May 30, 2016
Georgia Tech and military service have long been intertwined with a vast number of alumni serving our country over the last century.
On this Memorial Day, we remember two heroes who lost their lives in World War II.
In 2009, Wes Durham wrote about Clint Castleberry’s remarkable time on The Flats:
The Yellow Jackets would have to battle some adversity during the year. Coach Alexander had taken ill, and would surrender a couple of games to his able assistant Bobby Dodd. Injuries to the Jackets were also becoming a factor, but Castleberry was continuing to make big plays along the way.
At 4-0, and visiting powerful Navy, Castleberry returned an interception 95 yards for a touchdown, then capped the victory by batting down three late passes to stop a rally by the Mids. The performance spread word to the northeast. The New York Herald wrote, “speed and shiftiness…which combined the best features of a wraith and an antelope.”
The Washington Post wondered why the eastern press did not know of this fine player?
A 26-7 win a week later at Duke proved to be costly to Tech. Several Jackets were injured in the game. Castleberry’s exploits included a handful of runs and yet another critical interception at Duke Stadium. Twenty-two players were unable to practice leading up to the Kentucky game the next week.
The following week, Castleberry was limited with injury, but still scored, on the way to a 47-7, win against Kentucky. The Jackets held off Alabama the following week at home, 7-0, it what arguably was Castleberry’s finest hour.
He single-handedly set up the lone touchdown of the game, before letting teammate Ralph Plaster score on a one-yard keeper. Then he batted down passes on defense, made key tackles and managed the game like a veteran player, as the Jackets ultimately beat the Crimson Tide.
Alabama head coach Ralph Thomas said, “the best first year defensive back I have seen.” Legendary columnist Fred Russell of the Nashville Banner wrote, “I know of only one way to stop Castleberry, and that’s to repeal the freshman eligibility rule.”
The physical nature of the season was taking its toll on Tech. Dodd, who had guided the Jackets against Alabama, would do so again in their 20-7, victory against Florida the next week. But late in that game, Castleberry hurt his knee, and his final two games would not showcase him at full speed.
His efforts were valiant, but there would not be a win over Georgia in the regular season finale. The showdown with Frank Sinkwich didn’t materialize either for Castleberry. He and Tech were just shadows of the earlier team that had taken the nation by storm. The Bulldogs won handily in Athens, 34-0.
Castleberry reinjured the knee leading up to the bowl game, and he would only appear briefly in the post-season. Most of the Jackets had been “Iron Men” through the season, playing an average of 55 minutes per game. They were headlined by the rookie star.
This remarkable season would come to an end on New Year’s Day in the Cotton Bowl, when Tech fell to Texas, 14-7, in Dallas. The Jackets would finish 9-2.
Later that month, Castleberry had surgery on the knee. A month after that, he and 17 other players off that team were called up for duty in the Army Air Corps. He and longtime girlfriend, Shirley Poole staged a “wartime wedding” before he reported for training as a pilot in Arkansas and his additional assignments.
Less than two years later, Castleberry was gone. On Nov. 7, 1944, the flight from Liberia to Senegal never landed. He and three others were originally reported missing, and two weeks later that status was changed to killed.
Read the full story here.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to Tech was a failed scouting trip to Tennessee in 1930 to watch the Volunteers play Tech’s next opponent, North Carolina. The story goes that, due to car trouble, Tharpe was only able to catch the last few minutes of the game. Following the game, he sought out Tennessee coach Robert Neyland for assistance. Neyland pointed him to his quarterback, Bobby Dodd, whose assistance helped Tech earn a 6-6 tie with the Tar Heels.
As documented in “Dress Her in White and Gold,” a history of Georgia Tech, “Dodd’s analysis so impressed Tharpe that he pestered Coach Alex to hire him. Tech was looking for a backfield coach at the end of the 1930 season and Alex decided to look up Dodd just to silence Tharpe.”
Dodd, of course, was hired, eventually succeeded Alexander and became the school’s all-time winningest coach.
While Tharpe and Dodd were assistants together under Alexander, Tharpe was secretly taking flying lessons prior to the United States’ entry into World War II. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war, he enlisted at the age of 38, hoping to become a fighter pilot while knowing that his age would likely prevent him from achieving his ambition.
According to “Jackrabbit,” the biography of Tech legend Clint Castleberry, Alexander advised him to enter the Navy as an instructor and then try to work his way into an opportunity to fly. According to a newspaper report from the day, he was stationed domestically at a flight school in Athens and an air station in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But his skill and determination to fly proved successful, as he became a combat pilot in the Pacific theater.
“The story of how Tharpe enlisted in the Navy and the course of his career that landed him at forty-one a full-fledged Navy pilot aboard a carrier, in the Pacific, is a Navy tale that will be told at the war’s end,” Alexander wrote.
Word came March 5, 1945 – 70 years ago — that he had been killed in action. He left behind a wife, Jane Tharpe, and an 11-month-old daughter, Mary McCall Tharpe. He was 41. Alexander wrote that he had been buried at sea with full Navy honors. From reports, the circumstances of his death are unclear, but in February 1945, two Japanese kamikaze planes hit Tharpe’s Bismarck Sea, which was engaged in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The ship sank with a loss of more than 300 men.