Thursday, December 14, 2017
Human Interest

War forged friendship between baseball's Joe Garagiola and Tampa Tribune's Tom McEwen

Wauchula, the seat of Hardee County, embodies an old Florida ethos, with its rural traditions coiled as tight as a cow hunter's whip. In the 1930s, Wauchula proclaimed it was the cucumber capital of America.

The Hill in St. Louis attracted thousands of Italian immigrants from Lombardy, eager to find the American dream in the locale's clay mines and brick factories.

The two places seem to have nothing in common. But war, began a 1940s bromide, is the reason God wants Americans to learn geography. Pearl Harbor and Manila brought together two young men from those places who became lifelong friends.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Tom McEwen was an 18-year-old freshman at the all-male University of Florida. He had been playing tennis when he returned to his fraternity house to hear the news of Pearl Harbor. "We were in the ROTC," McEwen said.

The ATO house became a hub of war. McEwen's fraternity brothers included the Gibbons brothers (Sam and Myron). "We were called up in June 1943," McEwen said. "All of us went to Fort Bragg for basic training. But there were so many (college students) that they sent us back to the University of Florida to wait for openings in officers' candidate school."

McEwen graduated "in absentia" from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He trained for a tank battalion at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. The superior German tanks were devastating American tanks in France, and McEwen was a tank platoon leader expecting to be shipped to France. Instead, he wound up in the Philippines in the spring of 1945. The Philippine Islands had been the scene of fierce fighting.

The Army assigned the 785th Tank Battalion to guard Japanese prisoners of war. "Little Mack," bellowed his commanding officer. "You've got some education. You're now a prisoner officer."

A crop-carrying general informed McEwen that he had three days to build a POW camp before the first Japanese arrived. The position of prison officer brought an assigned driver. "Pfc. Joe Garagiola, reporting for duty!"

Wauchula Tom and G.I. Joe scarcely seemed to be from the same planet. McEwen had delivered newspapers in Wauchula on horseback. Tom hungered for his mother's swamp cabbage and grits, while Joe yearned for risotto and polenta, dishes that seemed mysterious if not revolting to the other. Now they learned to eat Spam and chipped beef on toast.

In Manila, Joe and Tom shared their love of baseball, girls, and postwar dreams. Garagiola wished to become a baseball star; McEwen, a sports writer.

Gen. Plank's orders were clear and precise: Be humane, but work the prisoners 12 hours a day and use your wits to figure out how to feed and clothe them. "Use your head, son," the general emphasized. "Labor is at a premium here — Barter that labor!"

Eventually, 2,000 Japanese prisoners crowded the camp.

"The only danger," McEwen remembered, "was Filipinos shooting the Japanese prisoners." The Japanese occupation of the Philippines had been brutal: Almost a million civilians had died during the occupation.

Garagiola remembered that his only wartime injuries occurred driving Japanese prisoners to work sites and being hit by stones and bricks. The two men would stroll in front of the barbed-wire prison camp with a bat, glove and ball. "I could hit foul balls straight up and catch them! The Japanese thought I was Houdini!"

The atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that the Philippines would no longer be needed as a staging base for the invasion of Japan. Capt. McEwen and Sgt. Garagiola joined the flood of American G.I.s coming home. McEwen joined the Fort Myers News-Press in 1947, and then the St. Petersburg Times. In 1958, McEwen became sports editor of the Tampa Daily Times, and then the Tampa Tribune in 1962.

McEwen's influence extended past the press box, a quality that made him a lightning rod for critics who believed he crossed the line, becoming close friends with owners and stars. He clearly deserves some credit for persuading owners to award Tampa an NFL franchise in 1975.

Discharged from the service in 1946, 20-year-old Joe Garagiola made his major-league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in May that year. He excelled in the World Series that year, outhitting Ted Williams of the Red Sox. But Joe's neighbor from Elizabeth Avenue, Yogi Berra, became the greatest catcher from the Hill.

Garagiola's greatest talent was talking about baseball. He began his announcing career in 1955 with KMOX radio and the St. Louis Cardinals. He became a legend as a baseball broadcaster and then as a Today Show host.

When McEwen died in 2011, I called Garagiola, and he was grief-stricken. Garagiola died in March.

G.I. Joe and Wauchula Tom remained close friends for almost 70 years.

Gary R. Mormino is the author of "Immigrants on the Hill: Italians in St. Louis" (1986). He is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council.

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