled the slate-gray water, and what wind there was came from the stern of the boats. The boys had been assigned to row in the first heat, at 5:15 p.m., and in lane one, the most protected lane on the course, though with such calm water it hardly mattered.
By the time the boys arrived in Grünau, festive crowds clutching binoculars and cameras had begun to line up at the ticket windows in front of the regatta course. As they made their way into the grounds, spectators with pricier tickets headed for the permanent, covered grandstand on the near side of the water; those with less expensive tickets trundled across a pontoon bridge to the massive wooden bleachers on the far side, where the national flags of the various nations entered in the rowing events fluttered along the broad back side of the structure. On the flagpole in front of Haus West, a large white Olympic flag stirred lazily.
Two thousand meters up the course, on the far side of the lake, a gangway had been constructed to the starting line, 325 feet out into the Langer See. Young men in uniforms stood ready there to grab hold of the sterns of the boats when they arrived for the start. Well behind the gangway, and oddly out of sight of the coxswains, the starter stood on a platform constructed atop the superstructure of a flat-bottomed boat. Hundreds of international reporters with notepads and cameras crowded the opposite bank; a short distance away fleets of automobiles stood ready to rush them to the finish line so they could witness both the start and the finish of each heat. A boat carrying an announcer and a shortwave-radio transmitter idled behind the line, ready to trail the shells down the course, broadcasting a stroke-by-stroke account of each heat directly to loudspeakers at the finish line, so spectators and reporters could be apprised of the progress of each boat before any of them came into view.
Waiting to go for gold
By the time Joe and the boys had limbered up and paddled to the starting line, at a little before 5:15, perhaps twenty-five thousand people had entered the regatta grounds. The boys backed the Husky Clipper up to the gangway and waited. Right next door, in lane two, Ran Laurie, Noel Duckworth, and the rest of the British crew did the same. Duckworth nodded at Bobby Moch, and Moch returned the gesture.
The race started at 5:15 exactly. The American boys got away badly again. Just as at Princeton, someone in the middle of the boat washed out on the first or second stroke. In lane four the Japanese fluttered rapidly out into the lead, whipping the water at nearly fifty strokes per minute with their short oars and short slides. Noel Duckworth and Ran Laurie took the British boat out hard but then eased up and settled into second place behind the Japanese, followed by Czechoslovakia, France, and the United States, dead last, rowing at thirty-eight.
Moch and Hume kept the rate up until they passed the Czechs at three hundred meters. Then they eased the throttle back to thirty-four. Out in front, the Japanese, still rowing like demons possessed, stretched their lead over the British to a full length. But neither Moch nor Duckworth was thinking about the Japanese. They were thinking about each other. For another seven hundred meters, the boats held their relative positions. As they approached the halfway mark, the exhausted Japanese suddenly and predictably began to fade and fall away behind the field, along with the Czechs. So did the French. That left the Americans and the Brits right where they had expected to be, alone with each other at the front of the pack as the grandstands and the boathouses began to come into view down the course. Now it was a game of cat and mouse.
Moch told Hume to edge the rate up, to see what would happen. Hume kicked it up to thirty-six. The U.S. boat crept up to within a half length of the British boat’s stern. Duckworth glanced over his shoulder. He and Laurie took the British boys up to thirty-eight. That checked the Americans’ advance. The British boat held its lead. The boys in both boats could now hear the roar of the crowd down the lake. Both coxswains could see the grandstands and the large black-and-white sign, “Ziel,” demarking the finish line up ahead, but neither was ready to make his move yet. Both were holding back. The British boys were taking long, sweeping strokes, all but lying on their backs at the end of each pull. The Americans were taking somewhat shorter strokes and spending a lot less time recovering between them.
Finally, with 250 meters to go, Moch shouted, “Now, boys. Now! Give me ten!” The boys dug hard and the American flag snapping on the foredeck of the Husky Clipper began to move past Duckworth, creeping halfway up the length of the British boat. Duckworth and Laurie went up to forty strokes per minute. For a moment, they held their position, the white blades of the U.S. shell flashing furiously alongside the crimson blades of the British. Then Bobby Moch yelped at Hume to up the rate again, and the Clipper resumed advancing.
