By Ethan Sutherland
“Wow,” I said to Thomas. My face brightened up as I looked up at the notice posted on the daily announcement board to see that five National Basketball League (NBL) players would be coming to the USS Monterey. I ran as rapidly as I could back to my cabin, only to be met by others.
“Can you believe it?” my friend, Thomas exclaimed. Our ship was chosen by the USO to host five members of the championship winning 1944 Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons. Professional players Buddy Jeannette, Ed Sadowski, Chick Reiser, Charley Shipp, and Paul Bush would be playing an exhibition game against our very own soldiers, myself included. Basketball was one of the only ways we could free our minds from the troublesome thoughts of war, and this was an unexpected surprise.
“They are basketball legends!” I told Thomas. With so many famous athletes coming I could not hold in all of my excitement! Thomas and I decided to go the elevator well which had become our basketball court. There was only one basket, so it was often crowded with so many soldiers there to relieve some stress. Whenever anyone had any free time, they headed to the court to shoot around. We would play pickup games, writing the score in chalk on the painted metal walls. We didn’t have colorful uniforms or the best equipment sold in the States, but we had heart and the love of the game. We had our fellow soldiers who were now our teammates and friends. When we stepped out into the well, we realized everyone must have heard the surprising news as the court was packed with players working on their shots. Everyone wanted a chance to play the pros and impress them. The court had balls flying all over, and sitting atop the gray, metal elevator shaft were multiple spectators viewing from above. It was a beautiful day to be outside and especially on a boat. The sun was shining with an occasional breeze blowing through which would cool me off. Luckily, for us, the waves were not threatening yet, as weather reports showed there was potential for a massive storm. I was exhausted from a day's work, so I decided to shoot from certain spots, instead of moving around so much.
“Swish,” I said, as it felt so satisfying to see the ball hit the bottom of the net and sink in.
“Swish,” I repeated. I shot from the same spot. For a shooter, seeing the ball go through the net is an exhilarating feeling. I decided to shoot five more, but I could not tell if my shots went in due to the many basketballs all hitting the rim at a time. I looked around for Thomas, hoping he would appear before my eyes.
“Thomas!” I said loudly. Then, out of nowhere, he appeared behind me holding his ball.
“Let’s get outta here,” I told him. We left the cramped elevator shaft with growling stomachs as it was almost time for dinner.
“Let’s go right to the mess deck. We will need energy for tomorrow.” Thomas stated.
I was relieved to be able to sit down and enjoy my protein-packed meal. My hands trembled at the thought of meeting actual NBL players would not leave my brain. After Thomas and I were done eating, we finished our nightly duties before heading went back to our cabin to try to get a good night’s sleep. It was hard to fall asleep most nights with the threat of wartime conflict a reality at any time, but tonight I let myself dream of hoops and layups rather than missiles and war. After the best night’s sleep, I have had since being aboard the Monterey, I awoke with anticipation.
The day of the big game. The NBL players should be arriving by noon, and Thomas, Gerald, Roger, Roy, and I were asked to greet them on the flight deck. We were the starting five, an honor as special to me as a war medal. I hopped right out of bed, like a child on Christmas morning, changed into my game clothes, and went down to eat breakfast. Even the bland oatmeal tasted exciting on that morning, as I was so fired up for what the day would bring. Immediately after breakfast, I ran to find my team. Luckily, for us, we were relieved of our morning duties so we could prepare for the NBL team’s arrival. I headed down to check the basketball courts which usually were desolate this early in the day, but today were bursting with excitement. The only things dampening the electric mood were the dark, looming clouds that could be seen to the west way off in the distance. The thought of not being able to play against the legends concerned me, as I prayed for no storm to come.
They needed to be able to land in their aircraft safely. We were used to the rough weather in the Pacific, but today it really scared me. It just needed to stay away for a few more hours. Within the hour, we saw the approaching plane, and we ran to the flight deck to greet our guests. The legends had landed safely. It was game time! They were just as I had imagined them. Buddy, at 5’11” was shorter than I was, but Ed towered over me with his lanky 6’5” frame. Chick walked with a confidence of a winning athlete. Watching them warm up on our dreary elevator well-turned basketball court was almost a dream. I wondered what they could possibly be thinking. Champions used to playing on the professional court were now playing with everyday soldiers in a well on a metal ship floating at sea. We told them how amazing they were on the court, while they told us we were amazing for defending our country. The admiration was mutual both on and off the court. But now it was game time, and I wanted to win.
The winds were starting to pick up, and we knew the game needed to begin. Our commanding officers, including Captain Stuart Ingersoll, watched from the deck high above. It was a proud day for the Monterey, but as excited as everyone seemed to be, there was worry in the faces of the officers I didn’t immediately notice because I was so focused on starting the game. The ten of us took to the court while our fellow soldiers gathered on the deck above, their legs dangling over. Hints of wispy clouds began to appear on this December day, but there was just enough sun to shine on the court. We decided Gerald was going to take the jump for the tip-off. Gerald was a true leader on the Monterey, so he deserved the honor. The game was all I dreamed it would be. It was competitive and respectful, with the scoring going back and forth. Cheers came from the crowds above us, echoing in the well below. The NBL players were incredible but didn’t show off. It was the first time I almost forgot we were at war on a ship in the Pacific Ocean, miles away from our families and friends. Unfortunately, the dream was about to become a nightmare.
