Sports heroes also shine in harsh combat

Many of us love uplifting sports stories, while many also love to be inspired by stories of heroism in the face of the enemy. Happily, within the past few months, three first-rate books have been published.


Each book tells the life story of one extraordinary American who excelled in intercollegiate sports and then served with distinction in the military. Louie Zamperini, Robin Olds and Donald Walter Holleder all belong in the pantheon of American heroes.

LOUIE ZAMPERINI was a track star who competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, got to know his famous teammate Jesse Owens and met Adolf Hitler. In World War II, when Zamperini's B-24 bomber went down in the Pacific, he spent 44 days in a small raft -- perhaps the greatest sea survival story in American history.

At the point of death, he was captured and severely tortured by the Japanese. He somehow survived. He is alive, well and living in California at age 94. Soon the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand -- Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption -- will become a movie.

Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds , by Christian Olds, Ed Rasimus and Robin Olds, is the story of an All-American football player who went on to be a fighter ace in World War II, and shot down four enemy MIGs when he was a fighter-wing commander during the Vietnam War.

The athletic skills and aggressiveness that he displayed on the football field paid off handsomely as he faced the skillful pilots of the German Luftwaffe and the North Vietnamese Air Force. His descriptions of air-to-air combat are gripping. Based on many experiences in running both small and large organizations during especially stressful times, Olds' practical advice on leadership and integrity are especially powerful.

THE HOLLEDER story -- A Spartan Game: The Life and Loss of Donald Walter Holleder by Terry Tibbetts -- is also profoundly uplifting. "Holly" also was an All-American football player, who played for the Black Knights of West Point during the 1950s. During his senior year, his coach, Red Blaik, switched him from end to quarterback, a position he had never played before. With that decision, often called Blaik's folly, any chance that Holleder could have been a two time first-team All American and candidate for the Heisman Trophy was lost. Because of his selfless commitment to his team, Holleder earned the Swede Nelson award -- then the highest award for sportsmanship in college football -- at the end of his senior year. The key sports moment took place at the Army-Navy football game in 1955. Happily that is how the book commences.

To quote a soldier who fought in the battle in which Holleder was killed: "Don Holleder was the only officer who moved toward the sound of the guns to help save the suffering, beleaguered American soldiers."

An overflow crowed attended his funeral at the Fort Myer chapel. Many of his family members, classmates, football and basketball teammates came to honor him. Coach Blaik, U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and Vince Lombardi were just of a few of the dignitaries in attendance.

TOWARD THE END of the book, Tibbetts tells how Holleder's close friend and West Point classmate, Leroy Suddath, worked hard to get the Army to upgrade Holly's Silver Star to a Distinguished Service Cross. Five times Suddath was officially turned down. Yet he persisted.

When the book was published the issue still was in doubt. Happily, in April, the Department of the Army finally approved this richly deserved upgrade. At the Holleder Center at West Point, this Distinguished Service Cross -- America's second highest award for combat heroism -- is now prominently displayed.

On Monday, author Terry Tibbetts will visit Augusta. He will sign and personalize copies of his book at the River Room at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 605 Reynolds St., at 1:45 p.m. The books will be provided at a discount and the public is invited.

As a special treat, retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Leroy Suddath will be driving up from Savannah. Suddath will be at the River Room to help Tibbets promote the book and to visit Augusta once again. Leroy, who was a basketball star at Richmond Academy, is looking forward to visiting with some old friends.

(The writer is president of the board of trustees of the Augusta Museum of History, and secretary of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. His e-mail address is Smith was Holleder's roommate at West Point, and was best man at his wedding.)