How One Vet Signed Up For Baseball ... And Ended Up In Korea09:28

Bill Brannon's high school baseball team. (Courtesy Tom Brannon)
Bill Brannon's high school baseball team. (Courtesy Tom Brannon)
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Art Chipman is 88 years old. He still remembers the day he met Bill Brannon.

"It was by accident," Art says. "It was at Lindbergh Junior High School in North Long Beach, California. And we were playing just scrub baseball."

Back then, scrub baseball began with everyone running toward a base. The first person to arrive would be the first up to bat.

"And when we came across the base, Bill's foot hit the base first and mine was right behind it, resulting in me going through the air, making a 360 and coming down hard," Art says. "And I broke my arm."

Art cried. With his arm broken, he’d lose his job delivering newspapers.

"Bill said, ‘That’s no problem. I will help you,’ " Art remembers. "And he did help me until my arm got back to where I could be OK and do my paper route by myself."

A few years later, Bill Brannon met his future wife, Frances. But he didn’t meet her because of baseball. He met her at a local community center … playing ping pong.

"I played ping pong all the years I was growing up in Michigan, and my husband played it occasionally," Frances says. "And it was always a challenge who was going to beat who."

Bill was an excellent high school baseball player. He even got invited to try out for the Philadelphia Phillies. But Bill’s baseball skills didn’t have anything to do with why Frances fell in love with him.

"No, he was just a very nice person," Frances says. "Well-mannered and very nice. And we both liked sports."

Bill Brannon's high school sports patches. (Susan Valot for WBUR)
Bill Brannon's high school sports patches. (Susan Valot for WBUR)

Bill and Frances would have four children together. Their oldest, Ed, says he was always fascinated by the story his father would tell about getting shot in the leg … because of baseball.

"You know, we always wanted to see his wound," Ed says.

Ed’s youngest brother, Tom, can’t remember when he first heard the story.

"It would have been pretty young when I found that out," Tom says.

This all began 70 years ago, in the late 1940s. Everyone I spoke with — Art, Frances, Ed and Tom — they all tell the story just a little bit differently. Bill Brannon died of cancer a couple of years ago. But lucky for me, he wrote the story down.

"And to think this all started because of a love of baseball."

This is from Bill's three-page, typewritten account.

"After high school, I joined a semi-pro team that played on weekends. We had a great team and won most of our games."

"And I forget who the commercial sponsor was, but they pulled out," Tom says. "The team was kind of, like, ‘Oh, rats, we're going to have to disband.’ And the Marine Corps recruiter stepped in and said, ‘Hey guys, we can sponsor you.’ " 

The team got new equipment and professional-looking uniforms. And as Bill remembered it, they didn’t even have to join the reserves … at least not right away.

"We were well on our way to the championship when the “hammer fell.” In order for the Marine Corps to continue our sponsorship, we would ALL have to join the local U.S.M.C. Reserve outfit."

 "I think they sold him the idea that, ‘Just sign, let's play ball,’ " Ed says.

Since I was not old enough to sign up for myself, I took the enlistment form home to have my folks sign for me. Well, my dad said not only “NO!” but “HELL NO!”

But Bill Brannon’s father didn’t get the last word.

"Well, his mom knew how much he liked baseball," Frances says. "His mom said, ‘Yes, I’ll sign for you.’ "

Bill Brannon (top row, right) and his U.S.M.C.-sponsored baseball team. (Susan Valot for WBUR)
Bill Brannon (top row, right) and his U.S.M.C.-sponsored baseball team. (Susan Valot for WBUR)

We completed the season and we did win that championship.

And life went on — for a little while, at least. Until Communist forces from North Korea invaded South Korea in the summer of 1950.

As I recall, it was July 7, 1950 that I received a card in the mail announcing that my reserve outfit was “going active.”

"He signed up to play baseball and didn’t think he was signing up to go to war — but he certainly went to war," Tom says. 

Frances says her husband wasn't upset.

"No — not at all," she says. "Not at all. My husband never said a bitter word or a nasty thing. But he's inclined to look at the good side of life anyway. I think that's his nature."

On July 23, 1950, Bill and Frances eloped. A little over a week later, Bill boarded a bus for Camp Pendleton to begin training. Or at least, that’s what he thought he’d be doing.

When we disembarked from the bus and lined up in formation, the announcement was made that all persons whose last names began with A, B or C were to fall out of formation.

