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Happy Veteran’s Day 2016 and Remembering Tom Harmon!

Posted on November 11, 2016 by Barry Gallagher

Happy Veteran’s Day to all the men and women who have served our country and protected our freedom over the course of America’s history. We have so much to be grateful for because of all the brave Americans who have answered the call to duty over the years!

Today’s blog is written by my third son, Marty Gallagher. Marty, like his three brothers (Mike, Mark and Matthew), served in the United States Army. I am so proud of him and his brothers and thank them for their service to our nation!

I hope you enjoy today’s blog. If you see a veteran today, make sure you thank them for protecting our freedom. Go Blue!


As Veteran’s Day arrives again, with America reacting to an interesting Presidential Election, I wanted to touch on this weekend with the story of a MICHIGAN MAN. Veteran’s Day is the day that we Americans honor our military men and woman who have served this great country. 2 weeks or 30 years, being in the Military is something that only those have done it can comment on. You join a lifetime club… an honorable one. That’s what it’s about. It’s about honoring all who are and have served. A meal discount is the least the world can do, trust me. So as Big Blue posts today, know that we can tie this in to the Michigan Wolverines.

Tom Harmon in action in 1939 against Iowa. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

Tom Harmon in action in 1939 against Iowa. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

Yep, that is Tom Harmon. Michigan’s first Heisman Trophy Winner. Most know that after Michigan, #98 moved on to a career in the Army Air Corps during WWII.  It’s an amazing story. I wanted to take a moment to point out a book that he wrote in 1944, titled Pilots Also Pray.  The book is still available, I found it on Amazon. It was published by the Thomas Y. Crowell Company.  If you are a Michigan fan, study WWII, or are just a proud AMERICAN, you should read this book. Harmon’s was a very interesting story.  I want to warn my fellow Football fans up front. If you are looking for detailed accounts of what was said in the huddle during the Ohio State game, this is not the book for you. It is a humble story about Thomas Dudley Harmon, an American kid, a Michigan Heisman Winner, and his life far away from home.  His story is one of a soldier who served next to some of the soldiers we honor on this weekend. Some who were not fortunate enough to come home. The book was published just three years removed from his Heisman Trophy Season, and shortly after his time serving his country in the Army Air Corps.

There is a Chapter on his football days, 20 pages long, and it provides some unique details to Harmon’s career to us Michigan Fans. At no point was it about “I WAS A GREAT PLAYER.” Far from it. Personal awards are never the goal at Michigan, and even in 1944, #98 made that totally clear.  Mostly he talks about some great Michigan TEAMS, and the various personalities that played on them. He was teased by teammates for his media spotlight, and he gave it right back and enjoyed it all. According to Tom Harmon, he was just the fortunate one whose job it was to carry the ball. The Heisman is talked about maybe twice in the entire book, first on page 25…

“I knew that my fame as a football player would soon be over, for new guys carrying the ball would absorb the public’s attention next season.  I had been fortunate enough to win the Heisman trophy and a few other trophies as the football player of the year, but again it was sort of an empty feeling. What I wanted was that little gold football emblematic of the Big Ten Championship, and that was the thing we had not been able to win.”

And we wonder where Bo, Moeller, Carr, and Hoke got this stuff. And now we react that James Joseph Harbaugh is currently pumping two candidates…. High times in Ann Arbor, and much needed. I am currently an excited fan, but this book is a story of World War II. After Michigan, the book moves on to the war, and the many experiences Tom Harmon had after football.  Experiences that were amazingly common for his generation.  Harmon loved football, but what meant more to Harmon than anything was his time serving his country. His time fighting the forces of evil so that we can all experience an election like the one that just concluded. His time next to those who were not fortunate enough to come home. Harmon was a pilot, and bailed from his aircraft twice during his wild time in service.

The first was in South America. The wing tore of the plane he was flying, and Harmon exited the aircraft via parachute and found himself in the jungles and swamps of French Guiana. He finally made it to a base, and the next morning he was back on a plane, helping the search and rescue crew find his lost comrades. Harmon’s journey had only begun. After recovering, he moved on to Africa, Algiers, Casablanca, Bengasi, Cairo, Iraq, a British Base at Bahrein Island, Karachi, Gaya, Chabua, and finally his base in China. A far cry from Ann Arbor. After his arrival, Harmon flew several missions for the 449th Fighter Squadron.

