MILITARY GLORY : Service Teams, in Their Heyday, Won Championships, Thrilled the Fans

Times Staff Writer

Long before Dan Fouts or Tony Gwynn came along, San Diego had its share of sports heroes.

Some of the more prominent from the 1930s to the 1950s were Tex Guentert, Albert Jantz, Bill Asimos, Robert (Bull) Trometter and A. C. Raimondi.

None made a name for himself in professional sports. But all had a tremendous impact on the people of San Diego.

Back then, military sporting events were considered the "in" place to be in San Diego. That was before the Padres, Chargers, Sockers or even television.

Military sports began declining during the Vietnam War and never had the same impact thereafter. In a changing world, military sports changed their emphasis from varsity to intramural competition.

Among the best military football teams in San Diego was the Battle Force of the Navy. The team lasted three years, posting a 16-3 record from 1931 to 1933.

Tom Hamilton, an All-American halfback at the Naval Academy in 1926, was player-coach for the Battle Force.

In 1931, the Battle Force defeated the Army All-Stars, 17-0, marking the first time a Navy team had beaten the Army All-Stars since the series began in 1925. In 1932, the Battle Force defeated the Army All-Stars, 32-0. Both games were played in front of 70,000 fans in California's Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on Armistice Day, Nov. 11.

"The first year (1931) was the first time the Navy put together a combined team," said Hamilton, retired commissioner of the Pacific 10 Conference. "Before that, we put a winning team from the battleships or submarines against an Army all-star team from west of the Mississippi. Then we organized a fleet team and took the best players from submarines, battleships, cruisers and so forth."

At the time, the Battle Force also was superior to the San Diego Marines, beating the Marines in 1931 (24-10), 1932 (13-0) and 1933 (14-7). All three games were played in front of capacity crowds at Balboa Stadium.

"I coached at the Naval Academy and Pitt," Hamilton said, "and I never had the manpower that I had with the squad out here."

The Marines, meanwhile, were having difficulty with San Diego State as well. They finally beat the Aztecs, 13-0, in 1932, the 11th year of the series.

On the upswing, the Marines pulled an upset in 1933 by defeating Santa Clara, 14-7, at Balboa Stadium.

"Santa Clara had been to the Sugar Bowl two years in a row before we beat them," said Jean (Cheesy) Neil, a member of the 1933 Marine team. "The next week, we went out and got beat by UCLA, 14-13. We had six guys on our team who could kick extra points. The guy we selected had hurt his foot and didn't tell anybody. I was so mad at him."

The Marines might have been at their best in 1939 and 1940. They were defeated only once--a 12-2 loss to Oregon in 1939--in those two seasons under Coach Elmer Hall.

Bull Trometter, who played for the Marines from 1935 to 1940, said his team had a numbers advantage.

"There were 26,000 or 27,000 Marines in service then," said Trometter, retired athletic director from University High School. "We had two teams, San Diego on the West Coast and Quantico on the East Coast. You're talking about 40 people on our team and 80 people total on the two teams."

Service teams also played basketball, and the 1957 San Diego Marines won the All-Marine basketball championship by defeating Quantico, 68-62.

The San Diego Marines also won the National Baseball Congress championship against semipro teams in 1957.

Earl Wilson, who later pitched for Boston, Detroit and the Padres, was the Marines' top player. He had a 126-109 record in his major league career, which began two years after the Marines won their baseball championship.

Football returned to prominence in the early 1960s, the Marines going 38-6 under Coach Scotty Harris and advancing to bowl games three straight years.

The military always had a recruiting advantage when the draft was on. Athletes were not exempt from the draft.

"During the war years, all of the name athletes were in some branch of the service," said Stan Winters, special services director at Naval Training Center from 1945 to 1980. "The sports tapered off after World War II, but there was still good competition. Then came the Korean thing in the 1950s, and people were pressed back into the service. After that, things tapered off again and the big names were not forced into the services. Schools like USC and UCLA wouldn't play us any longer because we didn't have the big-name athletes."

SDSU remained on the Marines' football schedule until 1963. However, that series concluded after the Marines won a disputed 16-12 game in 1963.

