The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.
—George Yeoman Pocock
All over Seattle—in cozy restaurants downtown, in smoky neighborhood bars in Wallingford, in clattering coffee shops out in Ballard, in grocery store lines from Everett to Tacoma—people just couldn’t stop talking about it. For the next few weeks, crowds packed into movie theaters to witness for themselves, on newsreels, what their boys had done in Berlin.
On their way home, the boys stopped in New York, where they rode through the city’s canyons in open-top cars as swirls of paper—ticker tape, pages torn from old phone books, shreds of newspaper—spiraled down from skyscrapers. Joe Rantz, from Sequim, Washington, stood blond, lithe, and grinning, holding high over his head a rowing jersey—on its front, a black eagle and a swastika, and running around the back, a slash of blood red.
By the middle of September, Joe was home, living at the new house on Lake Washington, sleeping in the bedroom his father had built for him right next to his own. Joe delivered the oak sapling that the boys had been awarded in Berlin to the university, and a groundskeeper planted it near the shell house. Then Joe set about trying to make a few dollars before school began.
Don Hume also hurried quickly home, worried, like Joe, about making enough money to stay in school for another year. Stub McMillin visited Mount Vernon, New York, for a few days, where relatives prepared a shoe box full of sandwiches and fruit to tide him over on the long train ride home. Johnny White and Gordy Adam went first to Philadelphia, to visit Johnny’s relatives, then on to Detroit to pick up a new Plymouth Johnny’s father had ordered and drive it home. Shorty Hunt returned in time to be honored in a ceremony at the annual Puyallup Fair in his hometown. Roger Morris, Chuck Day, and Bobby Moch didn’t arrive back in Seattle until early October, after a six-week grand tour of Europe.
George and Frances Pocock and Al and Hazel Ulbrickson stopped in England on the way home. Pocock was able to check up on his father—now much reduced in circumstances and ravaged by old age—for the first time in twenty-three years. At Eton College, Pocock had found two of the men with whom he had worked as a boy—Froggy Windsor and Bosh Barrett—still at work in the old boat shop. The two embraced him heartily and then brought out the first shell that Pocock had ever built—the Norwegian pine and mahogany single in which he had won fifty pounds at Putney twenty-seven years before—still in fine shape and now a favorite of the Eton boys. Pocock promptly took to the Thames in it, proudly sculling back and forth in the shadow of Windsor Castle as Frances recorded the scene on a home movie camera.
By mid-October, everyone was back in Seattle and it was time to turn out for the 1936-37 crew season. Bobby Moch had graduated magna cum laude and signed on as an assistant crew coach under Al Ulbrickson. Everybody else was back in the boat.
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The following spring, on the morning of April 17, 1937, the San Francisco Chronicle featured dueling headlines: “Seabiscuit Goes Today!” and “California Faces Washington Crew Today.” That afternoon, Seabiscuit won the ten-thousand-dollar added Marchbank Handicap race at Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno by three lengths. Just across the bay, the boys from Washington defeated California on the Oakland Estuary by a commanding five lengths. Seabiscuit was near the beginning of his career; many of the boys were nearing the end of theirs. But not before leaving one more mark on rowing history. On June 22 they rowed again for the national title in Poughkeepsie. The Washington freshmen had already won their race. So had the junior varsity. When the gun went off, the boys stormed down the river, blowing past Navy at the two-mile mark, leaving them and five other crews in their wake, winning by four lengths, setting a new course record, and accomplishing what eastern sportswriters a few hours before had been proclaiming impossible—a second consecutive sweep of the Poughkeepsie Regatta.
After the race, the sagest and most ancient among Al Ulbrickson’s peers, old Jim Ten Eyck of Syracuse, finally said flat out what he’d been thinking about the Washington varsity boat for some time: “It’s the greatest eight I ever saw, and I never expect to see another like it.” Coming from a man who had watched crews come and go since 1861, it was quite a statement.
Poughkeepsie was the last race for Roger Morris, Shorty Hunt, and Joe Rantz. By Royal Brougham’s calculations, done that night on a bar napkin, in four years of college rowing, each of them had rowed approximately 4,344 miles, far enough to take him from Seattle to Japan. Along the way, each had taken roughly 469,000 strokes with his oar, all in preparation for only 28 miles of actual collegiate racing. In those four years, and over the course of those 28 miles, the three of them—Joe, Shorty, and Roger—had never once been defeated.
Royal Brougham watched the boys from a distance as they left their shell house in Poughkeepsie the next day and wrote, “The eight oarsmen quietly shook hands, departed on different paths, and the crew that is hailed as the finest rowing combination of all time passed into history.”
