The rivalry between the military academies is legendary. “Go Army, Beat Navy” and “Go Air Force, Beat Army” are among the battle cries of loyal fans, routing for their teams.

Legendary ace Robin Olds was in a unique position on game days. He played for West Point and later become commandant of the Air Force Academy.

“During the first Army-Air Force game held at the Air Force Academy during his role as commandant, my father confessed he had mixed feelings when his old alma-mater took the field against Air Force, but he quickly embraced the Air Force team 100%,” said Olds’ daughter, Christina Olds. “Today, he would be enormously proud of his Falcons. They have won back the coveted Commander’s Trophy after 7 years.”

Once those team members step off the football field and into war, the battle cries for one service over another stop, and the support of each service member for another is unyielding.

November 29, 1941, Army and Navy battled on the football field.

The program for that day included a picture of the USS Arizona, with the caption:

USS Arizona 1930s“A bow on view of the U. S. S. Arizona as she plows into huge swell. It is significant that despite claims of air enthusiasts no battleship has yet been sunk by bombs.”

Just a week later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Arizona was sunk, and the football players and others at the Academies joined together in support of WWII.

You can read excerpts about that day and the events that followed in both Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, and in The All Americans, by Lars Anderson, which follows four players—two from Annapolis and two from West Point—from the November 29th game to their WWII service.

The four players followed in The All Americans are:

Bill Busik had a spectacular sports career at the Naval Academy, earning All-American honors as a tailback in 1941. He was serving aboard the U.S.S. Shaw when it was attacked by Japanese dive-bombers in 1943.

Hal Kauffman was a backup tailback at the Naval Academy, who went on to serve aboard the U.S.S. Meredith, which was sunk in 1942. For five days Kauffman struggled to stay alive on a raft, fighting off hallucinations, dehydration, and—most terrifying of all—sharks. Dozens of his crewmates lost their minds; others were eaten by sharks.

Henry Romanek played tackle for the Cadets. He spent months preparing for the D-day invasion and on June 6, 1944—the day he would have graduated from West Point had his course load not been cut from four years to three—Romanek rode in a landing craft to storm Omaha Beach. In the first wave to hit the beach he would also become one of the first to take a bullet.

Robin Olds became best friends with Romanek and the two played side-by-side on Army’s line. In 1942, a sportswriter Grantland Rice named Olds to his All-American team. Two years later Olds spent D-day flying a P-38 over Omaha Beach, anxiously scanning the battlefield for Romanek, hoping his friend would survive the slaughter.

As Sports Illustrated said, Anderson “makes a convincing case that the Army-Navy football rivalry played a significant role in preparing many young men for war…irresistible.””

Christina Olds will tell you that football remained important to her father well after his years on the field and in the air:

“My father never lost his passion for college football and would watch endless games on television for the sheer joy of the play. He had a harder time enjoying pro football and often grumbled at the incessant talking between the TV commentators. However, he always enjoyed listening to his good friend, and fellow Steamboat Springs resident, Verne Lundquist announcing games (as he continues to do to this day). At his funeral, Verne delivered one of the eulogies and included a funny story. When my father received an announcement in the mail, stating he was being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, he didn’t like the idea that he had to travel to New York in the middle of ski season. He took the letter and invitation up to Verne’s house and asked, “Hey Verne, is this Football Hall of Fame thing really important? Do I have to go?” “Yes!” Verne replied—and he hasn’t stopped laughing since.”

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