“Hank Greenberg has won the admiration of military men and civilians with the splendid attitude he has shown since joining the Army.”
Notes from Hank
Life, the most popular magazine in the country, ran a three-page spread on Greenberg’s eventual induction, documenting the metamorphosis of the player known as “Hankus Pankus” into Private Greenberg. George Martin gushed in the Minneapolis Tribune: “Hank Greenberg has won the admiration of military men and civilians with the splendid attitude he has shown since joining the Army.” Senator Joshua Bailey of North Carolina praised Greenberg for his sacrifice, giving up his $55,000 baseball salary for $21 a month in Army pay. “To my mind, he’s a bigger hero than when he was knocking home runs,” Sen. Bailey told The New York Times. Regarding the controversy that surrounded his draft status, the Detroit Jewish Chronicle concluded, “Hank emerges as patriotic as any of those who criticized him.”
Greenberg was the first major leaguer to re-enlist. “We are in trouble, and there’s only one thing to do – return to the service,” he said. Rather than wait for the call as a member of the reserves, he went to Washington, D. C., and enlisted in the Army Air Forces. “This doubtless means I am finished with baseball, and it would be silly for me to say I do not leave it without a pang,” Hank said. “But all of us are confronted with a terrible task – the defense of our country and the fight of our lives.”
“Fans of America, and all baseball, salute him for that decision.”
The Sporting News praised Greenberg for his willingness to protect the ideals of American democracy that had allowed the son of Romanian immigrants to achieve success. Editor J.G. Taylor Spink credited Hugh Mulcahy for being the first major league ballplayer drafted while the country was still neutral and Bob Feller for being the first to enlist after the declaration of war, “But the decision announced last week by Hank Greenberg gave the game and the nation a special thrill,” Spink wrote. He noted that Hank could have stayed home, said he had already done his bit, but he decided to serve again. “Fans of America, and all baseball, salute him for that decision.”
After completing a course at the Officers Candidate School in Miami Beach later that spring, Greenberg was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to the Headquarters Flying Training Command in Fort Worth, Texas. There, he supervised the base’s athletic program and traveled around the country inspecting training facilities. He was promoted to first lieutenant in November and four months later, in light of his “superior” performance, was promoted again to captain.
After 16 months at Fort Worth while the war dragged on, Hank requested duty closer to the action. In early 1944, Captain Greenberg shipped out to the China-Burma-India theatre with the first group of B-29s employed overseas. The United States planned to bring down the Japanese on the backs of these planes. The 58th Bombardment Wing, with Hank as its commanding officer, set up a base in China’s south-central province of Szechuan.
On the inaugural mission, one of the B-29s failed to clear the runway and burst into flames. Hank and a chaplain bravely dashed out of the control tower toward the wreck. When they were maybe 50 yards away, the plane’s bomb load began exploding and knocked them off their feet. They got up and continued toward the plane. They were surprised to find five crew members who had managed to climb from the wreckage. “Some of them were pretty well banged up, but no one was killed,” Hank said. “That was an occasion, I can assure you, when I didn’t wonder whether or not I’d be able to return to baseball.”
In February 1944 during a flight on the way to China, Greenberg met Lt. Col. Edward Smith in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean.
After striking up a conversation, Smith asked Greenberg to sign 10 shilling note from British West Africa (now Nigeria). Tradition dictated that if you were caught in an Officer’s Club without your short snorter – a bill signed by another officer – you had to buy everyone a round of drinks. But if you had yours, the challenger bought your next drink.
Smith never lost his – and later donated the bill with the famous autograph to the Museum’s collection.
Just 12 years after his meeting with Edward Smith, Greenberg would be enshrined in Cooperstown.
When Hank returned to the United States in October 1944, he received the Presidential Unit Citation and four bronze battle stars.
Assigned to the Air Technical Service Command’s production division based in Manhattan, he assumed the role of cheerleader, motivating workers at war plants lagging in production. “I never talk about baseball,” he told a reporter. “War’s my business now, and so I talk war, stressing the dire need for greater effort.”