In the British boat, Ran Laurie dug furiously at the water. He was still relatively fresh. He wanted to do more. But like many British strokes in those days, he was wielding an oar with a smaller, narrower blade than the rest of his crew—the idea being that the stroke’s job was to set the pace, not to power the boat. With the small blade, he avoided the risk of burning himself out and losing his form. But it also meant he wasn’t getting a full purchase on the water. Now he was in danger of finishing the most important race he’d rowed without having come close to exhausting himself—the last thing any oarsman wants.
Still, the British bow remained out in front of the American bow with 150 meters to go. But the American boys had found their swing and they were holding on to it. They were rowing as hard as they had ever rowed, taking huge sweeping cuts at the water, over and over again, rocking into the beat as if they were forged together, approaching forty strokes per minute. Every muscle, tendon, and ligament in their bodies was burning with pain, but they were rowing beyond pain, rowing in perfect, flawless harmony. Nothing was going to stop them. In the last twenty strokes, and particularly in the final twelve gorgeous strokes, they simply powered past the British boat, decisively and unambiguously. The twenty-five thousand international fans in the stands—a good portion of them Americans—rose and cheered them as their bow knifed across the line a full twenty feet ahead of the British shell. A moment later, Don Hume pitched forward and collapsed across his oar.
It took Moch a full minute of splashing water on Hume’s face before he was able to sit upright again and help paddle the shell over to the float. When they got there, though, the boys got sweet news. Their time, 6:00.8, was a new course record. And, sweeter yet, it was a new world and Olympic record, eclipsing California’s 1928 time of 6:03.2. When Al Ulbrickson arrived on the float, he crouched down next to the boat and, with a cryptic smile, quietly said, “Well done, boys.”
Joe had never heard his coach speak in quite that tone of voice. There seemed to be a hint of hushed respect in it. Almost deference.
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As the boys tucked into their dinners at the police academy in Köpenick that night, they were jubilant. The British would now have to row and win in a repechage the next day if they were to be one of the final six boats in the medal race. The American boys would have a day off. Al Ulbrickson, though, was anything but jubilant. He was deeply concerned. After dinner he ordered Don Hume back to his sickbed. The boy looked like death risen. Whatever he had, it was clearly more than a cold—perhaps a bronchial infection or walking pneumonia. Either way, Ulbrickson had to figure out who was going to stroke the boat when the boys raced for gold in forty-eight hours.
After lunch the next day, the boys wandered through town, joshing one another, poking into shops, taking pictures with their new cameras, buying a few souvenirs, exploring corners of Köpenick they hadn’t yet seen. Like most of the Americans in Berlin that summer, they had concluded that the new Germany was a pretty nice place. It was clean, the people were friendly almost to a fault, everything worked neatly and efficiently, and the girls were pretty. Köpenick was charmingly quaint; Grünau green, leafy, and pastoral. Both towns were about as pleasant and peaceful as anything back home in Washington.
But there was a Germany the boys could not see, a Germany that was hidden from them, either by design or by time. It wasn’t just that the signs—“Für Juden verboten,” “Juden sind hier unerwünscht”—had been removed, or that the Gypsies had been rounded up and taken away, or that the vicious Stürmer newspaper had been withdrawn from the racks in the tobacco shops in Köpenick. There were larger, darker, more enveloping secrets all around them.
They knew nothing of the tendrils of blood that had billowed in the waters of the river Spree and the Langer See in June of 1933, when SA storm troopers rounded up hundreds of Köpenick’s Jews, Social Democrats, and Catholics and tortured ninety-one of them to death—beating some until their kidneys ruptured or their skin split open, and then pouring hot tar into the wounds before dumping the mutilated bodies into the town’s tranquil waterways. They could not see the sprawling Sachsenhausen concentration camp under construction that summer just north of Berlin, where before long more than two hundred thousand Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, and eventually Soviet prisoners of war, Polish civilians, and Czech university students would be held, and where tens of thousands of them would die.
And there was much more just over the horizon of time. They could see the sprawling yellow clinker-brick complex of the AEG Kabelwerk factory just outside town, but they could not see the thousands of slave laborers that would soon be put to work there, manufacturing electric cables, laboring twelve hours a day, living in squalid camps nearby until they died of typhus or malnutrition. When the boys walked past the pretty synagogue at 8 Freiheit, or “Freedom,” street, they could not see the mob with torches that would loot it and burn it to the ground on the night of November 9, 1938—Kristallnacht.