Recalled Bob Moss, then a player for the San Diego Marines: "We had a controversial call near the end of the game. One of the San Diego State players was called for pass interference at the goal line. When we lined up, one of their players intentionally jumped offside and decked our halfback. Both benches emptied. After that was cleared up, we went on to score the touchdown and win the game."

With involvement heavy in Vietnam, the Marines disbanded their football team after the 1964 season. It was never reorganized.

Military practice hours were much longer than practice hours for a college or pro athletic team, but the military athletes couldn't complain--at least when they looked around their bases.

"They lived a pretty good life," Harris said of military athletes. "A lot of them worked in special services. . . . Not all of them had menial tasks, though. We used to practice until 5 or 6 at night. We expected them to put out, too."

"If we could beat Navy or Army, it was a great plume in our hat," Cheesy Neil said. "I talked to several generals who said if we had good athletic teams, we had good morale. We used to have 9,000 in the Marine Corps out here. Every one of them would be at our games in Balboa Stadium."

The fans also turned out to watch Neil's 1957 championship basketball team.

"We had a tremendous following in San Diego," Neil said. "The citizens liked us, and we gave them what they wanted by winning the championship. We played all of our games at Point Loma High, and the gym was packed for all of the games."

On the Battle Force's football team of the early 1930s, running back Tex Guentert was a standout.

"Tex would've been an All-American if he had gone on to college," Hamilton said. "He was a great ballplayer. He was a very hard, fast runner, and he was deceptive and powerful. He could pass and kick, too, and he was very good on defense as a safety."

Albert Jantz, an offensive and defensive tackle, may have been the team's best lineman.

"He was kind of a raw-boned kid," Hamilton said. "He was fast, and he was a good blocker."

The Marines' most celebrated player of the 1940s was Volney (Skeets) Quinlan, who eventually played for the Rams. Quinlan came along after World War II, when military sports were being revived.

Neil remembers three top players from his 1957 basketball team--Bill Asimos, Jack Stillwell and Frank Allen.

Asimos, who had been the team captain at New Mexico, was among San Diego's top players. Neil remembers Asimos as a 5-foot 9-inch guard who didn't score much but played defense well.

Stillwell, a former Northwestern University athlete who later played football for the Cleveland Browns, was the team's top forward.

"Jack was a good board (rebound) man and fighter," Neil said. "Once the whistle started, he always gave 150%."

Allen, a 6-6 center, went to the University of Iowa after he left the Marines.

"He had all of the ability in the world," Neil said. "I'll be darned if he didn't flunk out his freshman year at Iowa. I remember taking him to dinner when they had played at USC. I asked him how he was doing with his studies, and he said, 'Fine.'

"Lo and behold, three or four weeks later, here were the headlines that four of Iowa's five starters had flunked out, and he was one of them. I've never heard from him since, and neither has anyone else in this area."

Two Marines from the early 1960s were later signed by the Chargers--place kicker Herb Travenio and running back Brad Hubbert.

The entire world watched as Billy Mills, a Camp Pendleton Marine, won the 10,000-meter run in the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo. He was still in the Marines when he set a world record in the six-mile run a year later at Balboa Stadium.

Mills, who trained while stationed at Camp Pendleton, remembers having difficult workouts at times.

"We used to run into a couple of rattlesnakes," Mills said. "Those were very difficult training runs, but they were very beneficial."

When Mills was inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions in 1970, he wore his Marine uniform.

Jack Davis, a former naval officer in San Diego, set the world record in the 110-meter high hurdles in 1956. Davis competed in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, earning a silver medal in 1956.

Bob Gutkowski, a Camp Pendleton Marine, set the world pole vault record of 15-8 1/2 in 1957.

Boxing was also a popular military sport in San Diego. Ed Saunders, a heavyweight from the Naval Training Center, won an Olympic gold medal in 1952, but he died two years later after being knocked out in a professional bout. Hank Herring of the training center won the all-Navy welterweight championship in 1947 and 1948, and he won a silver medal at the 1948 Olympics.

In golf, Dick Lytles Sr. and Dick Lytles Jr. were champions. Lytles Sr. won the all-Navy golf championship in 1948 and his son won the title 16 years later.

Their names may not be as familiar as Fouts or Gwynn these days, but military athletes certainly left their impact on the San Diego sports scene.

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