On a hot afternoon 75 years ago, a train carrying Boston Red Sox slugger and future Hall of Famer Ted Williams screeched into Durham station. For the next three months Williams bunked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School housed the most difficult and dangerous physical training program in the world for fighter pilots—the Top Guns of their generation.
That season, Williams played the majority of his military league baseball on the “Cloudbusters” team wearing a generic Navy jersey with a North Carolina patch sewn on the sleeve. It was an era when major-league fighter pilots were regular fixtures in soda shops and dime stores along Franklin Street.
Williams shipped into base with a host of big-league cadets including Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky, Boston Braves fireballer John Sain and his teammate Louis “Buddy” Gremp, and Philadelphia Athletics’ hurler Joe Coleman. Other marquee players who trained and coached at the Pre-Flight base included Hall of Famer and Detroit Tiger Charlie Gehringer, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Harry “Wildfire” Craft, and New York Yankees first baseman “Buddy” Hassett, who filled Lou Gehrig’s shoes in 1942. Home-state players included Allen “Dusty” Cooke of Swepsonville, who played for the Yankees and Ray Scarborough, who would pitch for nearly half a dozen major-league teams, working in the off season as a pickle salesman for Mt. Olive Pickle Company.
The Cloudbusters were part of the “Ration League,” a war-time schedule inspired by gas rationing when players traveled on tin-can buses to face nearby teams at Duke, N.C. State and the home-team Tar Heels. While players swam, boxed, ran commando courses, and studied for up to 16 hours a day, they packed in an unthinkable double-duty baseball schedule on evenings and weekends.
The Cloudbusters’ games generated funds for war bonds but players gave their last ounce of energy to the people to boost morale—men and women in uniform, exhausted factory workers, and kids, worried that a loved one may never return from the war. The ‘Busters played the Durham Bulls, the Marines at Camp Lejeune, Burlington Mills and Cameo Hosiery’s factory teams, and Fairchild Aircraft, manned by players building the airplanes fighting the war. To this day, fans remember Ted Williams’ monstrous hits against Norfolk’s Naval teams at Raleigh's Devereux Meadow, where “Dom” DiMaggio and future Hall of Famer Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto faced old friends from the Red Sox and the Yankees when up to 90 percent of America’s professional players put their careers on hold to serve Uncle Sam.
During the war, the UNC training camp was one of five U.S. Navy Pre- Flight Schools, which trained an assembly line of some 80,000 pilots. Former News & Observer publisher Josephus Daniels, who served as Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson, joined forces with university president and baseball aficionado Frank Porter Graham, “Moonlight” Graham’s little brother, to secure UNC’s spot as the Eastern Seaboard Naval Pre-Flight base.
Nicknamed the “Annapolis of the Air,” pre-flight stations attracted some of the most storied leaders of the greatest generation including: Presidents George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Regan who entertained cadets at Memorial Hall; astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter; “Bear” Bryant, the Four Horsemen’s Jim Crowley, and UCLA’s John Wooden; and entertainers Ed McMahon and Dennis Weaver, who became fighter pilots.
Near the end of the season the Cloudbusters made headlines all the way to the Pacific when they faced a one-of- a-kind war-bond team managed by Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium. The story of Williams and the Navy pilot team would have been lost without the diligence of a colorful figure in N.C. history. Lieutenant Pierce Oliver “Kidd” Brewer, served as the publicist for the Chapel Hill base commandeering films and thousands of Life-magazine quality images, and news stories that have preserved this largely untold story under the dome of the Louis Round Wilson Library for 75 years.
North Carolina native Anne R. Keene is the author of The Cloudbuster Nine, The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win WWII. Her grandfather James P. Raugh, Sr., an Annapolis graduate was the commander of the Navy base and her father James P. Raugh, Jr., an All-American in UNC’s baseball program in 1957, was the base mascot and batboy as a child.