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Within days of the closing ceremony of the 1936 Olympics, the Nazis renewed their persecution of German Jews and others to whom they believed they were superior, with a savage and unrelenting vengeance. The anti-Semitic signs were rehung; the brutality and terror resumed and intensified. In December, Hermann Göring met secretly with a number of German industrialists in Berlin and said privately what he could not yet say in public: “We are already on the threshold of mobilization, and we are already at war. All that is lacking is the actual shooting.”
The larger world knew nothing of this. The illusion surrounding the Olympic Games was complete, the deception masterful. Joseph Goebbels had artfully accomplished what all good propagandists must, convincing the world that their version of reality was reasonable and their opponents’ version biased. In doing that, Goebbels had not only created a compelling vision of the new Germany but also undercut the Nazis’ opponents in the West—whether they were American Jews in New York City or members of Parliament in London or anxious Parisians—making all of them seem shrill, hysterical, and misinformed. As thousands of Americans returned home from the games that fall, many of them felt as one quoted in a German propaganda publication did: “As for this man Hitler… . Well I believe we should all like to take him back to America with us and have him organize there just as he has done in Germany.”
Hitler and Goebbels congratulate Leni Riefenstahl at the premiere of Olympia
Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia premiered in Berlin on April 20, 1938, in a lavish extravaganza at the UFA-Palast am Zoo. Hitler and the entire Nazi elite were there, along with ambassadors and envoys from more than forty nations, including the United States and Great Britain. Military leaders and film stars and athletes were there, among the latter, Max Schmeling. The Berlin Philharmonic provided the music. Riefenstahl entered the room to wild applause and was cheered roundly after the screening of the film. Berlin adored it. It would go on to win plaudits around the world as Riefenstahl launched herself into a giddy European tour, followed by an American tour that took her all the way to Hollywood.
The day after the premiere, Joseph Goebbels awarded Riefenstahl a hundred-thousand-reichsmark bonus. That same day Hitler met with General Wilhelm Keitel to discuss preliminary plans for seizing and occupying the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
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By September 1939, the illusion of a civilized Nazi state had utterly fallen away. Hitler had rolled into Poland, and the most catastrophic war in world history was under way. In the next five years, it would take the lives of between fifty and sixty million people—so many that the exact number would never be known. The war did not reach America until the end of 1941, but when it did it swept up the boys who had rowed in Berlin, as it did the whole nation. All of them would survive the war—some were too tall to serve and many of them had recently earned engineering degrees. Those degrees made them too valuable to the Boeing Airplane Company and other companies essential to the war effort to put them in tanks or foxholes.
Joe graduated from Washington in 1939, after making up two years’ worth of chemistry labs that he had missed during his rowing career. Joyce graduated Phi Beta Kappa the same day as Joe, and they were married at eight o’clock that evening. With his degree in chemical engineering, Joe went to work first for the Union Oil Company in Rodeo, California, and then returned to Seattle to work for Boeing in 1941. At Boeing he soon found himself helping to design elements of the B-17 for the war effort and later worked on the laminar flow “clean room” technology that NASA would use in the space program. With a steady job, Joe bought a house in Lake Forest Park, not far from the finish line of the Washington-California crew races. He and Joyce would live there for the rest of their lives.
Over the years, Joe and Joyce raised five children—Fred, Judy, Jerry, Barb, and Jenny. In all those years, Joyce never forgot what Joe had gone through in his early years, and she never wavered from a vow she had made to herself early in their relationship: come what may, she would make sure he never went through anything like it again, would never again be abandoned, would always have a warm and loving home.
In his later years, after he retired from Boeing, Joe immersed himself in his old passion for working with cedar. He hiked deep into the northwest woods, climbed up steep mountain inclines, and scrambled over jumbles of fallen trees, hauling with him a chainsaw, a peavey, a splitting maul, and assorted iron wedges jammed into his pockets, in search of salvageable wood. When he found what he was looking for, he thrilled as he had as a boy at finding things others had overlooked or left behind, things with essential value. He wrestled the logs down from the mountains and brought them back to his workshop, where he crafted them by hand into shakes and posts and rails and other useful items, and established a small and successful business fulfilling orders for his cedar products. As he moved into his ninth decade, his daughter Judy and occasionally other family members went along with him to lend a hand, and to watch out for him.