We were shaking hands after the game when the gusts of wind began to blow over the darkening skies. The soldiers on the deck could feel the spray of the ocean as the waves became more intense. Our commander ran to sound the storm siren, and we all knew what jobs we had to do. The NBL players were brought inside to a safe location, while the soldiers all got right to work. Thomas and I worked together as aircraft repairmen. Our job was to secure the aircraft on the hangar deck whenever there was bad weather. I called for him in the chaos, but could not find him so I headed up to the deck, figuring he would meet me there. The wailing siren now signaled a typhoon was approaching. This was something we had not dealt with before, but we were trained to get through it. If we were able to survive the enemy plane attacks over the past year, we could hopefully survive the weather. Could it really be that just a few moments ago we were shooting hoops together and now we were praying to survive? As I reached the flight deck, there was no sign of Thomas. I could barely see through the wind gusts and spray from the angry ocean when Gerald seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“Be careful! I almost got blown off the ship!” I shouted to Gerald as he ran by with still no sight of Thomas.
“Thomas! Thomas! Thomas!” I screamed, but I could not find him. I stood right outside the door looking all over for him, but he was not where he was supposed to be. Gerald had gone to look for Thomas and came back to tell me that he could not look anymore since he almost was blown overboard, too. At this point, water was easily over the side of the elevator shaft flooding the court where I just had played the game of my lifetime. Another siren sounded warning all of us to get inside. I did not know it at the time, but there had been a fire on a hangar deck which Gerald bravely helped to extinguish. With no sense of where Thomas was, I had no choice but to listen to the warning to go inside. As I stood in safety, I with many others could hear the wind screeching. I prayed for Thomas, hoping he was safe. So many thoughts ran through my head I could barely process them. Where is Thomas? Are all the players safe? I could not do anything, but wait and time would tell. We stayed sheltered in place for the next many hours. Finally, I heard the news that the players were safe, all of them. I felt great relief, only for a couple of seconds, because I still was concerned about not seeing Thomas up on the deck. I was very grateful to be alive, but I could not stop thinking about my best friend.
After the storm passed, everyone on the ship started heading back to their cabins, so I followed hoping to find Thomas back at the cabin we had shared for the last few months. Everyone needed to get back to work. The ship was damaged by the storm and the fires. There was so much to do, but we were thankful to have survived. Thomas had not checked back in yet to his room, which gave me the chills. I waited nervously but convinced myself he was probably working somewhere on the ship. I sat in my room that night, with mixed emotions. How could the day have been so exciting and so devastating? Still amazed at the game we had played, but at the same time depressed, I looked over and saw that Thomas had left his picture of his family on his bed that morning. I was praying he was going to walk back into our cabin when I dozed off for the night.
I was woken up by the Commander of the Monterey entering our cabin.
“James, we have terrible news,” as he said with a look of grief on his face.
“Yes, sir. What is going on?” I totally forgot about Thomas for a second as I had just woken up.
“Thomas Roberts was found dead early this morning by a sailor on a nearby boat.” I nearly passed out. Standing in shock, I could not believe the words that came out of his mouth.
“Son, are you alright?” repeated the officer until I could nod my head. That day I felt empty inside, for I had lost a great friend. Afternoon duties felt meaningless for Thomas was not with me. I was wandering aimlessly when I ran into two people who a week ago I never imagined I would meet, let alone speak with. Buddy Jeannette and Chick Reiser were walking down the hallway with Gerald and Roy.
“You all right kid? Looks like you just took a beating," Buddy pointed out.
“Oh, yeah I’m all right. Thank you," I said, trying to sound sure even to myself. Chick put his hand on my shoulder and walked me into the mess deck along with Gerald and Buddy. I could not believe I was having dinner with my two role models. My mind was going a thousand miles an hour as I could not think of something to say. I could tell by the way Buddy and Chick looked at me they were sympathetic. They decided to lighten the mood, so we talked about the game. Buddy and Chick told Gerald and me that playing on the Monterey was an honor and that they will always remember playing against brave soldiers, especially Thomas. They told me to keep playing and using basketball as something to bring me joy. They assured me that being a soldier was more important than being a basketball player and that Thomas would be remembered by them before every game they played. They then turned to Gerald.
“You’re going to do something great one day, you know,” Buddy pointed out to Gerald. You are a leader on the court and off. The way you went to search for your fellow soldier and put out the fire risking your life was amazing! I shook my head and agreed. We didn’t know it at the time, but Gerald was Gerald Ford, and he would go on and do great things as a leader. He would become the President of the United States! As I finished my breakfast, I could tell this experience of a lifetime was coming to an end. Buddy and Chick walked me out of the mess deck, and we parted ways when the Commander came to take them back to their USO plane to leave. I shook their hands and thanked them before heading back to my cabin to prepare for work. We were still at war and there was work to be done. I was thankful for Chick, Buddy, and the other NBL players for taking the time to come and give us this experience and for speaking with me and Gerald after all that had happened.
They did it out of kindness which just proves to me they will do outstanding things in their lives. I sat on my bed and just thought to myself how grateful I was to be where I am now, hopefully returning home to my family in only three weeks when the Monterey would dock for maintenance. After the death of my best friend, and the conversation with Buddy and Chick, I realized how lucky I was to still be here, and it made me look at life in a totally different way. There may be storms in life, but there also are those big game moments that keep you going.