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'The Championship Team' 1951 Latty Lions, Part 1

 

By GERALD SINN

Special to the Progress

Part 1 of 3

I often wondered about the Nazis in Pinder Kaserne. Pinder was my U.S. Army base in Landshut, Germany, near Munich, in 1960. It was a Nazi Panzer base in World War II, but later a base for U.S. tanks. Some 50 years later, I learned that on March 19, 1945, a total of 800 American B-24 bombers had dropped bombs on the Pinder Kaserne.

One of the pilots in those bombers was a young man from Defiance (graduate of Zanesville). His name is 1st Lt. Charles Gordon Newton. On that same day in 1945, I was in Mrs. Mouser’s third grade classroom, in a small schoolhouse in Latty. In that year, Lt. Newton had become an American hero, flying many major combat missions across Central Europe. The fact that he and I would meet, that our lives would cross in future years, even into Europe, was indeed unforeseen by me. This story, however, would not be complete, unless you also meet this extraordinary man.

 

To introduce our hero, let’s fly over Po Valley, high in the mountains of northern Italy on April 15, 1945, in World War II. Nazis were firing cannon shells, which whistled past the cockpits of the B-24 and B-17 bombers. Flak-guns reached the bombers, punching hundreds of holes in planes and in crewmen.

Lt. Newton was not flying alone on this mission; outside his cockpit windows were 1,234 more U.S. bombers, flying wingtip to wingtip, as far as his eye could see. The planes carried 25,000 bombs, to cover a five-mile area near Bologna, Italy, on the Po River. This was the largest U.S. Fifteenth Air Force Unit invasion of the war. It opened the Po Valley to defeat the Nazis. In the next 26 days, World War II would end.

This mission, and others, earned Lt. Newton the U.S. Air Medal, four Bronze Stars on his EAME Medal, the Victory Medal, and American Campaign Medal, all for his sustained operational activities against the enemy – or in essence, risking his life for his country at the age of 21 years.

THE RETURN HOME

He came back home to Marilyn Murphy. They shared only 30 days of dating before he went off to War – but not before he put a ring on her finger. She was waiting when he returned. They married in the first year, while Charles was at Defiance College, starting in math courses. He didn’t stop his education till he claimed his master’s degree from Indiana University. Now he was ready to begin his second career. He would be a teacher – a math teacher – heavy in physics, algebra and business.

Then, on the first day of school in September 1949, Mr. Newton, with attaché case in hand, walked up the front sidewalk of a very small high school in the town of Latty. The place had only 22 boy students, and as many girl students, in the whole high school. Ours is to reason why any young man, with his qualifications, would choose such a place to begin a working career – maybe the war made him choose. But then, some exceptional people have started from humble beginnings.

That’s where I met Mr. Newton. In my seventh grade Geography class. He knew the subject well – flying across the globe in the war. His teaching techniques were smooth. He gave me fair grades, even in algebra. Students remember his “airplane” stories. Ray Treece, our center on the basketball team, said, “Newt talked about planes, flying 30 feet over the Mediterranean Sea or to ball-bearing factories in Germany.” Other students said the stories were just about flying. He never talked about the war, ever, even to Marilyn. Though bad dreams, nightmares, plagued him over the years.

His first year passed at Latty High; he had friends everywhere – he was a favorite.

When he showed up for the first day of school in 1950 there was a note on his desk: “See Supt. Ray Hart – Promptly,” it read. He went to Mr. Hart’s office at the top of the stairs. After their greetings of summer, Ray said he needed a favor. “I’m in need of a basketball coach this year, Charles. I’m stuck, it’s too late to get anyone else.”

“But, Ray,” he said, “I’ve never played a game of basketball in my life. I don’t even know how to shoot a basketball. I can’t coach a team.”

“We can help you, Charles. You have a month to prepare; there’s also extra money in it for you.”

THE COACH

Perhaps the “extra money” was the clincher. Otherwise, to our dismay, he may never have been a coach.

It was the first night of practice for the new Latty Lions of 1951. “Bend those knees, stop, bend again, six more inches.” You could hear the knees and muscles cracking, on each of us 14 players. Seniors through freshman were working out.

“Bend all the way, touch your toes,” Coach Newton called again. “C’mon, if I can do it, you can do it, by golly, I’m 27 years old, you’re young.” Next we ran up the gym steps, then down, repeatedly, then push-ups, jumping jacks, etc. “If we don’t have a winning team, we’ll have the strongest team.” The workout was strenuous, it was difficult. The “daily dozen” was the toughest calisthenics program in the war. The Lions did them before basketball practices, every day and every week. Before we touched a basketball, we did the “daily dozen.” Likely our coach did them in the war, in Foggia, Italy, between his flights. They may have saved his life.

With players moaning and groaning, you’d think the coach was making enemies – not at all. Not only was he our good teacher in the classrooms, we students liked him. He took a sincere interest in us, he talked to us one-on-one – in studyhall or wherever.

In future weeks, our muscles developed. Our strength and conditioning gave us new control and coordination over our young bodies. We were running and moving fast, jumping higher, diving in, getting basketball interceptions, moving the ball down the floor faster. The Lions were ready for the new season.

HOW DID HE DO IT?

How do you, mathematically, at age 21, stay in formation flying a huge B-24 bomber without hitting 1,234 other bombers, wingtip to wingtip to your plane, during a mission of war? The rudder pedals on B-24s were hard and clumsy. Anti-aircraft explosives were shaking the plane. Secondly, in basketball, how hard do you shoot the ball to get “nothing but net, a swish” – whether you’re at seven feet or 70 feet away? The above is mathematics. Our minds must calculate, use eyesight, muscles, knees, grace, grip, feel, judge distances, etc.

A person with a strong mind in the field of mathematics, may at times develop incredible feats of achievement – like winning a Paulding County basketball championship game for the smallest school in the state of Ohio, when (1) it has never been done before, ever and (2) by a man that has never coached or played a basketball game of any kind in his entire life.

How would he do it? What he needed to do was to apply his mathematic skills to a higher level of thought. But there was another ingredient needed here. It was so important, without it, his coaching success may be impossible. His students in his classes, his people in sports, educational administrators in mid-America and even Congressmen in Washington, D.C. would come to recognize this important ingredient; as the “Newton Sincerity” – which gets through.”*

*Dayton Daily News, Aug. 17, 1971

Next week: Let the games begin.

© Gerald Sinn 2011

e-mail: jerpro@msn.com

Related Stories:

• 'The Championship Team' 1951 Latty Lions Part 2

• 'The Championship Team' 1951 Latty Lions Part 3