Wartime Zags team beat UW in three out of four thrilling games

December 7, 2016 GMT

Ask a Gonzaga fan about the school’s first great basketball team and you’ll likely hear stories about Richie Frahm burying one from deep or Matt Santangelo on the dribble drive or maybe Casey Calvary slamming home another thunder dunk. And it’s true that the 1998-99 Bulldogs’ thrilling run deep into the NCAA Tournament put Gonzaga on the modern college basketball map.

But the truth is, Gonzaga’s first great basketball squad had that Elite Eight team beat by more than half a century. Fifty-five years to be exact. Nearly forgotten today, the 1943-44 Gonzaga Bulldogs were the original one-and-done wonders of college basketball – 13 young men brought together by fate, steeled by wartime determination and blessed with a now-or-never opportunity to make some hardwood magic in a tiny gym on Boone Avenue.


Those Zags – more commonly described by sportswriters of the day as Gonzaga’s “Blue Jackets,” “Boone Avenue Trainees” or simply “Navymen” – were a ball club made up entirely of military enlistees enrolled in the U.S. Navy’s V-12 officer training program and stationed at Gonzaga. But more important than bringing temporary athletic glory to GU, the Navy and the hundreds of sailors who trained on campus during World War II may well have kept Gonzaga’s doors from closing in the wake of a wartime exodus of students and faculty.

Led by Navy Chief Specialist Chuck Henry, a physical training instructor who never before and never again coached a college basketball team, the 1943-44 Bulldogs used a run-and-gun offense and smothering defense to run up a 21-2 record, claim an unofficial Pacific Northwest title by winning three games in a much-heralded championship series against the Washington Huskies, and finish the season at No. 13 in the Converse national collegiate basketball rankings.

“The Navy’s second semester of occupation at Gonzaga produced the greatest basketball team in the school’s history,” crowed the Gonzaga Bulletin campus newspaper in March 1944. Indeed, this was an elite team, made up of Navy trainees who had already become basketball stars at other schools before arriving at Gonzaga. The mainstays in Henry’s rotation were Jim Baker and Earl “Cat Fingers” Strader, two sharp-shooting forwards who played previously at Saint Mary’s College; lanky center Bob Gaston from Saint Martin’s; guards Wally McGovern, a smooth ball-handler out of Santa Clara; and Paul O’Toole and Jack Hafner, who played for the University of San Francisco.

“That was a real powerhouse team and it was very exciting that they were knocking people off left and right,” recalled Stan Witter, now 88 and retired from a career in public affairs with Washington Water Power, but back then a sophomore at Lewis and Clark High School. “I mostly followed them in the newspaper – I was following sports when I should have been studying history – and what I remember best about that team was them beating the Huskies. That was big news.”


Enrollment dropped by half after Pearl Harbor

Of course the bigger news, here and everywhere, was the war. These were no ordinary times. World War II touched everyone and everything in America, and Gonzaga was no exception.

Student ranks began thinning almost immediately after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. The federal government urged a sit-tight policy for students, running regular ads in the Gonzaga Bulletin and other campus newspapers across the country, telling college men that they could best serve their nation’s interests by finishing their education before serving. Even so, for many young men the only patriotic option was to enlist for the fight. Within months, “the ghosts of war occupied many chairs in the classrooms” of Gonzaga, Father Wilfred P. Shoenberg, S.J., wrote in his history of the university.

The rapid student exodus at the small Catholic men’s university – Gonzaga’s enrollment dropped from 1,206 during the 1940-41 academic year to 609 just a year later – sparked a struggle for the school’s very survival. University administrators responded quickly by developing and implementing a “wartime adjustment program.”

