Buddy Lewis - Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice

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Buddy Lewis

Ballplayers Decorated in Combat

 

Date and Place of Birth: August 10, 1916 Gaston County, NC
Date and Place of Death:    February 18, 2011 Gastonia, NC
Baseball Experience: Major League
Position: Third Base
Rank: Captain
Military Unit:  1st Air Commando Group US Army Air Force
Area Served: China-Burma-India Theater

John K. “Buddy” Lewis, Jr., was born in Gaston County, North Carolina, on August 10, 1916. He attended Lowell High School in Lowell, North Carolina, and went on to play baseball at Wake Forest University. He was also the captain and star third baseman on the Post 23 team that advanced to the Legion World Series in 1934.

Lewis signed with the Washington Senators after his freshman year in 1934. The 6-foot-1-inch third baseman played 10 games for the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Class AA Southern Association and was back with the team in 1935, playing 154 games and batting .303, which earned a late-season call-up by the Senators. Lewis made his big league debut, aged just 19, against the Chicago White Sox on September 16.

In 1936, Lewis had earned a place in the Senators starting line-up. He appeared in 143 games and batted .291 with 67 RBIs. In 1937, at just 20 years of age, Lewis hit .341 with 79 RBIs and 10 home runs, and led the league with 162 singles. He was an all-star selection in 1938, and continued to be one of the top hitters in the American League year after year.

Lewis was drafted for military service early in 1941, but given a deferment to finish the baseball season. After batting .297 for the year with 72 RBIs, it was time to swap flannels for military fatigues.

“When I found out I was going to be drafted," said Lewis, "I enlisted in the Air Corps because I wanted to fly. I took basic training at Fort Knox, and the day I was to ship out for North Africa, my orders came through for flight school in Texas. That was the best thing to happen to me."

Lewis was later based at Lawson Field, Georgia, and before going overseas he returned to Washington to say goodbye to his teammates. After leaving Griffith Stadium, Lewis flew his airplane low over the field.

A C-47 transport pilot, Captain Lewis served with the 1st Air Commando Group (ACG) in the China-Burma-India Theater, evacuating the wounded, towing gliders and flying essential supplies over the Burma jungle. His airfield was in India, and Captain Lewis had been selected for this job by the commanding officer of the 1st ACG, Colonel Philip G. Cochran. Beginning in March 1944, the group entered combat almost immediately, operating in support of Wingate's Raiders behind Japanese lines in Burma. Towing a glider loaded with Wingate's men, Lewis led them safely over jungle-clad hills and across enemy-held positions to deliver them 200 miles behind Japanese lines. He then went back the next six nights loaded with reinforcements, plus mules, artillery and supplies, and landed his plane on a jungle air strip.

Lewis was told that if he crashes to come out of the plane with a baseball in his hand because the Japanese loved baseball and it might just save his life. He was also told to carry a cake of cocaine in his pocket because if he crashed, the natives loved the stuff and would get him out of the jungle to safety. Lewis amassed 1,799 flying hours of which 611 were in combat during 392 missions.

He spent 18 months in the CBI Theater, where he occasionally ran into Hank Greenberg. Upon his return in 1945, with the Distinguished Flying Cross (for precision flying) and Air Medal with oak leaf cluster pinned to his chest, he commented, "I've been away so long, I've practically forgotten baseball."

"My good fried, Buddy Lewis," recalled teammate George Case, "left for war and missed four years of baseball. He left a dark-haired man and came back to us at the end of 1945 with a full head of white hair and some hair-raising stories."

Lewis was back with the Senators in 1945 and played in 69 games. Being away from the game for so long didn’t seem to affect his batting eye as he hit .333. By 1947, Lewis was back in his all-star stride, but he quit baseball after the 1949 season and bought a Ford dealership in Gastonia, North Carolina.

Lewis later said, "When I came back from the war, my philosophy of life was completely different. I had changed so much that baseball didn't mean as much to me as it did before the war."

Buddy Lewis passed away in Gastonia, North Carolina, on February 18, 2011, aged 94.

Date Added January 21, 2018

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