Medal of Honor

June 5, 1944. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

In 1941, a University of Arkansas football player named Maurice “Footsie” Britt (he wore size 13 shoes; hence the nickname) opened his mailbox to find an endearingly anachronistic letter from the New York Giants football team:

Dear Sir —

Since this will have been your last year of collegiate football, we should like to take this opportunity to ask whether or not you would be interested in playing professional football next year.

Like Big League Professional Baseball, Big League Professional Football is a highly organized business for clean-living young men who love the game they play.

If you would like to coach in later life, or if you need some money to help you pursue some particular branch of studies or to set yourself up in business, professional football merits your thoughtful consideration.

Britt had been on an ROTC scholarship at Arkansas, but he put off his military service and ended up playing with the Detroit Lions during the 1941 season. (I’m not sure if he was traded by the Giants or what, but he wound up with the Lions.)

His biggest moment: catching a 45-yard, game-winning touchdown pass against the Philadelphia Eagles, in the second-to-last game of the season.

Two weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Britt went to war. Very quickly, he was in intense combat.

He fought in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and he ultimately became the first US soldier to be awarded all four of the top medals for valor in a single conflict.

Here’s what his time overseas looked like, in 7 very short paragraphs:

  1. November 1942, North Africa: Serving as an infantry platoon leader during the invasion, Britt was one of the first US soldiers to fight against the Nazis. Seven months later, he was also part of the invasion of Sicily.

  2. September 1943, Salerno: Britt took over after his commander was wounded. He crawled 50 yards and wiped out a German machine gun nest. (Awarded Silver Star and Purple Heart)

  3. October 1943, Pietravairano: Under fire and exposed to an enemy sniper, Britt ran down a “steep, rocky hill” to rescue a wounded US soldier. (Awarded Bronze Star and Purple Heart)

  4. November 1943, Monte Retundo: Vastly outnumbered and surrounded, Britt led his troops in a fierce defensive battle. When reinforcements arrived, they found 35 dead German bodies around Britt and his surviving troops. (Awarded Medal of Honor and Purple Heart)

  5. January 1944, Anzio: “Pinned down by intense small arms fire from all sides,” according to an official military account, Britt ran across 75 yards of open terrain to set up a machine gun and return fire. (Awarded Distinguished Service Cross)

  6. February 1944, also Anzio: After everything else, this was almost anticlimactic: a “German high explosive shell came whistling through the window” of a house in which Britt was taking cover. It tore off his right arm and destroyed one of his lungs. (Awarded Purple Heart)

  7. June 1944, Arkansas: Britt was sent home to return to civilian life and learn to live with his wounds. Thousands filled the University of Arkansas football stadium for his Medal of Honor ceremony on June 5, 1944.

There are a lot of things in this story that hit me, but one is that for a lot of Americans my age, if they think of World War II, they probably think of Band of Brothers or (fictionalized) Saving Private Ryan.

But the action in those stories starts with D-Day; Britt’s entire war was over by then.

Afterward, he went to law school and ran a series of businesses. He was married twice and had kids; he also served two terms as lieutenant governor of Arkansas, starting in 1966. It tells you how long ago this was that Britt was one of the first Republicans elected to statewide office in Arkansas.

Britt died in 1995. He was one of two NFL players awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II; the other was a Marine named Jack Lummus, who played for the Giants, and who was killed in action in the Pacific.

I first dug up Britt’s story when the publisher of my book on the Iraq War asked me to consider writing about World War II. I dug deep on a lot of things, but the project didn’t pan out.

Still, it’s always struck me that Britt was one of the most famous people in America for roughly 24 hours—June 5, 1944—until the invasion of Europe (quite understandably) bumped him off the front pages.

In some ways, that’s the saddest part of the story. Every once in a while, I just like to remind people that he existed.

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7 other things worth your time

  • The US Department of Justice is elevating investigations of ransomware attacks to a similar priority as terrorism. Meanwhile, the White House warned executives and business leaders to strengthen their defenses. “We can't do it alone," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. "Business leaders have a responsibility to strengthen their cyber defenses to protect the American public and our economy." (Reuters)

  • “Individuals who eat two medium-sized mushrooms daily—about 18 grams total— have a 45 percent lower risk of cancer compared to those who do not eat mushrooms,” according to Penn State research, published in the journal Advances in Nutrition. The Penn research examined 17 cancer studies from 1966 to 2020, analyzing more than 19,500 cancer patients. (SCMP)

  • This is how to handle a leadership transition: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in Division I men's basketball history with five national championships, will retire after the 2021-22 season. His associate head coach, Jon Scheyer, will spend the 2021-22 season as coach-in-waiting and will take over after that. (ESPN)

  • United Airlines says it is buying 15 supersonic aircraft from startup Boom Supersonic. It’ll take a few years before these actually fly, but they will supposedly hit Mach 1.7 and cut the transit time between New York and London Heathrow to about 3.5 hours. (CNBC; I’ll likely be writing more about this over the weekend for Inc.com, but this article has the basic facts.)

  • A Stanford Law School student whose diploma was held up after he distributed a flyer making fun of the Federalist Society and two Republican lawmakers will be allowed to graduate. “Stanford determined that the mock flyer emailed to fellow law students fell under protected speech.” (Fox News)

  • 7-Eleven says it will add 500 electric car chargers at 250 stores in the US and Canada by the end of 2022. (CNET)

  • No hard data, to my knowledge, but this sort of makes sense: A significant (?) number of parents who pulled their kids out of public education during the pandemic are deciding to continue home schooling, even if we’re returning to normal. (Wired)

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    Thanks for reading. Photo credit: The University of Arkansas gave me permission to use these photos a while back. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here

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