If they peered into Richard Hirschhahn’s clothing shop, they might have seen Richard and his wife, Hedwig, at work on sewing machines in the back of the shop as their daughters—eighteen-year-old Eva and nine-year-old Ruth—waited on customers up front. The Hirschhahns were Jewish, members of the congregation on Freiheit street, and they were deeply concerned about how things were going in Germany. But Richard had fought and been wounded in the Great War, and he did not think any harm would come to him or his family in the long run. “I’ve bled for Germany. Germany won’t let me down,” he liked to tell his wife and daughters. Still, Hedwig had returned recently from a trip to Wisconsin, and the Hirschhahns had begun to think about trying to move there. They had, in fact, some American friends staying with them in Köpenick that week, in town to see the Olympics.
The boys might have peeked into the shop and seen all of them, but what they couldn’t have seen was the night when the SS men would come for Ruth, the littlest of them. Ruth they would take to her death first, because she had asthma and was too weak to work. The rest of the family they would leave in Köpenick to work as slaves—Eva in a Siemens munitions factory, her parents in a sweatshop, manufacturing German military uniforms—until it was time to come back for them too, in March 1943. Then the SS men would put Richard and Hedwig on a train to Auschwitz. Eva would evade them, escape into Berlin, hide there, and miraculously survive the war. But she would be the only one, the rarest of exceptions.
Like the Hirschhahns, many of the Köpenickers the boys passed on the street that afternoon were doomed: people who waited on the boys in shops, old women strolling around the castle grounds, mothers pushing baby carriages on cobblestone streets, children shrieking gleefully on playgrounds, old men walking dogs—loved and loving and destined for cattle cars and death.
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That evening the boys went down to the water in Grünau to watch the repechage boats and learn who would join them, Hungary, and Switzerland in the medal race. Surprisingly, neither Germany nor Italy—the two crews, other than the British, about whom Ulbrickson was most concerned—had won their preliminary heats. Now, though, rowing under gray skies, Germany easily cruised past the Czechs and the Australian police officers. Italy crushed the high-stroking Japanese crew, Yugoslavia, and Brazil. Both winners seemed to ease up at the end, conserving energy and turning in relatively slow times, doing just enough to qualify. Great Britain, on the other hand, had its hands full with the Canadians and French, and the crew had to turn in the fastest time of the day to win their heat, but win they did.
Al Ulbrickson knew now which crews he was going to race against for the gold medal on the following day: Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, and Switzerland. But when he went to find out his lane assignment, he got a rude surprise. The German Olympic Committee and Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron—headed, respectively, by Heinrich Pauli, chairman of the rowing committee for the Reich Association for Physical Training, and Rico Fioroni, an Italian Swiss—had implemented new rules for lane selection, rules never used before in Olympic competition. Ulbrickson didn’t understand the formula, and to this day it is unclear how it worked or whether there even was really a formula at all. The net effect was the opposite of the usual procedure, in which the fastest qualifiers earned the favored lanes and the slower finishers had to make do with the least favored lanes. In this case, as everyone at Grünau was by now painfully aware, the best lanes were the protected ones closest to shore: lanes one, two, and three; the least desirable were lanes five and six, out in the widest part of the Langer See. Ulbrickson was horrified and furious when he saw the assignments—lane one: Germany; lane two: Italy; lane three: Switzerland; lane four: Hungary; lane five: Great Britain; and lane six: the United States of America. It was the almost perfect inverse of the order he had expected based on the qualifying times. It handicapped the most talented and fastest boats, and gave every advantage to the slower boats. It gave the protected lanes to the host country and her closest ally, the worst lanes to her prospective enemies. It was deeply suspicious, and just what he had feared since first seeing the course at Grünau. If there was any kind of headwind or crosswind the next day, his boys were going to have to make up as much as a solid two lengths just to get back to even with the field.
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The next morning a cold, steady rain was falling in Grünau, and a blustery wind was whipping down the racecourse. At the police academy in Köpenick, the jubilation had evaporated. Don Hume was still in bed, his fever spiking once again, and Al Ulbrickson had decided he could not row. Don Coy would have to step into the shell again at the stroke position. Ulbrickson broke the news to Hume, then to the others as they got up that morning.