Joe and Joyce on their graduation and wedding day
Bobby Moch entered law school, got married, and continued to serve as an assistant coach at Washington until he was offered the head coach position at MIT in 1940. Displaying his congenital tenacity, he accepted the position, engineered a transfer to Harvard Law, and for the next three years managed to hold down the coaching job while simultaneously earning the most prestigious JD in America. By 1945 he had passed both the Massachusetts and the Washington bar exams and was back in Seattle practicing law. He would go on to a highly successful legal career, eventually arguing and winning a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Stub McMillin returned from Germany broke and would have had to drop out of school but for the generosity of Seattle’s Rainier Club, which raised $350 to get him through the remainder of his studies. Disqualified for military service by virtue of his height, he took over Bobby Moch’s job at MIT, where he both coached and worked on classified research as a lab engineer for twelve years. Eventually he returned to Seattle, settled on Bainbridge Island, went to work for Boeing, and married.
Chuck Day earned his medical degree and entered the navy at the outbreak of the war. After serving as a naval doctor in the South Pacific, he returned to Seattle and established a successful practice as a gynecologist. But he continued to smoke his Lucky Strikes and Camels, a habit that would soon exact a terrible price.
Shorty Hunt married his girlfriend, Eleanor, graduated, went to work for a construction firm, and then spent the war years putting his engineering expertise to good use as a Seabee in the South Pacific. When he returned to Seattle after the war, he cofounded a construction company and settled down with Eleanor to raise his two daughters.
Don Hume spent the war years serving in the merchant marine, sailing out of San Francisco. Following the war, he began to build a career in oil and gas exploration, a job that kept him on the road much of the time, taking him sometimes to places as far away as Borneo. In time he became president of the West Coast Mining Association. He never married.
Johnny White graduated in 1938 with a degree in metallurgical engineering and married in 1940. Johnny followed his father into the steel business, going to work for Bethlehem Steel, where he eventually became general manager of sales. In 1946 his sister Mary Helen gave him back the violin he had sold her for a hundred dollars.
Gordy Adam ran out of money before he could graduate and so took a part-time night job with Boeing in his senior year. He remained there for the next thirty-eight years, working on the B-17, the B-29, the 707, and the 727. He married in 1939.
Roger Morris graduated in mechanical engineering, married, spent the war doing military construction in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then returned to the Seattle area to work for the Manson Construction Company, where he specialized in large-scale dredging projects.
Al Ulbrickson coached at Washington for another twenty-three years. Along the way he had many stirring victories and a few crushing defeats. His varsity crews won six IRA titles; his junior varsity won ten. He was inducted into the National Rowing Hall of Fame in 1956, the same year as Tom Bolles, Ky Ebright, and Hiram Conibear. During most of his reign, Washington remained—as it remains today—at or near the top of collegiate rowing in the United States and the world. When Ulbrickson met with reporters in 1959, to talk about his retirement, and began to tick off the highlights of his career, among the first things he recalled was the day in 1936 that he put Joe Rantz in his Olympic boat for the first time, and watched the boat take off.
Ky Ebright went on to win his long-sought-after third Olympic gold medal in London in 1948. Like Ulbrickson, he retired in 1959, but not before establishing himself as one of the great crew coaches of all time, bringing home seven national varsity and two junior varsity championships. The rowing program he created, like the program at Washington, has remained a perpetual contender for top honors nationally and internationally ever since.
By the time the war ended, George Pocock had already long since realized his dream of becoming the best shell builder in the world, but he went on to further perfect his craft for the next twenty-five years. Generations of American oarsmen and coaches continued to buy and row in Pocock shells and also to seek him out and learn from him whenever and wherever he talked rowing. Through it all, Pocock’s overriding passion remained the simple pleasure of shaping cedar, crafting his exquisite and delicate shells. One of his greatest personal triumphs came on the day when an order arrived in his shop for a western red cedar shell to be delivered to Oxford University for use in the upcoming Boat Race against Cambridge.
In 1969, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, Pocock was inducted into the Helms Rowing Hall of Fame. By then Stan, his son, was mostly running the boatbuilding shop. Over the next ten years, synthetics such as fiberglass and carbon-fiber composites began to replace wood as the primary material from which competitive racing shells were manufactured, and the Pocock company, under Stan’s guidance, slowly made the transition. George, perhaps mercifully, never lived to see the day when the elegance of cedar shells finally all but disappeared from American rowing regattas. He died on March 19, 1976.
