For Veteran’s Day, I was inspired to write an article about a friend of mine who played in a basketball league as World War II was winding down. Captain (Ret.) Jim Suttenfield served in World War II and won three bronze stars. He attended the University of Richmond after the war where he played on the varsity basketball team. After college, he served in the Korean War. In 2004, he and I attended a Duke basketball game. As we walked through the Duke Hall of Fame, he saw a life size banner of Corren Youmans. His eyes began to weld up, I felt honored to have shared that moment with him. His memories inspired me to write this article in honor of all the Veterans of the United States. Here is his story.
I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. My father was an Army Chaplin who served as mayor of Lynchburg and became a minister at local church. I had two brothers and each one of us had interests in sports. One of my brothers played football, the other baseball and I played basketball. I played on the varsity basketball team at my high school and started for three years.
All the young men I knew had a deep love for our Country. With the outbreak of World War II, we wanted to serve our Country. After high school, I enlisted in the Army. When I got out of basic training, I figured I would be better off if I became an officer. So I decided to enroll in Officers’ Training School and was bussed to Georgia. Shortly after graduation, I received my orders to go to Europe.
I arrived in France in the winter of 1944 and on the third day I found myself in the middle of the war (Battle of the Bulge). Here I am, a 20 year old 2nd lieutenant, leading a group of men. As each day passed, I worried about my fellow soldiers. As we fought our way through the forest, you could hear the German artillery coming through air like a freight train. The tops of trees were being snapped off and our biggest concern was the falling branches and trees. Every night that I laid down in a fox hole, I prayed to God to look over me and my men. You never knew who would make it through the next day.
We were dealing with cold weather and at times the snow could be up to your kiester. At night time, you had to dig a fox hole with the hand shovels. You tried to dig deep enough until you found dry ground. Once the hole was dug, you put a blanket on the bottom of the hole hoping it would keep you dry. Everyone was given two pairs of socks, at night time you would take the pair off your feet and put the wet ones under your armpits to dry. You did what you could to stay clean. Hot showers were a luxury; it was a month between them.
Late one afternoon around dusk, we came upon a clearing in a forest. In the distant field, you could see an old farm house. I ordered my troops to dig in at the edge of the field. A lieutenant leading a platoon next to me kept goading me to take the farmhouse. I was sure there was food in the farmhouse along with the enemy, but I was not willing to risk my men’s lives. The next morning, the lieutenant must have let my rejections get best of him. He stood up and walked about 20 yards into the field. Bam! A German sniper sitting in the farmhouse shot him right between the eyes. I moved my men back and we took the farmhouse before noon that day.
By late spring of 1945, I had been promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Three major battles in the Infantry helped me make up my mind that I needed to transfer to another division. My transfer was granted and I joined the 4th Armored Division. Germany had surrendered and the Army did not know what to do with all of soldiers in Europe. With the war still going on in the Pacific, troops were constantly being moved to the Pacific, back to the United States and even new troops arrived in Europe. The Army decided the troops needed some type of entertainment, so they formed a basketball league.
There was one basketball team for each Army Division. The teams would play each other for several months and then there was to be a tournament. The winning team of the tournament would be rewarded with a flight home to New York. Some of the teams that made up the league were the 1st Division – “The Big Red”, 71st Infantry, 10th Replacement Depot, an Air Force team from Austria, and others.
I remember seeing a posting for a basketball tryout at an arena on a river. I was excited to try out for the team. When I walked into the arena, there must have been 300 men lined up along the walls of the gym. Wow! How was I going to make the team with all that talent? After several days of practice, I made the final cut of 14 players on the 4th Armored Division team. Our coach was Captain McEwan who had coached football at West Point in the 1920s. One day after about four weeks of league play, I was called into the Colonel’s office. He told me that McEwan was being transferred and I would be coaching the team. Here I was, a 21 year old only with experience playing high school basketball. And now I was being asked to coach these men.
The continuous transfer of soldiers had an impact on the roster of every team. Coaches were always trying to work out deals to keep their teams stacked with the best talent. There were no slackers in this league. On our team we had:
Bob Lavoy was thin for his height at 6’7” but could really post up and stick with any other player. He played at Western Kentucky and went onto play in the NBA after the war. Lavoy was selected in the first round of the 1950 NBA draft by the Indianapolis Olympians. He played for them for three years and then for the Syracuse Nationals. He later coached at the University of Tampa.
Dale Hall was a rock. He was an All American basketball player at West Point and had played football at West Point. Hall was a two time All American in basketball at West Point. In 1959, he became the head football coach at West Point.
Corren Youmans was one of our best players. After the war, he went to Duke where he played basketball. Youmans was a three time All Southern Conference forward at Duke. He was also on the 1950 Duke football team.
Ed Sterling was from Ohio. He was a great shooter. After the war, he played forward at West Virginia University. Sterling was a three time letterman at WVU.
Some of the other players in the league were:
Carlisle Towery was an All American at Western Kentucky and played professional basketball. Towery played at WKU from 1938 to 1941. He then played for the Fort Wayne Pistons before the war and after the war up until 1950.
Vic Bubas was a player I continuously tried to recruit. He was a great guard and could really handle the ball. I could not get him to switch teams. After the war, he played for N.C. State and later coached at Duke University. Bubas was a two time All Southern Conference guard at North Carolina State. As head coach at Duke, he led the basketball team to the Final Four three times.
In the winter of 1945, our team made it to the semi-final game of the Class A Division Championship. We were winning the game and I took Corren Youmans out to save him for the Championship game. Youmans was sitting next to me on the bench and kept elbowing me saying “put me back into the game.” I wanted to look after my men and like every young coach I made a mistake. With about 3 minutes left, I gave into Youmans and put him back in the game. Within a few seconds, he sprained his ankle and he could not play in the Championship game. The next day we lost the Championship game by 12 points. I know we would have been on that plane back to New York if Youmans could have played. Instead of getting to go home, we spent the next couple of months touring Europe and playing in exhibition basketball games.