An early casualty of financial belt-tightening was the proud Gonzaga football program, which was “suspended for the duration of the war” in early 1942 and never resurrected. The GU gridiron program was a regional intercollegiate power during the 1920s and ’30s. Coached by Gus Dorais – formerly a four-year star quarterback at Notre Dame, where he teamed with a shifty end named Knute Rockne to popularize the forward pass – the Bulldogs played in a lighted, 12,000-seat on-campus stadium. Twenty-three Gonzaga players went on to play professional football, including two – Tony Canadeo and Ray Flaherty – who ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Spokane a Navy town during the war

Days after the United States entered the war, the national head of the Society of Jesus wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt offering all facilities at Jesuit colleges and universities toward the war effort. Gonzaga, which already offered a Navy-sponsored pilot training program, was an easy choice for more on-campus military training programs. Pilot training continued under the Navy V-5 program, which brought 95 cadets to Gonzaga, but was soon eclipsed in campus numbers by the Navy’s growing V-12 officer training program, which brought nearly 700 Navy men to GU for three semesters of study and training. The university also was the site of the much smaller V-1 Navy student reserve program.

The first V-12 trainees hit shore in Spokane on July 1, 1943, and their arrival created quite a spectacle. Three hundred blue-jacketed Navy men marched in ranks, four wide and 75 deep, from the Northern Pacific depot across the river to the Gonzaga campus.

With so many sailors on campus, Gonzaga even adopted new nomenclature. As the Inland Register, the newspaper of the Spokane Diocese, reported in July 1943, “The conversation at Gonzaga has joined the Navy. … The school is a ship, the floors are decks, the stairs ladders, beds are bunks and the corridors are passageways. The parish hall of St. Aloysius has become the ship service or recreation deck. The naval flying insignia at one end and the port-holes and life preservers on the walls contribute to the nautical atmosphere.”

In spite of being nearly 300 miles inland from saltwater, Spokane was quite a Navy town during the war years. The Spokane Naval Supply Depot on Sullivan Road in the Spokane Valley was a major warehouse and supply channel for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, employing nearly 5,000 people working three shifts around the clock. With 55,000 Navy personnel on site, Farragut Naval Training Base on the southern tip of North Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille was the largest city in Idaho in 1942. In all, nearly 300,000 recruits went through basic Navy training there – and virtually all of them passed through Spokane coming, going and while on leave.

The Navy’s wartime takeover of Gonzaga was so extensive that by 1945, when school records list enrollment as 900, the GU yearbook contains photos of just 27 civilian undergraduates.

Henry J. Kaiser, the one-time Spokane businessman turned international industrialist, even built a Navy warship in his Oregon Shipbuilding Yards that he christened “Gonzaga Victory.” The 455-foot, 10,660-ton vessel was ceremoniously launched in the spring of 1945, with university President Father Francis Corkery in attendance.

Gonzaga basketball weak until the Navy arrived

No doubt that familiarity made it easy for Spokane’s sporting community to embrace Gonzaga’s Navy-stocked basketball team. And besides, who doesn’t like a winner? For all its success today, Gonzaga wasn’t much of a basketball school until the arrival of the Navy men. No GU team had ever won more than 16 games and it had been nearly 20 years since the Bulldogs had fared that well. In 1942-43, the Zags finished the season with a 2-9 record.

The 1943-44 Bulldogs averaged 61.4 points per game and outscored opponents by an average margin of 23 points. They reeled off 11 straight victories to start the season, including wins over Washington State, Eastern Washington, Whitworth and Idaho.

Following the Vandals game, which Gonzaga won 66-33, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported: “The Bulldogs’ starting quintet scored almost at will as they used a fast break to keep the Idaho outfit on the run all evening. If coach Chuck Henry of Gonzaga hadn’t used his second and third teams much of the evening, the Boone Avenue score could easily have run into three numbers.”

A red-hot December led up to a big two-game home series the week between Christmas and New Year’s against mighty Washington. Coach Hec Edmundson’s Huskies were also undefeated coming into the Gonzaga games and loaded with their own military talent. In fact, UW fielded two basketball teams that year – one made up of civilian student athletes and the other of Navy trainees. Typically, the military team played only at home because of travel restrictions imposed by the Navy and the UW civilian team went on the road. But holiday leave for the UW trainees allowed Edmundson to hand-pick the best players from both teams for the showdown in Spokane.

