Beyond the Breakers: A Tale of Two Olympic Hopefuls
When the Olympics were cancelled during World War II, it changed the life course of two of the United States' strongest prospects; one was an oarsman, the other, a distance swimmer and former Duluth resident.
Beyond the breakers of Ocean City, NJ, across the deep dark Atlantic, a world war raged.
The 1940 Olympic Games, scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Japan, had been cancelled three years before. Officials had rescheduled the worldwide competition to be held in 1944 in Helsinki, Finland.
In the summer of 1943 two beach patrol lifeguards stood knee-deep in the tide, state side, scanning the horizon for the bobbing heads of vacationers they earned pennies per hour to protect. That pair of Olympic hopefuls likely gazed across the wide horizon wondering: 'Would 1944 bring more disappointment?'
Until the attack on the SS David H. Atwater (an unarmed coastal steamer sunk April 2, 1942, by the German submarine U-552 that washed ashore in Ocean City, Md.), the war was real only on newsreels and through the crackling reports that vibrated off crystal in a transistor radio set. The Legare, a Coast Guard cutter guarding the coastline, heard the gunfire and arrived just 15 minutes later, reporting that the Germans had not only fired upon the steamer but delibrately murdered surivors as the lifeboats, with dead bodies on board, were discovered to be riddled with bullet holes.
It brought the war home to the East Coast, but despite the nightly air raid sirens, the blackouts and the rationing of cigarettes and sugar, that summer of 1943 was hot. People flocked to spend the day dipped in the refreshing surf and spent a few hard earned coins at night along the boardwalks and piers.
Jack Kelly Jr. and Bill Hirsch patrolled a sandy stretch of beach between the amusement pier and a black stone jetty. They eyed the ocean through binoculars from the oversized seat of a red watch tower.
Behind them stood an elevated wooden seaside boardwalk that smelled like salt air and salt water taffy. The pier offered a ride on a ferris wheel, a paper funnel spun around with cotton candy, a coin-operated telescope (so a kid could see the face of the man on the moon), and a sky full of stars that seemingly stretched to eternity.
Kelly, an oarsman, sliced his wooden skiff headlong into the surf, jabbing his paddles into the foam to avoid barnacle-covered pilings, as he and Hirsch, a rookie, rescued bathers caught in an ever-changing rip tide. Hirsch was a distance swimmer whose confident freestyle pull skimmed through the water's surface with a steady ease.
Stroke, breath. Stroke, breath. He could go on for miles at a steady clip. Both were positioned to make the 1944 U.S. team.
Kelly, the son of a wealthy brick mason and big brother of Grace (marrying into the royal family of Monaco), had made the lifesaving squad in '42, surviving the initial test (most do not) of running into the ocean, diving into the breakers, swimming a 1/2-mile stretch, running ashore and back to the start point in 10 minutes. A series of simulated rescues followed giving trainees 65 seconds to run some 220 feet through soft sand with and without a torpedo buoy.
In a swimming pool, guards practiced lifesaving techniques, demonstrating the ability to break the grasp of desperate swimmers using several techniques. Patrol members learn the semaphore flag signals system and rudimentary first aid of the time. Beach surgeons of the 1920s were replaced in the 1930s by ambulance drivers, completing the ranks of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. Lifeguards who made the vigorous cut and made the squad lived together in barracks.
As best friends back in Philadelphia, Kelly and Hirsch requested they patrol the same beach. As the sun rose each morning, Kelly could be spotted rowing his workouts beyond the breakers with Hirsch swimming alongside.
When the weather was poor or the number of bathers was low, the guards passed time hammering nails back in place to repair the boardwalk. Removing splinters was a big job and the guards kept an empty frozen orange juice can in their station and used it to collect the loosened splinters. At the end of the season, the can would be full.
Today, athletes like Hirsch and Kelly would earn corporate sponsorship. No commercials or endorsements for these two, however, since they barely made enought to eat.
Hirsch's son, Bill Hirsch Jr., recalled this story:
"As I remember it, Dad bussed tables at a restaurant called the Chatterbox in the evenings. It is still there. Because Ocean City was 'dry', they served no alcohol. He took us [Bill Hirsh Jr. and his wife, June, had five children] there several times. He also had a third job as a bouncer of sorts in a pub on Somers Point, across the bay where they could get a liquor license. Dad told us the story of a boathouse at sea level and a pub one floor up. For extra cash he would find a drunk, lay a dollar bill on the bar and say, 'I'll bet you a buck I can run across the room and jump out the window into the bay.' When the drunk laid another dollar down, Dad would take off his shirt, shoes and belt, empty his pockets, and in just his skivees, run and jump, sailing out the window, landing in the shallow water and mud. He'd rinse off in the outdoor shower and come upstairs to claim the money. Once he dried up, he'd find another pigeon."
The feat seemed a gamble to onlookers, but to Hirsch, it was just a refreshing plunge, a short swim, and a way to double his meager income. It must have been marvelous to watch, the kind of thrill and diversion that customers living in a worried world needed.
The war raged on, the summer of 1943 slipped away, and the 1944 Olympics were cancelled.
Both lifeguards had an Olympic dream.
Fate stepped in and only one was able to live it.
Kelly represented the United States at the 1948, '52, and '56 Olympic Games, winning the bronze medal for single scull in 1956. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Jack Kelly Sr., who was a three-time gold medalist in the 1920s.
Hirsch enlisted in the Navy that September of 1943, got married, and sold office furniture to support his family. He is a former Duluth resident and the father of Norcross local Sally Toole.