October 30th, 1943 however, Tom Harmon would see his first major combat. On the famed day Harmon was shot down, they were actually flying to attack Japanese supply ships, but the enemy had been tipped off. Instead Harmon and the other members of the 449th on that mission were ambushed in the air by 12 Japanese Zeros. In school, Harmon recalled, they were better off dueling with Japanese pilots 1 on 1 in the air, so Harmon flew straight into their formation guns blazing to break it up. He shot down two, but received fire that eventually damaged his plane.  A round exploded under his legs, hit the gas primer, and his cockpit was on fire. As he struggled, the flames burned his face and legs. It was time for #98 to bail out once again.  This one was a little different, and Harmon was in ENEMY territory. They were taught to bail at the lowest altitude possible, but with the cockpit on fire, all Harmon knew was that he began his dive at 9,000 feet. That was important because he also learned in training that if you bailed out too high, the enemy would circle, and continue machine gun fire at parachuting pilots.  Hmm… When his chute opened, all Harmon’s fears had come true. With the other fighters continued the battle, Harmon was floating toward a lake defenseless, and two enemy fighters circled his parachute. He heard machine gun fire and decided his only chance was to play dead, all the way down. He folded over in his harness and hung limp, as he stated in the book, he was setting the world record for “Hail Marys” and I don’t mean the pass. FINALLY, he landed in a lake.  He stayed in that lake, coming up for air only, until he heard the sounds of the enemy engines heading away.  Surrendering for medical attention wasn’t much of an option after he had just been shot at in his parachute. So, #98 started walking. Over the next month, Harmon made his way towards his base with a 45 caliber pistol, significant burns that got infected, his eyes and lips swollen shut, and dysentery. If you are out there looking for a diet, Harmon lost 52 pounds in those 32 days. Harmon was listed as “missing in action” for the entire time period, but finally made his way back to the base.

He spent that day and the next at a series of Thanksgiving masses. Those masses honored those in his unit that were not fortunate enough to return, to include his Commander, a Captain Enslen. Two others from the mission were still missing in action, a LT Robbins and Tommy Taylor, some more we commemorate on this day. There was also a service for Harmon, in thanks that he did return. There was a dinner that night.  The guys from his unit had all chipped in “their rations of chocolate bars to make the cake.” The cake was decorated and said, “THE 449TH WELCOMES BACK ITS TOM HARMON OF MICHIGAN!” There were also two Japanese Zero fighter planes with X’s through them, for the two enemy aircraft that Harmon shot down in the dog fight. Toward the end of the dinner, #98 gave an account of what this weekend means, and the spirit that makes this country of ours so great.  From Pilots Also Pray, page 171:

“I have had the good fortune to have lunch with President of the United States. I have enjoyed meeting many of the celebrities of the world, and I once gained a small reputation for playing football for a great team and scoring a few touchdowns. Tonight, as I stand here and speak to you, I am not so proud of having had lunch with the President of the United States, although it was a great privilege. I’m not proud of a football record or any name I was lucky enough to make in sports before the war. But I damned proud that I have been granted the good fortune to be associated with men like you, and I will always be proud that at one time in my life I was a small part of the 449th Fighter Squadron. God Bless every one of you.”  And later, “I stood there a moment with tears in my eyes, tears of respect and deep affection for the finest men I have ever known.”

What a story! If you can find a copy, I highly recommend the book.  Harmon’s story is one of a man who fought bravely to keep our country free. This day is about those who have served, and Tom Harmon would be the first to tell you that if he was still here. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. Coast Guard, Special Forces, Delta Force. The fight continues I assure you. So, HAPPY VETERAN’S DAY to all who served! I am full of gratitude for all those who are honored on this day.  If you see a Veteran shake their hand, and know we are very fortunate people.

Martin J Gallagher

Formerly Captain Gallagher, 82nd Airborne





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