At the breakfast table, the boys ate scrambled eggs and steak, sitting silently, their eyes seeing nothing and no one. This was the day they had worked for all year—three years for most of them—and it was inconceivable to them that they would not all be together in the boat in the last race. They began to talk it over, and the more they talked the more certain they were—it just wasn’t right. Hume had to be there with them, come what may. They weren’t just nine guys in a boat; they were a crew. They got up en masse and went to Ulbrickson. Stub McMillin was the team captain now, so he cleared his throat and stepped forward as their spokesman. Hume was absolutely vital to the rhythm of the boat, he told his coach. Nobody else could respond as quickly and smoothly to the moment-by-moment adjustments that a crew had to make during a competitive race. Bobby Moch piped up. Nobody else but Hume could look him in the eye and know what he was thinking even as he was thinking it, he said. He just had to have Hume sitting in front of him. Then Joe stepped forward: “If you put him in the boat, Coach, we will pull him across the line. Just strap him in. He can just go along for the ride.”
Ulbrickson told them to go upstairs and get their gear and get on the German army bus waiting outside to take them down to Grünau for the race. The boys began to troop upstairs. After a long few moments, Ulbrickson shouted up the stairwell after them, “And bring Hume along with you!”
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By early afternoon the rain had still not let up in Grünau. Low clouds wreathed the peaks of the Müggelberg above the racecourse, and fog filtered through the woods down closer to the water. The Langer See was rough, the wind still brisk out on the water, the scene dark and gloomy.
But tens of thousands of spectators, most of them German, began to flood into the regatta grounds, huddled under black umbrellas or wearing rain slickers and hats. Despite the weather, they were in high spirits. In the 1930s rowing was the second most popular Olympic event—after track and field—and in the preliminaries Germany had shown every sign of being highly competitive, if not dominant, in this year’s medal round. A stream of fans crossed the pontoon bridge at the western end of the course and began to fill the massive wooden bleachers on the far side of the water. Thousands more jammed themselves into the grass enclosures at the water’s edge, pressed shoulder to shoulder in the rain. Three thousand of the luckiest took refuge under the cover of the massive permanent grandstand, right in front of the finish line. By the time the first race approached, somewhat more than seventy-five thousand fans had packed the regatta grounds, the largest crowd ever to witness an Olympic rowing event.
German fans waiting in the rain
Leni Riefenstahl’s cameramen scurried about, chasing spectators out of the way of their shots, trying to keep their equipment dry. In the elaborate press headquarters inside Haus West, hundreds of journalists from all over the world tested their telewriters and their shortwave and standard radio-transmission equipment. Bill Slater, NBC’s commentator, opened his hookup to New York. Olympic judges tested the electronic timing apparatus at the finish line. The shortwave-broadcasting boat took up its position behind the starting line. In the elaborate shell houses along the Langer See, oarsmen stowed their street clothes in lockers and began to don their national uniforms. Some of them stretched out on massage tables and let masseurs work the prerace tension out of their back and shoulder muscles. The American boys found a free massage table and laid Don Hume out on it, like a corpse bundled in overcoats, keeping him warm and dry and rested for as long as they could. George Pocock, meanwhile, began applying a coat of sperm whale oil to the underside of the Husky Clipper.
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At 2:30 p.m., as the boys continued to prepare in their shell house, the first race of the day—the four-man with coxswains—got under way at the starting line. The Swiss jumped out to an early lead but were soon overtaken by the German boat. As the boats began to approach the finish line, the American boys could hear the roar of the crowd swelling outside, beginning to chant, “Deutschland! Deutschland! Deutschland!,” the sound rising to a crescendo as Germany sliced across the finish line a full eight seconds ahead of the Swiss. Then the strains of the “Deutschlandlied” joined by tens of thousands of voices. Then another, deeper, more guttural roar from the crowd, and a different chant: “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!”
