Tuesday, May 15, 2007

John Gunn, Col. USMCR (Ret.)
Happy Birthday!

Colonel Gunn will celebrate his 76th birthday on May 17. This gung ho United States Marine retired at Coronado, Calif., at age 52 in 1983. Gunn is a member of the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Assn., 2nd Marine Division Assn., Marine Corps Intelligence Assn., Marine Corps Aviation., Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, Marine Corps League, Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and LST-325. He also is author of two 1992 Marine football books, "The Old Core" and "(Quite A Few Good Men." From his Gulf Breeze, Fla. home, Gunn writes a weekly sports column, "Once A Marine" that he sends via email to thousands of fans and several newspapers around the country.

This is a piece that Gunn wrote in 2003. Sonny Franck joins Marino and Winslow in football game. The picture you see is George "Sonny" Franck.

Posted: Aug 26, 2003
By John Gunn

There were a lot of little kids running around the Gridiron Plaza in South Bend, Ind., that Saturday afternoon, though some were disguised in older bodies.

Take 84-year-old George "Sonny" Franck, for instance. Memories of his glory days as a running back at the University of Minnesota (1938-40) are still fresh in his mind, if not in his legs. A two-way star for the Golden Gophers, Marine vet Franck was limited to offensive work as a receiver in the flag football game, reported the South Bend Tribune.

He was involved in five plays for the victorious West team, narrowly missing passes twice after 20-yard "sprints'' and having a sure two-point conversion snatched out of his hand by TE Kellen Winslow (Missouri), also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

QB Dan Marino (Pittsburgh), OG Reggie McKenzie (Michigan), TB Napoleon McCallum (Navy) and S Ronnie Lott (USC) were among other Hall of Fame inductees playing in the flag football game.

"I HAVEN'T RUN since I was 65 and my legs feel like it,'' Franck said with a smile on his face. "There's no way I was going to pass this up. It's part of what makes this weekend special.''

Franck even tried sneaking onto the field for one defensive play on the final drive of the game, but teammates convinced to keep his seat on the bench, said the Tribune.

"If I'm here to play, I'm going to play both,'' Franck said, remembering the logic of the olden days. "There were some passes I really should have caught, but it was great to be involved.''

Franck and others also instructed many youngsters in the Youth Football Clinic that Saturday sponsored by the College Football Hall of Fame. They also signed autographs for two hours.

Only a few of the 24 new Hall of Famers have been involved in Notre Dame games, and just two, Lott and Franck, have played in Notre Dame Stadium.

Lott was on USC teams (1977-80) that won three times against the Irish, but Franck was on a Minnesota team in 1938 that lost to Elmer Layden's Irish, 19-0, in the last game between the Gophers and Notre Dame.

FRANCK AND HIS former coach Bernie Bierman, a WW I and WW II Marine vet, have less than fond memories of the 1938 Notre Dame visit. The Gophers dominated the Irish that day, rolling up rushing and passing yardage. But a fumble recovery and pass interceptions did the Gophers in. Navy vet Lou Zontini's 84-yard run and two lefty Bob Saggau passes accounted for the three Irish scores. Franck and Saggau would be '42 teammates at NAS Corpus Christi.

Years later, Bierman was on a media visit to the Irish practice field and recalled, "I can't even stand to look at that stadium. It was one of my most embarrassing losses."

Franck was only a sophomore and barely remembered, even though he was from the same hometown as Layden -- Davenport, Iowa. What Franck can remember more vividly were his days in the Marine Corps as a fighter pilot.

The Japanese did shoot down Franck to cost the U.S. one plane, but there were a half-dozen others that were involved in Franck's many crashes, the Tribune said. In the process of fighting the Japs, Franck was awarded nine battle stars.

"Did you shoot down any planes?" Franck was asked. With a twinkle in his eye, he fired back, "No, but I think I did hit one of our own!"

AFTER ACTION IN battles of the Pacific, they sent him into the invasion of Iwo Jima.

When shot down, it took two Navy planes and a destroyer to rescue Franck after his fighter was shot down off Wojte, a Japanese-held base in the Marshall Islands. He was forced to make a water landing near the enemy-held island when heavy anti-aircraft fire damaged his engine in a strafing run, UPI reported.

