Sunday, February 07, 2021

RIP, Wayne Terwilliger, baseball legend and Iwo Jima hero

We lost Wayne Terwilliger, a North Texas favorite, last week.  He served in World War II, played with Jackie Robinson, and coached in the majors and independent baseball in Ft. Worth.  This is from the local obituary:

Plagued by dementia and advanced cancer of the bladder, Terwilliger's spectacular journey ended early Wednesday morning when he passed away after a brief time in hospice care in Weatherford.

Mr. Terwilliger was from a generation forced to grow up rather quickly, as we see in this account from the Society for Baseball Research:

In August 1943, two months after his 18th birthday, Terwilliger was ordered to report to boot camp in San Diego. After boot camp, he trained to be a radio operator and a machine gunner in an amphibious tank unit. 

In March 1944 he was assigned to the 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division, where he learned to operate amphibious tanks. Their role was to lead the way for the infantry assault on the Pacific Islands the military needed for airstrips. Terwilliger saw heavy action on Saipan, Tinian, and later Iwo Jima.

On Saipan, his tank became bogged down in a mortar shell hole while under heavy fire, forcing its evacuation. It took 26 days of intense fighting to secure the island. On Iwo Jima Terwilliger's tank unit led the way for the infantry who captured Mount Suribachi and eventually took control of the entire island. In fact, Terwilliger was in one of the first tanks, if not the first, to go ashore there.

After the Marines secured Saipan, Terwilliger was able to play some baseball on the island on makeshift fields and his battalion team went 28-0 to win the 2nd Division championship. Even though he had not played above high school, he was chosen to go to Guam to play in an all-star game.

After Iwo Jima, Terwilliger's unit was sent to Maui to prepare for the expected invasion of Japan. He was playing baseball there when he heard that the Japanese had surrendered.

After that amazing experience came baseball.  His career was not flashy: .240 batting average, 22 HR, 162 RBI in 666 games.  He hung around for ten seasons by being the extra guy on the bench whom every manager wanted to have on his team.

After playing, he coached, won a couple of World Series rings with the Twins, and came to Texas to coach in an independent league.

Most of all, we remember him as a father, husband, and Marine on Iwo Jima in 1945.  Great life, and another story from what they call the greatest generation.

PS: You can listen to my show (Canto Talk).

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