The Greatest Underdog, Nazi-Defeating American Olympic Victory You’ve Never Heard Of

Scenes from the Olympics.
July 23 2012 6:35 AM

Six Minutes in Berlin

In 1936, nine American rowers took on the Nazis in front of Hitler and 75,000 screaming Germans. The story of the greatest Olympic race you’ve never heard of.

The 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team from the University of Washington.
The 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team from the University of Washington. From left: Don Hume, Joseph Rantz, George E. Hunt, James B. McMillin, John G. White, Gordon B. Adam, Charles Day, and Roger Morris. At center front is coxswain Robert G. Moch.

Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW2234.

Sportswriter Grantland Rice called it the "high spot" of the 1936 Olympics. Bill Henry, who called the race for CBS, said it was "the outstanding victory of the Olympic Games." The event they’re describing wasn’t staged in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, and it had nothing to do with Jesse Owens. It took place in the suburb of Grunau, when a group of college kids from the United States took on Germany and Italy in front of Hitler and 75,000 fans screaming for the Third Reich.

The results of the 1936 Olympic regatta were the inverse of that year’s track and field competition. On the track, American men won gold in the 100, 200, 400, and 800 meters; the 4-by-100 relay; both hurdles events; and the high jump, long jump, pole vault, and decathlon. (American women also won the 100 meters and the 4-by-100 relay.) German oarsmen, however, dominated on the water, capturing five gold medals and one silver in the six races preceding the eight-oared final. When a British pair finally beat a German shell, Henry and his CBS broadcast partner Cesar Saerchinger were relieved, according to Saerchinger’s book Hello, America!, as they’d “had to stand up for the German anthem and the ‘Horst Wessel’ song [the Nazi party anthem] after every event, until we were nauseated.”

A few minutes before 6 p.m. on Aug. 14, the final race was about to begin. The crowd, which included Hitler, Hermann Göring, and other Nazi officials, awaited another German victory.

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At the starting line, American coxswain Bob Moch looked anxiously into the face of Don Hume. Hume, the stroke of the crew, was tasked with setting the pace for the seven oarsmen rowing behind him. Yet something was very wrong. Hume's eyes remained closed for most of the warm-up, and his breathing seemed labored. Moch knew that Hume had been ill since the team arrived in Europe, but he had never seen his close friend look so listless before a big race. As the rest of the crew stirred nervously, trying to banish thoughts of the tremendous physical punishment awaiting them, Moch glanced at Hume and then across the water at the other eights. Big Jim McMillin, sitting in the five-seat, later remembered his thoughts at the starting line. "I had felt that if we rowed the best we knew how, we could get there," he told me in 2004, a year before his death at age 91. But, McMillin said, "everything went wrong from that point on."

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Adolf Hitler opens the Olympic Games, Aug. 1, 1936.
Adolf Hitler opens the Olympic Games, Aug. 1, 1936.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives.

The story of the 1936 Olympics remains focused on the brilliant achievements of Jesse Owens and the filmmaking of Leni Riefenstahl. But the Berlin Games were just as important for inaugurating the era of the modern Olympiad. This was the first Olympics that featured a torch relay from Mount Olympus, and the German Broadcasting Company installed the world's most technologically sophisticated television system to broadcast the games to theaters throughout Berlin. The Germans also constructed a massive shortwave broadcast center to ensure worldwide Olympics coverage.

For the global radio audience, estimated at 300 million, the Olympics assumed a new prominence. Just four years earlier, the American radio networks (NBC and CBS) dropped live coverage of the games when the cash-strapped Los Angeles organizing committee demanded an exorbitant rights fee at the last minute. Because the Germans asked for no rights fees and offered their engineers and technical apparatus for free, Americans were able to listen to the games live for the first time.

On the morning of Aug. 14, many people in Seattle woke up excited to catch the regatta’s final event live on CBS. Those listeners had a vested interest in the race. The United States team, a crew from the University of Washington, came very close to missing the trip to Berlin. Immediately following the Huskies’ victory in the Olympic trials, the team was informed by the U.S. Olympic Committee that it needed to come up with $5,000 to pay its way to Berlin. Seeing an opening, Henry Penn Burke—chairman of the Olympic Rowing Committee and a University of Pennsylvania alum—offered to send his beloved Quakers in place of the Huskies. The sports editors of Seattle's top two newspapers, outraged on behalf of the local heroes, enlisted newsboys to solicit donations while hawking papers. With American Legion posts and Chambers of Commerce throughout the state chipping in, enough money was collected in three days to send the team to Berlin. As a consequence of the funding drive, remembered Gordon Adam, who rowed in the three-seat, "people in the city felt that they were stockholders in the operation."

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The Washington crew had been rowing together for less than five months prior to the Olympics. Coach Al Ulbrickson had originally named a different group of rowers as the varsity at the start of the college season. The second boat, made up of strong but inexperienced oarsmen, knew they rowed faster than the first string and was angered by the slight. After the varsity shoved off the dock for their first practice, the angry eight carried their boat to the water silently. "We were standing about a little bit after we put the oars in the oarlock," Moch explained to me the year before he died. “Somebody said, 'You know this thing is going to fly.' "

The teammates soon devised a mantra. Quietly, they would repeat the letters L-G-B. When asked the meaning, they would explain it stood for "Let's get better." What it really meant was “Let’s go to Berlin.”

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