Sept. 21, 2010
by Wesley Harris and Malcolm Butler
When Louisiana Tech takes the field today to face the Navy Midshipmen, it will mark the first time one of the U.S. Armed Forces teams will have played in Ruston.
However, it won't be the first time Naval officers have played here. In 1944, the Navy rescued Louisiana Tech football.
World War II had an impact on collegiate athletics in the early 1940s as so many young men swapped athletic uniforms for military ones, joining the service to fight in North Africa, Europe and the Pacific.
Louisiana Tech was not immune to this. So many young men who would have been playing college football instead were serving their country, forcing Bulldog football to be discontinued during the 1943 season. Professors were joining the cause as well while coeds were signing up with the Red Cross, the WACs--Women's Army Corps--and the Navy WAVES--Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
Legendary Bulldog head coach Joe Aillet even changed roles in 1943 as the University put football on the backburner as the flames of war spread across the globe. Aillet did his part by commanding the local state guard unit and assisting the USO in entertaining troops stationed locally with films of old college games.
The nation--no the world--was engrossed in the war.
With the need for tens of thousands of new officers to command the growing Navy and Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy created the V-12 Officer Training Course to provide a college education to prospective naval officers.
This was a change. Prior to World War II, most Navy and Marine officers were produced by the military academy at Annapolis, Maryland. However, drastic times called for drastic measures. The Tech campus was one of over 100 colleges across the country designated as training sites for Naval officers. Hundreds of young men from across the country came to Ruston to partake in a combination of traditional college courses, military training and physical conditioning. They were enrolled in classes right alongside Tech students.
"These people were slated for officer training," recalled Gerald Sanders, who was part of the V-12 program at Tech in 1943-44. "The country was in need of a lot of officers because of the state of the war. They didn't have enough spots in officer candidate school to take all of them at once.
"They had these V-12 programs all over the country so that these young men could continue their education while they waited for the openings in the OCS. That was the idea behind the V-12 programs. Some stayed for just one semester and others for more. They were taking them to OCS by age."
Although Sanders wasn't one of them, many of these officers in training suited up for the Louisiana Tech football team in 1944 as it consisted almost exclusively of active duty Navy and Marine personnel. Under Coach Aillet, the Bulldogs recorded a 3-5-1 record with wins over UL-Lafayette, Northwestern State and the Marine OCS in New Orleans.
However, the number of marks in the win column really didn't matter.
In all honesty, football simply served as a much-needed diversion during the World War II years, as the gridiron was simply a safe haven far away from the tragedies that were taking place in the air over France and on the seas in the South Pacific.
After the war, many participants in the Tech V-12 program rose to great heights, including future Navy admiral Robert L. Baker, Army General LaVern E. Weber, scores of successful businessmen and even professional football players.
Among the players on the 1944 team was Cloyce Box, who would become a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Detroit Lions, winning the NFL Championship twice. Box, who left the Lions at one point to fight as a Marine officer in Korea, became a millionaire oilman in Texas and his ranch was the location for the first season of the TV show "Dallas."
Not only did men like Box help keep the Louisiana Tech football team afloat during a time that so many men and women were called away from the University to serve, but the V-12 program literally kept Tech in operation with an influx of military dollars to replace those that were lost by the drop in enrollment.
So as these two programs meet today on a field that is ironically named after a man who coached many of those naval officers in training back in 1944, Tech fans should remember those men and women who served their country during World War II and should embrace those who are serving it now.
They should remember that 67 years ago, a small group of men took the field as a Louisiana Tech's football team. They were Navy men, they were Marines.
They were Bulldogs.
(Along with the Navy V-12 group, nearly 2,000 Tech students and alumni served in World War II with 86 killed in combat (source Ruston Daily Leader, Aug. 27, 1945))