TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Before World War II, the Hawaiian Air Force was jokingly referred to as the Pineapple Air Force. After the attacks on Dec. 7, 1941, it was renamed the 7th Army Air Force and a born leader and warrior, Brig. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, was sent in to get the unit in fighting form. That he did, practically overnight, before losing his life leading a new kind of bombing raid. However, General Tinker was not the only famous person to ever serve in the 7th Army Air Force.
In 1941, “Joltin” Joe DiMaggio helped the Yankees win the Subway Series in five games over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Just a few months later, America was at war. Players were torn over whether to enter military service or continue to play.
In President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s now famous “Green Light Letter,” he encouraged baseball and its owners to continue playing during World War II:
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
Before the 1942 season, much publicity surrounded DiMaggio’s holdout for a pay raise. A group of Soldiers from Camp Blanding, Fla., sent him a telegram that read: “In event the Yankees don’t kick in with more than $37,000, we cordially invite you to a tryout with the 143rd Infantry, 36th Division, the fightingest regiment in this man’s Army.” After the 1942 season, DiMaggio was even more conflicted. He decided to go with his conscience and made a decision without even telling the Yankees.
DiMaggio traded a $43,750 Yankees salary for a payment of $50 each month when he chose to enlist in the Army on Feb. 17, 1943. “He is built for the Soldier,” wrote Dan Daniel in Baseball Magazine. “He has the temperament for the Soldier. He has gone into the Army looking for no favors, searching for no job as a coach. He wants to fight, and when he gets his chance, he will prove a credit to himself and his game and the Yanks and his family. This DiMaggio guy really has it.”
The purpose of DiMaggio and most other big leaguers playing on the military teams from the commander-in-chief’s opinion was to keep the regular troops entertained, as well as keep public morale high. World War I had put an end to the baseball season in 1918, and President Roosevelt believed it was important for the country to keep baseball going in World War II. An exception, the great Ted Williams, fought as a Marine combat pilot in World War II and Korea.
DiMaggio was assigned to Special Services and stationed at California’s Santa Ana Air Base. The only major league player on his military team, he and his teammates played against semipro clubs, local college teams and Pacific Coast League teams. DiMaggio reached the rank of sergeant in August 1943.
To ensure the professional players had some time overseas, DiMaggio and other major league players were transferred to Hawaii in spring 1944. In time, the best military baseball players were stationed in Hawaii. Big names like Johnny Beazley, Joe Gordon, Pee Wee Reese and Red Ruffing, along with DiMaggio, were split into different teams. DiMaggio joined the 7th Army Air Force team, which played a nearly full major league schedule, while serving as a supply sergeant. The day after he arrived in Hawaii, he played for the Hickam Bombers and blasted a 435-foot home run out of Honolulu Stadium.
Although DiMaggio had developed stomach ulcers and was often in a lot of pain, he continued to serve in the military and play for the 7th Army Air Force team until he was given a medical release from the Army on Sept. 14, 1945. David Jones in “Joe DiMaggio: a biography,” wrote, “DiMaggio resented the war with an intensity equal to the most battle-scarred private. It had robbed him of the best years of his career. When he went into the Army, DiMaggio had been a 28-year-old superstar, still at the height of his athletic powers. By the time he was discharged from the service, he was nearly 31, divorced, underweight, malnourished and bitter. Those three years, 1943-1945, would carve a gaping hole in DiMaggio’s career totals, creating an absence that would be felt like a missing limb.”
He suited up again for the Yankees the following spring. He was soon back in form and helped guide the Yankees to world championships in 1947, 1949, 1950 and 1951. Although DiMaggio did not serve in the military during the Korean War, he could be seen visiting the troops in 1950. Later, after he had retired from baseball he was still visiting troops worldwide.
Sources include: AF.mil, Baseballinwartime.com, Armedforces.com, 7af.pacaf.mil, Joe DiMaggio: a biography