Bob Sheldon went from being Georgia Tech’s tailback to commanding a platoon of Marines making its way across the Pacific — from Bougainville to Guam to Iwo Jima. He didn’t consider his abrupt transition anything heroic or extraordinary. This country was involved a war, and young Americans went off to fight it.
“Just about everybody I played with went into the service,” said Sheldon, who’s 91 and lives in Cherokee County. “And actually people wanted to go. We were threatened. We wanted to defend our country.”
Jack Marshall, who caught a 23-yard pass from Sheldon in the Cotton Bowl against Texas on Jan. 1, 1943, went into the Navy. Clint Castleberry, the freshman Tech halfback who, like Sheldon, was from Atlanta’s Boys High, enlisted in the Army Air Forces and died when his B-26 went down over Africa.
Sheldon’s island-hopping ended on Iwo Jima in 1945. He took a bullet in the neck and was evacuated first to Saipan, then to Hawaii. Upon arrival, he was told there were no beds available and put back on a ship for San Francisco.
Wars redefine our concept of the enemy. The young men who had played against Tech on autumn Saturdays were now military brethren.
George Poschner came to Georgia as Frank Sinkwich’s high school buddy and developed into an All-American end in 1942. During the Battle of the Bulge, Poschner was shot in the head while attacking a machine-gun nest and, as Loran Smith has written, “lay unconscious in subfreezing temperatures for three days.” Poschner survived, but he lost both legs and the fingers on his right hand. Marine Maj. Henry T. Elrod, who played freshman football at Georgia, died in the defense of Wake Island and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Another former Georgia player would, like Sheldon, land at Iwo Jima as a Marine lieutenant. Howard Johnson, known as Smiley, had been alternate captain of the 1939 Bulldogs. He won the Silver Star for valor during the assault on Saipan. On Iwo Jima, Johnson was injured by fragments from an artillery shell. According to Bulldogs historian Dan Magill, Smiley Johnson told a Navy corpsman: “Take care of my men first.” Those were his last words.
From the struggle to outdo an opponent in a mere game to a real fight against real enemies on tropical Pacific islands and snowy European forests: That was the thudding reality faced by young men of the era. “The football gave you confidence,” said Sheldon, who would be honorably discharged as a captain and return to Atlanta to begin a new life as a businessman.
As for the football, Sheldon offers one shining memory. In 1942, Tech traveled to Navy and beat the Midshipmen 21-0. “The only year (Castleberry) played was my senior year,” Sheldon said. “He was great, my lord. He’d run an interception back 90 yards, and after the game all you saw outside our locker room was brass. They all wanted him to get him into the Navy so he would play for their service team. But he had already signed up with the Air Force.”
Asked about his neck wound, Sheldon said, “It’s no problem.” Then he laughed. “I don’t even have a scar.”
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.