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If the boys went off on their separate paths after the Poughkeepsie Regatta in 1937, they made sure those paths crossed often. For the rest of their lives they remained close, bonded by their memories and by deep mutual respect. They met at least once a year, usually twice. Sometimes it was just the nine of them, but as time went on more and more often the get-togethers included their spouses and their growing families. They gathered around grills at backyard barbecues or around dining tables at informal potlucks. They played badminton and Ping-Pong and threw footballs and horsed around in swimming pools.
They also staged more formal ten-year anniversaries. At the first of these, in the summer of 1946, they carefully removed the Husky Clipper from its rack, donned shorts and sweatshirts, and pulled briskly out onto Lake Washington as if they hadn’t missed a turnout in ten years. Bobby Moch took them up to a respectable twenty-six, and they cruised back and forth in front of news cameras. In 1956 they all rowed together again. But by the time the 1966 anniversary came along, Chuck Day had succumbed to lung cancer, dying in the hospital where he had practiced medicine. When he was gone, the nurses and doctors he had worked with wept in the hallways.
In 1971 the entire crew was inducted into the Helms Rowing Hall of Fame at a banquet in New York. In 1976 the eight of them still remaining reconvened for the fortieth-anniversary row. They lined up at the Conibear Shellhouse for photographs, bare chested and clutching their oars. By then shoulders were sagging and bellies were bulging and the hair of most of those who still had any had gone gray. But as TV cameras shot video of them for the evening news, they clambered into the Husky Clipper and rowed. And they rowed well, if a bit slowly—crisp, clean, and efficient even yet.
The 1956 reunion row
Ten more years went by, and in 1986, fifty years after their victory in Berlin, they rowed one last time. Wearing matching white shorts and rowing shirts, they pushed the Husky Clipper down to Lake Washington on a wheeled cart and boarded her gingerly as photographers crowded around them, ready to offer helping hands. Bobby Moch strapped on his old megaphone and croaked “Row!” With troubled joints and aching backs, they dipped white blades into the water and glided out onto Lake Washington. Still pulling together as one, they crept across water burnished to bronze by a late afternoon sun. Then, with evening coming on, they hobbled back up the ramp to the shell house, waved to photographers, and placed their oars in the racks for the final time.
They and their families continued to get together off the water, celebrating birthdays and other special occasions. But in the 1990s those occasions began to include funerals. Gordy Adam died in 1992, Johnny White in 1997, but not before the crew was honored by a military band concert in Washington’s capital city of Olympia to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary in 1996. Shorty Hunt died in 1999. Five days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Don Hume passed away.
A year later, in September 2002, Joe lost Joyce. He and she were sharing a room at a skilled nursing facility at the time—he recovering from a fractured pelvis and she dying from congestive heart failure and kidney failure. The staff had, with uncommon compassion, pushed their beds together so they could hold hands, and that’s how Joyce died. A few days later, Joe went to the memorial service. Then he returned to the room, alone again for the first time in sixty-three years.
Bobby Moch died in January of 2005, and Stub McMillin followed him in August of that year. That left only Joe and Roger.
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In the aftermath of Joyce’s death, even as his own health began to decline, Joe’s family helped him to realize many lifelong dreams. Although he had become wheelchair bound, he traveled with them on a cruise to Alaska, ventured up the Columbia River on a paddle-wheel steamer, rode the Snow Train to the village of Leavenworth in the Cascade Mountains, revisited the site of the Gold and Ruby mine in Idaho, flew to Hawaii, took another paddle-wheel steamer up the Mississippi, went to Los Angeles to visit Rose, Polly, and Barb, went twice to Milwaukee to visit his daughter Jenny and her family, attended the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and cruised through the Panama Canal.
By early 2007, Joe was on hospice care and living at Judy’s house. In March he wore his purple “Husky Hall of Fame” jacket to a Varsity Boat Club banquet in Seattle. Four hundred fifty people stood and cheered him. In May he watched from his wheelchair on the shore of the Cut as Washington’s crews held their opening day races. But by August he’d come up on the finish line one last time. He died peacefully at Judy’s home on September 10, months after I first met him and began to interview him for this book. His ashes were interred in Sequim, next to Joyce’s.
Somewhere along the way, the oak tree that Joe brought home from the Olympics died after being transplanted several times on the university campus. That had bothered Joe in his last years. So on a winter day in 2008 a small group gathered near Conibear Shellhouse. At Judy’s urging, the university had secured a new oak tree. Bob Ernst, director of rowing at Washington, made a brief speech, and then Judy slowly and reverently placed nine shovelfuls of soil at the base of the tree—one for each of the boys.
