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Copyright © 2009, Proceedings, U.S.

Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland


ANSWERING THE CALL (410) 268-6110 www.usni.org

‘The Yankees Are Up There,


but Not as High’ so I’d miss only one baseball season, but
it didn’t work out that way. I traded my
Yankee pinstripes for Marine greens in
By Jerry Coleman

B
April 1952, with no hard feelings.
I flew Corsair attack planes in Korea.
allplayer, sportscaster, manager, Marine Corps aviator—former They were magnificent aircraft, but the
New York Yankees second-baseman Jerry Coleman succeeded at nose was so far from the cockpit that
all of these. Guess which one he prizes most? you couldn’t see right in front of you. If
you made a mistake, either taking off or
By any standard, I’ve had a great career. that had little else besides an airstrip, as landing, you were in trouble. I had two
I played second base for the New York a member of VMSB-341. close calls on a runway, each time car-
Yankees, was manager of the San Diego I never sank a carrier as I’d envisioned rying 1,000-pound bombs, but I escaped
Padres, and have been a sportscaster for as a high school senior. But I flew 57 mis- unharmed. I flew 63 missions overall.
almost five decades. But the most impor- sions in the battles for the Solomon Is- I wasn’t the only major league player
tant part of my life was the five years I lands and the Philippines, including dive- to go off to war, either in World War II or
spent in uniform. I was a Ma- in Korea. Ted Williams, Bobby
rine Corps aviator in World War Brown, Bob Feller—there were
II and the Korean War. many of them. But I think I was
I made my decision to join the only one who saw combat in
when I was 17. The Japanese both wars. By the time I returned
had just attacked Pearl Harbor, from Korea, in 1953, my record
and in my generation the ques- for both wars included two Dis-
tion wasn’t whether to enlist in tinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air
the military; it was which branch Medals, and three Navy citations.
you were going to join. Then two The Marine Corps has never
naval aviators visited my high left me. I stayed in the Reserve,
school to recruit for the V-5 pro- retiring in 1964 as a lieutenant
gram, which turned out Navy colonel. I’ve helped with recruit-
courtesy of san diego padres

pilots. I decided right then that I ing drives and special assign-
wanted those wings of gold. ments that the Corps wanted me
You had to be 18 to start to carry out. I married the daugh-
flight school, and that was still ter of a retired Marine colonel.
six months away. I’d already And most of all, I’ve kept in
SENSE OF PERSPECTIVE The author, here during a commemoration
been awarded a baseball and touch with my squadron-mates.
on board the carrier Midway in San Diego this past Veterans Day,
basketball scholarship to the says his service heightened his perspective on “the preciousness of When I came back from Korea,
University of Southern Califor- life itself.” I found myself dealing with the
nia, and a Yankee scout gave me same question that every veteran
a chance to play with their minor league bombing raids and close air support for asks: Why was I returning, when my bud-
club that summer. When the season was Army and Marine Corps ground troops. dies weren’t? I wasn’t that great a pilot.
over, on my 18th birthday I went to San When the Japanese surrendered, I returned No one was. But God let some of us come
Francisco to enlist. home and resumed my baseball career. back, and called others. The Yankees’
I barely made it into the V-5 program. In October 1951, I got word that the publicity department gave me a hero’s
My high school grades were mainly Cs, Marine Corps would want me back for a welcome, but I was uneasy about it.
and the recruiting officer was skeptical. second tour—this time in the Korean War. One of my most disheartening experi-
But I promised him I’d study hard, and I I’d been playing second base for the Yan- ences was when, just before a game at
did. At preflight school, Joe Foss, the war’s kees, and we’d just beaten the New York Yankee Stadium, I met the wife of Major
celebrated Marine Corps ace, inspired us Giants in the World Series when I was Max Harper, a great guy who had been
with tales of his combat experiences, and I called to Alameda, California. A Marine my tent-mate in Korea. Max had gotten
decided to become a Marine aviator. Corps major offered to take me to lunch. hit during a raid over North Korea and
Like a lot of people, I saw my share “What do you think about going back in went straight in. There was nothing any-
of action. Commissioned in April 1944, the service?” he asked. I told him I hadn’t one could do.
I spent the next 12 months flying Doug- thought much about it. “We’re going to Max’s wife showed up, distraught, on
las SBD Dauntless dive-bombers out of get you,” he said, for a tour of 18 months. the morning of “Jerry Coleman Day,”
Green Island, a speck in the Solomons I asked if he could take me immediately which the Yankees had set up to honor

12 • December 2009 www.usni.org


both photos courtesy of the author

INFIELD TO COCKPIT Lieutenant Colonel Coleman played nine


years at second base for the New York Yankees, managed the San
Diego Padres for a year, and has been a sportscaster for almost a
half-century. What he treasures most, though, is the time he spent
as a Marine Corps aviator.

my military service. Mrs. Harper had been elected to the


hoping that Max had been captured and broadcasters’
might still be alive. She wanted to know wing of the
whether he really had died, and said she Baseball Hall
wouldn’t accept it from anyone but me. of Fame.
I was flying right behind Max. She was I still look
devastated when I told her he was dead. back at my military service as the most ers all these many years—and they’ll
In truth, I left a lot in Korea. I never important thing I’ve ever done. Sure, it’s remain so for life.
was as good on the ballfield as I’d been a thrill to be part of a championship base- My years on active duty left me with
before the war. I’d lost my depth percep- ball team, and it’s heady to be a recog- a heightened sense of perspective—about
tion, and I couldn’t hit anything. A year nized broadcaster. But serving in the mili- life, about my career, and about the pre-
after I returned home, I broke my collar tary—particularly in the Marines, if you’ll ciousness of life itself. The memories of
bone in Yankee Stadium. During my final forgive a little partisanship—trumps all the guys I flew with in World War II and
two years with the team I had to play that in a flash. The Yankees are up there, in Korea have never faded, and neither has
part-time. but not as high. my pride in the Corps. I was lucky to get
But overall, my career has been a re- Training and going into combat with home alive. And I was lucky to have been
warding one. All told, I spent nine years people imbues you with a sense of loy- a Marine.
with the Yankees and did a year as man- alty that makes you put your responsibil-
ager of the San Diego Padres. Then, too ity to your comrades ahead of everything
old to play baseball anymore, I became else—not only while you’re in uniform, Answering the Call is a monthly series of short ar-
ticles by prominent men and women discussing the
a sportscaster—first for the Yankees but for the rest of your life. The friends I impact of their time in the military on their later
and later for the Padres. In 2005 I was made in the Corps have been like broth- achievements.

www.usni.org PROCEEDINGS • 13