A Navy Catalina flying boat came to the rescue despite heavy, rolling seas. Gliding along at low speed just above the water, the plane was hit by a huge swell and split open. The six crew members of the Catalina escaped onto a life raft and, like Franck, were rescued.

An American destroyer standing by eight miles off the scene dispatched a whaleboat, which was guided to the stranded men by a Navy Ventura search plane.

While at Minnesota, Franck teamed with another Hall of Famer, Bruce Smith, to help the Gophers to an 8-0 national championship in 1940 and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind Tom Harmon and John Kimbrough. He played quarterback, safety, kick and punt returner and punter as well as sharing the primary tailback role.

Franck, chosen on 22 first-team All-America teams and Big Ten 60-yard indoor dash champion, won the Big Ten Medal for Scholarship and Athletics and was MVP in the 1941 College All-Star Game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, where he signed up to serve in WW II.

Like top players and veterans, Franck also moved into pro football, playing at least parts of four seasons with the New York Giants. Now almost 85, Franck earns a small NFL pension and is even trimmer than in playing days, said the Tribune.

FRANCK ALMOST ENDED up with the Chicago Rockets in the All-American Football Conference, but owner John Keeshin, a trucking executive, reneged on a $200-a-month off-season contract, and Franck then hooked up with the Giants for pro days. His top contract called for a mere $700 a game for the 12-game schedule.

"I get more from my pension than I did as a player," he beamed. Franck had played briefly for MCAS El Toro in 1945 before his military discharge after almost four years of duty. Keeshin did sign Coach Dick Hanley and 17 players from the 1944 and '45 El Toro teams for the Rockets.
Nine players and coaches from NCAA Divisions I-AA, II, III and the NAIA also were enshrined by the College Football Hall of Fame, including tight end Dwayne Nix (Texas A&M-Kingsville) and late tackle Calvin Roberts (Gustavus Adolphus, Pendleton 1947, tryouts with the Giants and Eagles).

Nix a three-time All-American (1966-68), played for NAS Pensacola in 1969. He served as a Marine aviator in Vietnam and Desert Storm and is a retired Marine Reserve colonel.

Among those to be inducted in December is Coach Hayden Fry, a Marine vet.
Gridiron heroes of the past also were honored on new postage stamps unveiled in South Bend. The 37-cent stamps recall the exploits of Walter Camp, Marine vet Ernie Nevers (Stanford), Harold "Red" Grange and Bronko Nagurski.
The Marines now have 45 in the Football Hall of Fame, including Alex Agase (Illinois, Purdue V-12), Harry Agganis (Boston Univ.), Harold Ballin (Princeton), Bert Baston (Minnesota), Cliff Battles (West Virginia Wesleyan), Ron Beagle (Annapolis), Gen. John Beckett (Oregon), Angelo Bertelli (Notre Dame), Charlie Conerly (Mississippi), Bob Dove (Notre Dame), Steve Eisenhauer (Annapolis), Chalmers "Bump" Elliott (Purdue V-12, Michigan), Hugh Gallarneau (Stanford), Paul Governali (Columbia), Pat Harder (Wisconsin), Bob Herwig (California), Ed Hart (Princeton), Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch (Wisconsin, Michigan V-12), Weldon Humble (Rice, Southwestern Louisiana V-12), Eddie LeBaron (Pacific)

Bob MacLeod (Dartmouth), Eddie Mahan (Harvard), Jim Martin (Notre Dame), Thurman McGraw (Colorado A&M), Ed Molinski (Tennessee), Ernie Nevers (Stanford), Leo Nomellini (Minnesota), Bob Peck (Pittsburgh), Arthur Poe (Princeton), Jack Riley (Northwestern), J.D. Roberts (Oklahoma), Dave Schreiner (Wisconsin) (KIA on Okinawa), Jim Weatherall (Oklahoma), Art Weiner (North Carolina), Gen. Mike Wilson (Lafayette), Alvin "Moose" Wistert (Boston Univ., Michigan).

Coaches: Bernie Bierman, Vince Dooley, "Navy Bill" Ingram, Chuck Klausing, Tuss McLaughry, John Ralston.

John Gunn of Gulf Breeze, Fla., an independent journalist, turns out a weekly column about Marines and Marine veterans in sports. It is e-mailed (bcc) to 4,100 Marines, veterans, bases, commands, media, university presidents, pro & college coaches, athletics directors, HqMC, CentCom, 59 generals, etc.