Adolf Hitler had entered the regatta grounds, followed by a large entourage of Nazi officials. Wearing a dark uniform and a full-length rain cape, he stood for a few moments gripping the hand of FISA’s Italian Swiss president, Rico Fioroni, as the two smiled and carried on an animated conversation. Then he made his way up a staircase to the wide balcony in front of Haus West and took his place of honor, looking out over the crowd and the Langer See, holding his right hand up. As his entourage arranged itself on either side of him, the crowd and the international press saw that he had brought nearly the entire top tier of the Nazi hierarchy with him. Just to his right was Joseph Goebbels. The crowd continued to thunder “Sieg Heil!” until Hitler finally lowered his hand and the racing resumed.
The crowd soon had plenty of opportunity to make more noise. In event after event that afternoon, German oarsmen charged down the course ahead of their competition, winning gold medals in the first five races. Each time, the Nazi flag was raised in front of Haus West at the end of the race, and each time the crowd sang “Deutschland über alles” a little more loudly. On the balcony Goebbels, dressed in a light-colored trench coat and a fedora, applauded theatrically, almost clownishly, as each German boat crossed the line. Hermann Göring, in a dark uniform and cape like Hitler’s, bent over and slapped his knee with each German victory and then turned and beamed at Hitler. Hitler, peering through his binoculars, simply nodded enthusiastically each time a German boat crossed the line in first place. By five thirty the rain had tapered off, the skies had lightened, and the crowd was in a frenzy as it began to look as if Germany, despite all expectations to the contrary, would sweep the day.
In the sixth race, the double sculls, the German boat led all the way down the course to the final 250 meters, but the British pair Jack Beresford and Dick Southwood staged a terrific rally and won by almost six seconds. For the first time all day, a queer hush fell over the regatta course at Grünau. In the shell house, where he was checking the rigging on the Husky Clipper one final time, George Pocock paused for a moment and realized with sudden pride that, out of old habit, he was standing bolt upright, listening to “God Save the King.”
As the final and most prestigious event of the day—the eight-oared race—grew near, the crowd began to grow noisy once more. This was the rowing event that nations boasted about more than any other, the ultimate test of young men’s ability to pull together, the greatest display of power, grace, and guts on water.
A little before six, Don Hume got up from the massage table where he had been resting and joined the rest of the boys as they hoisted the Husky Clipper to their shoulders and began to amble down to the water. The German boys and the Italian boys were already in their boats. The Italians were wearing silky light blue uniforms, and they had tied white bandanas rakishly around their heads, pirate-style. The Germans were resplendent in white shorts and crisp white jerseys, each emblazoned with a black eagle and swastika. The American boys were wearing mismatched track shorts and tattered old sweatshirts. They didn’t want to get their new uniforms dirty.
Bobby Moch tucked Tom Bolles’s lucky fedora beneath his seat in the stern of the shell. Just offshore, a German naval officer stood on the bow of a launch, his arm extended in a Nazi salute in the direction of Hitler. The boys huddled briefly with Ulbrickson as he went over the race plan one last time. Then they stepped into the shell, sat down and laced their feet into the stretchers, pushed off from the float, and started to paddle up the lake toward the starting line. Ulbrickson, Pocock, and Royal Brougham, clutching binoculars, made their way through the crowd and climbed up to a balcony of one of the shell houses near the finish line. All of them were grim faced. Good as their boys were, they figured their chances of taking the gold were slim to none—not out in lane six and not with Don Hume looking like a dead man.
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In Seattle it was early morning. For days, department stores, electrical appliance stores, the Sherman Clay piano store, even the jewelry store Weisfield & Goldberg had been doing a land-office business selling new Philco 61F Olympic Special cabinet radios. Despite the $49.95 price tag, Seattleites had been snatching them up. Each came with a shortwave tuner and a special “high-efficiency aerial” kit to ensure clear reception of both the standard radio broadcast on NBC and shortwave broadcasts in a variety of languages direct from Berlin. Now, as race time approached, sales representatives were trundling the last few radios ordered the night before into Seattle homes and setting them up.
At Harry Rantz’s now nearly finished house on Lake Washington, there was no money for a fancy new international radio, but Harry figured the older Philco he had bought back in April for the California race would pull in the NBC broadcast on KOMO just fine. He had gotten up before dawn and made coffee and turned the radio on, just to make sure it was working. Joyce had come over a bit later and gotten the kids up, and now they were all in the kitchen, eating oatmeal, smiling awkwardly at one another, and trying to steady their nerves.