Roger Morris, the first of Joe’s friends on crew, was the last man standing. Roger died on July 22, 2009. At his memorial service, Judy rose and recalled how in their last few years Joe and Roger would often get together—in person or on the phone—and do nothing at all, hardly speaking, just sitting quietly, needing only to be in each other’s company.
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And so they passed away, loved and remembered for all that they were—not just Olympic oarsmen but good men, one and all.
In August of 2011, I traveled to Berlin to see the place where the boys had won gold seventy-five years earlier. I visited the Olympic Stadium and then took the S-Bahn out to Köpenick, in what used to be Soviet-occupied East Berlin. There I wandered through cobblestone streets, among ancient buildings left mostly undamaged by the war, except for occasional brick facades scarred by shrapnel. I walked past the vacant lot on Freiheit where Köpenick’s synagogue stood until the night of November 9, 1938, and I thought of the Hirschhahn family.
In Grünau I found the regatta grounds little changed from 1936. A large electronic readerboard now dominates the area near the finish line, but otherwise the place looks much as it does in the old newsreels and photographs. The neighborhood is still lovely—green and leafy. The covered grandstands still rise near the finish line. The Langer See is still placid and tranquil. Earnest young men and women in racing shells still ply its waters in racing lanes laid out just as they were in 1936.
I visited the Wassersportmuseum in Grünau, where late in the afternoon Werner Phillip, the director, kindly led me up a set of stairs to the balcony of Haus West. I stood there for a long, quiet minute, near where Hitler stood seventy-five years before, gazing out over the Langer See, seeing it much as he saw it.
Down below me young men were unloading a shell from a truck, singing something softly in German, and preparing for an evening row. Out on the water, a single sculler, his blades glinting, worked his way down one of the lanes toward the large “Ziel” sign at the end of the course. Closer to me, swallows flew low over the water on silent wings, silhouetted against the declining sun, touching the water from time to time, dimpling the silver surface.
Standing there, watching them, it occurred to me that when Hitler watched Joe and the boys fight their way back from the rear of the field to sweep ahead of Italy and Germany seventy-five years ago, he saw, but did not recognize, heralds of his doom. He could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures—decent and unassuming, not privileged or favored by anything in particular, just loyal, committed, and perseverant—would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.
They are almost all gone now—the legions of young men who saved the world in the years just before I was born. But that afternoon, standing on the balcony of Haus West, I was swept with gratitude for their goodness and their grace, their humility and their honor, their simple civility and all the things they taught us before they flitted across the evening water and finally vanished into the night.
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One survivor of the 1936 gold medal race is still with us today, though—the Husky Clipper. For many years, she resided at the old shell house, mostly unused except on the occasions of the boys’ ten-year anniversary rows. For a number of years in the 1960s, she was on loan to Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. In 1967, Washington asked for her return, restored her, and put her on display in the student union. Later she was displayed at the George Pocock Memorial Rowing Center in Seattle.
Today she is in Washington’s Conibear Shellhouse, a spacious open building built in 1949 and recently renovated. She hangs in the light, airy dining commons, suspended from the ceiling, a graceful needle of cedar and spruce, her red and yellow woodwork gleaming under small spotlights. Beyond her, on the eastern side of the building, Lake Washington spreads out behind a wall of glass. From time to time, people wander in and admire her. They snap photos of her and tell one another what they know about her and the boys who rowed her in Berlin.
Joe in the woods
But she is there for more than decoration and admiration. She is there for inspiration. Every fall several hundred freshmen—men one day, women another day, most of them tall, a few of them notably short—assemble beneath her on early October afternoons. They fill out registration cards and anxiously look around the room, sizing one another up and chatting nervously until the freshman coach steps in front of them and calls for quiet in a loud, no-nonsense voice. As they settle down, he begins to talk to them about what they can expect if they seek a spot on his crew. Mostly, at first, he talks about how hard it will be, how long the hours will be, how cold and wet and miserable it will be. He points out that Washington’s crew typically has the highest GPA of any athletic team on campus, and that that’s no accident. They will be expected to perform in the classroom as well as in the boats. Then he shifts his tone a bit and begins to talk about the glory of earning a chance to pull one of the white blades of Washington. He talks about recent regional victories, about the now age-old rivalry with California, about the program’s national and international reputation, about the many championships that Washington men and women have won, the dozens of Olympians, male and female, that the program has spawned.
Finally he pauses, clears his throat, raises his hand, and points up at the Husky Clipper. Several hundred necks crane. Earnest young eyes gaze upward. A new, deeper level of quiet settles over the room. And then he begins to tell the story.