3 Michigan Sports Heroes Who Served During World War II

Written By Julie Walker on December 7, 2021

Today, and every day, we remember.

We remember the more than 2,400 Americans who died 80 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941, during a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The early Sunday morning assault also wounded 1,000 people and damaged or destroyed nearly 20 American naval vessels.

After the crippling offense from the Japanese, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress declared war.

Life changed for all Americans then, even for superstar athletes. From golfer Bobby Jones to football’s Joe Namath and baseball’s Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra and more, scores of sports stars served in the military during World War II.

Athletes with Michigan ties were no different. Tigers great Hank Greenberg was an Air Force officer. Former President and Michigan Wolverine Gerald Ford also served, as did former Detroit Lions player Cecil B. Souders, who died at age 100 on Aug. 30 of this year. (He was thought to be the oldest Lions alum still alive at the time.)

Today at PlayMichigan, we go beyond the wagers, odds, fields and rings to take a closer look at three greats with ties to the state, including a Spartan, a Wolverine and a legendary boxer who served their country during the Second World War.

Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty (Sept. 8, 1915 – Sept. 25, 1987)

Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty played football for three seasons at Syracuse University and became captain during his senior year in 1939 after a broken neck sidelined him for the 1938 season.

Hugh 'Duffy' Daugherty
Hugh ‘Duffy’ Daugherty (Time Magazine archives)

Following his college career, Daugherty enlisted in the United States Army on Feb. 7, 1941, exactly 10 months before the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. Spending 30 months overseas and taking part in three major campaigns, Daugherty earned a Bronze Star and promotion from private to major during his four years of military service.

After the war, Duffy returned to Syracuse to coach under Clarence L. “Biggie” Munn, eventually following the Orangemen skipper to Michigan State University in 1947.

Daugherty replaced Munn in 1954 and began his legendary 19-year tenure helming the Spartans, still the longest-run for any head coach there. He not only helped pull the program into the national spotlight, he helped desegregate the sport by often recruiting Black players from the South.

The Pennsylvania native and grandson of Scottish immigrants finished with 109 wins, 69 losses and five ties for a .609 winning percentage in East Lansing. His squads won Big Ten championships and national championships in 1965 and 1966, with a cumulative 19-1-1 record those years.

He also was the first of now three Michigan State coaches to get 10 regular-season wins in 1965, before Mark Dantonio (2010) and Mel Tucker, who completed the feat just weeks ago.

The beloved Daugherty, known for being witty and humorous, is both in the College Football Hall of Fame and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame for his coaching successes.

Tom Harmon (Sept. 28, 1919-March 15, 1990)

Tom Harmon followed up his legendary, record-setting career at the University of Michigan by starring in a movie about his legendary, record-setting career. “Harmon of Michigan” came out the same year America entered the Second World War in 1941.

Tom Harmon
Tom Harmon (University of Michigan libraries)

The Chicago Bears drafted Harmon with the first overall pick in the 1941 NFL Draft, though he instead chose to play for the New York Americans in the rival All-American Football Conference.

After qualifying for deferments, Harmon enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, the bomber pilot Harmon was the sole survivor of a plane crash after he parachuted out at 1,500 feet into the jungle in South America. (That parachute was later cut into a wedding dress for his bride, Elyse Knox, whom he married in August of 1944.)

While with the 449th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in October 1943, Harmon’s plane was shot down over the Yangtze River by the Japanese. His actions there earned him a Purple Heart and Silver Star. Harmon ascended to the rank of captain before his discharge on Aug. 13, 1945.

Harmon, who had done broadcasting work with WJR in Detroit before the war, returned to pro football after the military, signing a two-year contract with the L.A. Rams.

Despite highlights including a league-leading 84-yard run against the Bears, the longest of the 1946 season, Harmon’s pro career was hampered with injuries suffered during the war.

His post-football life included acting and an immensely successful broadcasting career. A two-time Consensus All-American, Harmon’s stats include 398 carries for 2,134 yards and 30 touchdowns as a Wolverines halfback. He also played two seasons on the basketball team.

The College Football Hall of Famer was the first Michigan player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1940. He also won the Maxwell Award that season and was the Heisman runner-up in 1939. Among his many other honors and accolades, Harmon is in the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and was one of five inaugural inductees to the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1978.

And, yes. In case you wondered, he’s also the dad of former UCLA quarterback and actor Mark Harmon, who brought an ornery edge to his character Leroy Jethro Gibbs on the Naval crime show “NCIS.”

Joe Louis (May 13, 1914-April 12, 1981)

Even when the country didn’t serve him, the greatest boxer of all time served his country.

Joe Louis Barrow, known best as Joe Louis, aka “The Brown Bomber”, reigned as boxing’s world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949. After controversially donating nearly $100,000 from his winnings to Army and Navy relief funds, Louis joined the Army in 1942.

Joe Louis
Joe Louis (Encyclopedia Britannica)

He served first in a segregated unit with Jackie Robinson, before the trailblazing, baseball legend became the first Black man to play Major League Baseball in 1947.

During his military tenure, Robinson once stood up to a white officer making racist comments, knocking out the officer’s front teeth. Louis stepped in, using his influence to stop a court-martial or worse punishment so that Robinson could finish Officer Candidate School.

Although he attended boot camp, Louis, known in the service as Private Barrow, fought only in the ring during his service years. As a Goodwill Ambassador in the Army, he fought in nearly 100 exhibitions across the world, visiting troops and boosting spirits until his discharge as Staff Sgt. Barrow in 1945. Louis also earned the “Legion of Merit” for his service.

Despite taking criticism from the Black community for having any part in a military that treated Black troops as substandard, Louis quietly used his time to help make positive changes in any way he could.

His actions helped desegregate Army buses, and he acted in several films while serving, including “The Negro Soldier,” which challenged segregation and portrayed for the first time Black people with more depth and patriotism than other media did.

After the war, Louis returned to fighting, preserving his 11-year, 8-month streak as the heavyweight champ until his 1949 retirement from the sport. After 25 consecutive title defenses, however, IRS trouble forced the legend out of retirement at age 37. His short-lived comeback was cut short when Rocky Marciano, a decade younger, knocked out Louis on Oct. 26. 1951, at Madison Square Garden. Louis retired with 68 wins, three losses and 54 knockouts.

When Louis died, President Ronald Reagan granted an exception that allowed the champ to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Photo by Julie Walker/PlayMichigan (main photo)
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Julie Walker

Julie has written, edited and designed words at five Michigan newspapers and websites. She’s worked on two sports desks, including at The Oakland Press and most recently at The Detroit News. Julie has contributed to stories on many big sports moments, from the NFL's 100th season to Super Bowls to Justin Verlander’s trade to the closing of the Palace of Auburn Hills.  Julie loves lakes, bonfires, Dachshunds, coaching Little League and carrying on her Dad’s fantasy football legacy that he started in 1987 — before there was an app for that.

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