All over America millions of people—people who had hardly heard of Seattle before the Poughkeepsie Regatta, people who had to go to work later that Friday morning, if they were lucky enough to have a job, people who had to tend to the farm chores, if they were lucky enough to still have a farm—were also starting to fiddle with the dials on their radios. The Jesse Owens story had already galvanized much of the nation, driving home what exactly was at stake in these Olympic Games. Now America waited to see if the rough-and-tumble western boys from Washington State would write another chapter in the story.
At 9:15 a.m., the voice of NBC’s commentator, Bill Slater, began to crackle over KOMO’s airwaves in Seattle, relayed from Berlin. Joyce rummaged in her purse and pulled out a small book. She flipped through its pages and carefully extracted a delicate green four-leaf clover that Joe had given her and she had pressed between the book’s pages. She laid it atop the radio, pulled up a chair, and started to listen.
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As the boys rowed up the course toward the starting line, it became clear just how challenging the weather and their lane assignment were going to be. Rain showers had begun to slant down out of the sky again, but the rain wasn’t the problem. They were from Seattle, after all. The wind, however, was gusting erratically out of the west, quartering across the racecourse at roughly a forty-five-degree angle, pushing in bursts and fits at the starboard side of the shell. Up front, Roger Morris and Chuck Day were having a hard time keeping the boat on an even keel. In the stern, Bobby Moch was clutching the wooden knockers on the tiller ropes, tugging this way one moment and that way the next, manipulating the rudder, trying to keep the boat on a straight course.
The boys had rowed through plenty of wind in Seattle as well as Poughkeepsie, but this gusty, nearly sideways stuff was going to cause problems. Moch would have preferred a steady, straight-on headwind. Directly in front of him, facing him, Don Hume was trying to conserve energy, setting a nice, methodical paddling pace for the boys behind him but not putting much into his own strokes. Moch didn’t like the looks of him.
Joe Rantz felt pretty good, though. As the noise of the crowd fell away behind them, the world in the shell had grown quiet and calm. It seemed to be past time for words. Joe and the boys in the middle of the boat were just rocking gently back and forth, rowing slow and low, limbering up, enjoying the in and out of their breathing, the synchronized flexing and relaxing of their muscles. The boat felt easy under them, sleek and lithe.
Anxiety had bubbled in Joe’s belly all morning, but it started now to give way to a tenuous sense of calm, more determined than nervous. Just before they’d left the shell house, the boys had huddled briefly. If Don Hume had the guts to row this race, they’d agreed, the rest of them just flat out weren’t going to let him down.
They pulled the shell up in front of the starting line, pivoted the Husky Clipper 180 degrees, and backed her up against the gangway. A delicate young man in what looked like a Boy Scout uniform crouched down, reached out his arm, and laid hold of the stern. They were out in the middle of the Langer See here. Ahead of them lay a wide-open and exposed gulf formed by the curvature of the northern shore. The wind was worse than it had been down in front of the grandstands, pushing relentlessly now at their bow, slapping small, choppy waves against the port side. Roger Morris and Gordy Adam were struggling, stroking in place on the starboard side, trying to lever the boat back against the wind and keep the bow pointed more or less down the middle of the lane. In the next lane over, the British boat backed into position. Noel Duckworth was hunkered down in the stern, his cricket cap pulled tight on his head to keep it from blowing away.
They waited for the start. Bobby Moch flipped the megaphone down in front of his face. Every few moments he hollered instructions up front to Roger and Gordy, then glanced anxiously over his shoulder to see whether the starter had emerged yet from the canvas shelter on top of the starting boat. Duckworth was doing the same next door. But both of them were primarily focused on their bows. It was critical that the boat be lined up straight at the start. Behind them, and out of sight, the official starter suddenly emerged from his shelter, holding a flag aloft. The flag snapped wildly over his head for a moment. Almost immediately, he turned slightly in the direction of lanes one and two, shouted into the wind in one continuous, unbroken utterance, “Êtes-vous prêts? Partez!” and dropped the flag.
Bobby Moch never heard him. Never saw the flag. Neither, apparently, did Noel Duckworth. Four boats surged forward. The British boat and the Husky Clipper, for a horrific moment, sat motionless at the line, dead in the water.
Nazis at Grünau