Bill was assigned to 30 days of mess duty. Everyone else immediately began training. At the time, Bill saw his assignment as bad luck.

I thought I had been sent to purgatory.

Later, he’d come to see it as the luckiest day of his life.

Many of his bus mates had already left for Korea — on their way to the Chosin Reservoir — when Bill set sail from San Diego Harbor on Nov. 20, 1950.

As the mainland slowly disappeared out of sight, they played over the loud speaker system “I saw the harbor lights, they only told me we were parting … .” There weren't too many dry eyes in the crowd about that time.

Bill and his unit landed in Korea in mid-December, 1950. Over the next year, they fought their way up the Peninsula.

Bill Brannon (top right) and his military outfit in Korea. (Susan Valot for WBUR)
Bill Brannon (top right) and his military outfit in Korea. (Susan Valot for WBUR)

"They were at constant warfare," Ed says. "It was very bad. And when he got wounded, he had done his duty."

It happened on Sept. 13, 1951 … at 3:30 a.m.

Tom Brannon: "Pitch-black night. He tells the guys that are doing guard duty, ‘Hey, I’m going down this way — don’t shoot."

Art Chipman: "He went into no-no land. It was nobody should have been there unless they were Korean."

Ed Brannon: "He didn’t get very far and one of the soldiers — other American soldiers — heard some scuffing and immediately opened up."

 A blue streak went right through my left leg.

Ed Brannon: "He fell into a hole." 

In the next 10 minutes or so, the troops in the perimeter shot up the whole hillside.

Ed Brannon: "Everything that was exposed above that hole — his canteen and so forth — were all just blown all to heck."

Tom Brannon: "That canteen was all neatly shredded off his hip. But nothing actually hit him."

Art Chipman: "He heard his fellow Marine say, ‘I guess that got the SOB.’ And Bill said, ‘Hey, I’m one of you guys!’ "

Tom Brannon: "The guy that shot him was really apologetic about shooting him. [Dad]'s going, ‘Oh, man, I’m going home. Don’t worry about it.’ "

Bill Brannon sketched his leg injury while recovering in Japan. (Susan Valot for WBUR)
Bill Brannon sketched his leg injury while recovering in Japan. (Susan Valot for WBUR)

Ed Brannon: "To be honest with you, I think he was grateful he got shot. I mean, Korea was — a lot of people call it ‘the forgotten war’ — the only reason he wasn’t at the Chosin Reservoir was because of his last name."

I met my old baseball team mate, Dick Hecker, after he had come back from the Chosin. And he looked like he had lost 50 years off his life. A lot of guys who went to Pendleton with me on that bus didn’t make it back from that battle.

Bill Brannon made a full recovery from his injury. But he never played competitive baseball again.

"Yeah, that was the end of his baseball career," Tom says. "My oldest brother showed up about nine months later."

"I was a welcome-home Korea baby," Ed says.

"No," Frances says.

"No?" I ask.

"Well ... maybe he was!" she laughs. "I don’t know. I never thought about it that way."

Bill Brannon was now a family man, and he just didn’t have time to play baseball. But he did have time to teach the game to his sons.

"Taught us how to hit, taught us how to throw," Tom says.

Tom says his dad loved to pass on his baseball words of wisdom.

"Biggest one I remember was, ‘If you can touch it, you can catch it’ — which, you know, is 99-percent true," he says.

Bill would spend hours in the backyard, helping Ed learn how to pitch. Sometimes, Ed’s pitches crashed through a neighbor’s window.

"That's where I learned to fix windows, actually," Ed laughs.

Bill and Ed would clean up the broken glass and install a new window before the neighbors got home.

Bill and Frances Brannon. (Courtesy Tom Brannon)
Bill and Frances Brannon. (Courtesy Tom Brannon)

"My dad would tell them, ‘Oh, Ed threw another ball through your window.’ And the guy would laugh, offer him a beer and say, ‘Well, let’s sit down and talk.’ "

After he grew up and had a family of his own, Ed taught his daughter to play softball. He even became a professional batting instructor.

"You know, there’s just a lot of kids out there playing ball right now that have a lot of learning that he taught me," Ed says.

Frances Brannon still lives in the house where she and Bill raised their children.

"We were married 66 years when he passed away with the big C," Frances says. "Thank you for making a tribute to baseball and to him."

No, Frances. On this Veteran’s Day weekend, I’m the one who should be saying, “Thank You.”

This segment aired on November 10, 2018.


Karen Given Twitter Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.