The games were played in Gonzaga’s bandbox campus gym, located at the east end of Gonzaga Hall in space now occupied by the Magnuson Theater. “That gym was really small,” said Witter, who attended Gonzaga for two years after high school and worked out there often as a catcher on the 1947 GU baseball team. “I think there was only room along the sidelines for a couple of rows of folding chairs.”

A crowd showed up to watch the opener against Washington. According to the sports page report in the Dec. 29 edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle, the Zags broke to an early lead, then suffered an 8-minute scoring drought that allowed the Huskies to go up 22-16. Gonzaga’s offense started clicking again and by halftime GU was in front 29-25. It remained close throughout the second half, with the Bulldogs holding on for a 48-44 victory – their first win over Washington since 1926.

1926 alums gave Zags the edge

The next night’s game against Washington brought out a packed house that included several Gonzaga alums who played on the last Bulldogs team to beat the Huskies. The Spokesman-Review’s game story the next morning was headlined “Trainees Whale Washington, 76-39” and gave those ex-Zags some inspirational credit.

“Maybe the fact that members of the famous 1926 team were on hand had something to do with the victory,” according to the sports-page report. “This old-time outfit, which pushed across the last Gonzaga win over Washington until Tuesday’s victory, was on hand and introduced before the game. They included Dr. Ed Fitzgerald, captain of the team, and Mel Ingram, both of Wallace; Lt. Commander Ray Flaherty of Farragut; Dr. Herbert Rotchford … and Father Art Dussault, athletic director of Gonzaga and coordinator of the V-12 program.”

Washington went out front 2-0, but the Bulldogs rebounded to take a 14-2 lead at the 5 minute mark and go up 40-18 by halftime. The spanking continued in the second half as the Zags pushed their lead to 38 points. Coach Henry emptied his bench in this one, and 11 players scored for Gonzaga.

After opening with 11 straight wins, Gonzaga stumbled on Jan. 7 against Whitman College in Walla Walla. But the Zags followed that 49-34 to the Missionaries by winning another 10 in a row – including a 57-47 win over the Portland-based Albina Hellships, a touring service all-star team led by 6-foot-8 former All-American Urgel “Slim” Wintermute, who in 1939 led the University of Oregon’s “Tall Firs” team to the championship of the inaugural NCAA Basketball Tournament.

‘The most interesting basketball series of the year’

The Zags wrapped up their stellar season with a visit to Seattle to play two more games against the Huskies. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer touted the rematch as the “Northwest collegiate championship,” noting that between them Gonzaga and UW had beaten everyone else in the region, most notably WSU, Idaho, Oregon and Oregon State. A Seattle sportswriter’s preview of the series described the Zags as “chesty, cute and capable.”

The Associated Press report out of Seattle described the first game: “Gonzaga’s fireball basketball team, after a slow start, came back for a 49-41 victory over Washington’s combination Navy-civilian team. Washington’s largest crowd of the season, approximately 7,500, saw the Gonzagans clinch victory with a terrific comeback punch at the end of each half. The victory was Gonzaga’s 22nd in 23 games.”

The second game, moved up an hour in time so the Gonzaga bunch could catch the evening’s last train back to Spokane, didn’t turn out as well for the Zags. After Washington jumped to a 20-8 lead, Gonzaga fought back but fell 53-40 in the Bulldogs’ season finale.

Still, legendary Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports columnist Royal Brougham lauded the Bulldogs: “The Huskies stopped Gonzaga’s sensational winning streak. But not, chums, until after the Zags had treated Seattle crowds to some of the fanciest ball-handling the Pavilion has ever looked at. … To the Bulldogs, all credit for the most interesting basketball series of the year.”

Mike Schmeltzer is a Spokane real estate broker and the author of four books, including “Celebrating Gonzaga,” published in 2012.