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Berry Tramel: Saluting the Greatest Generation of Sooners

With the ranks of Bud Wilkinson and Jim Tatum's war veterans thinning, Berry Tramel salutes the men who fought and won a world war, then came to the University of Oklahoma and started a football tradition that continues today.
by Berry Tramel Modified: July 11, 2010 at 10:11 pm •  Published: July 10, 2010

Homer Paine died Monday. Jim Tyree died in April. Lee Roy Neher in December.

Jack Mitchell died last July. Homer McNabb two months before that.

Plato Andros died in 2008, Buddy Burris in 2007. Harry Moore died in 2006, Stan West in 2005.

"Not many of us left," said Charlie Sarratt, who shares a bond with those heroes and dozens more. Millions more, really, but a deeper bond with those dozens.

The Greatest Generation.

Greatest Generation of Americans. Greatest Generation of Sooners.

The men who fought and won a world war, then came to the University of Oklahoma and ignited a football tradition that remains ablaze.

Their ranks are thinned.

Of the more than 16 million Americans who were part of the U.S. armed forces during World War II, about two million remain alive. Only a handful of those veterans also played football for Jim Tatum and/or Bud Wilkinson.

Sarratt is in Edmond. Claude Arnold and Earl Hale are here in Oklahoma City. Merle Dinkins is over in Shawnee. Wade Walker is out in California. Gene Heap and Darrell Royal are in Texas.

"I love these guys," said 75-year-old Norman Lamb, a lifelong Sooner fan, a former state politician and a longtime friend of Homer Paine. "I'm a firm believer in dead noses smell no roses."

So a salute is in order to honor Paine and his comrades who went before, and these regal men who remain in our midst.

"If you're a season-ticket holder," Lamb said, "if you enjoy OU-Texas weekend, thank these guys. They started it all.

"If you get chills at Boomer Sooner, then thank God for these guys who survived large, underfed families, the Great Depression, the hell of World War II and Jim Tatum's football practices in 1946."

* * *

Merle Dinkins graduated Blackwell High School in 1942, went to OU, joined the Naval ROTC, got commissioned and headed out for the Pacific in 1945, near war's end.

Dinkins was an assistant engineer officer on a destroyer off a little island.

"You talk about a country boy from Oklahoma," Dinkins said. "I didn't know the bow from the stern. I don't know how we won the war."

Dinkins went to see his chief and said "I need help."

The officer was gentle. Told Dinkins he would be fine because Dinkins had come to the right man for help and it was always good to see a sailor admit he didn't know a damn thing.

Dinkins spent six months in the Pacific, including patrol after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That's the story of all these guys, with varying details. Farm boys and college students, without a care in the world, suddenly fighting Nazis and the Japanese.

You've heard some of these tales before. But they never get old.

Buddy Burris earned three battle stars fighting in both Europe and the Philippines. Ken Tipps was a bombardier/navigator on B-29s in Guam.

Paine's old football knee injury flared up in the Army; he was transferred to an anti-tank unit, where he rode instead of walked. Probably saved his life. Paine's previous infantry unit was virtually wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge.

Dee Andros was a field cook but shed his apron at Iwo Jima and was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism beyond the call of duty. Jake McAllister spent 40 months as a combat engineer fighting the Japanese.

Big John Rapacz was a Marine who stormed the island of Roi in the South Pacific, digging foxholes to avoid Japanese fire. McNabb spent three years as a Marine, enduring a skin burn across his back during savage fighting in Saipan and Iwo Jima.

Eddy Davis was wounded in the battle of the Rhineland, tripping a Nazi land mine, and laid in various Army hospitals for six months.

Moore was a Marine lieutenant on the U.S.S. Idaho, earning four battle stars.

"We had 'em all the way from Iwo Jima to the Battle of the Bulge," Sarratt said of the future Sooners. "As a group, we were very proud of what we got into, and we got done all those things we needed to do."

* * *

These boys-to-men came back to the States in 1946, having done their duty to Uncle Sam, but someone else sought their services.

Jim Tatum Wants You.

That was the message of the new OU coach, hired in January to jump-start Sooner football and counter the Grapes of Wrath image afflicting the state. Tatum's military connections — during the war, he coached military teams at Iowa Pre-Flight and Jacksonville Naval Air Station — gave him the jump on recruiting war veterans.

Virtually the entire OU roster turned over from 1945. Former Sooners like Joe Golding, Myrle Greathouse, Davis, Tyree and Dinkins returned to campus.

Players who had been at other schools before entering the military — Mitchell at Texas, Sarratt at Clemson, McAllister at Alabama, Paine and Burris at Tulsa — enrolled at OU. Boys who had gone straight from high school to the war (Royal, Buddy Jones, Stan West) came back as freshmen in their 20s.

Tatum recruited maniacally. Tatum went to New Orleans to retrieve Paine, who was planning to play at Tulane under Henry Frnka, his Tulsa coach who had changed jobs. Tatum met the great Jack Mitchell at the train station in Ark City, Kan., to talk him out of going back to the Longhorns.

And Tatum brought along several players who played military football during the war. Walker, Rapacz, Newt Trotter, Johnny Alsup and Warren Giese all were on Tatum's Jacksonville Naval team.

"Older people with a definite cause" is how Walker described the collection of OU ballplayers in 1946. "We were not there piddling around."

West, for example, already had started a career, working at Champlin Oil in Enid for $150 a month. He had to be talked into even talking with Tatum. Eventually, West decided to enroll and stayed in football as a coach or scout for more than 30 years.

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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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