Navy and the Cubs; Small town kid comes of age
By Jon Bisnett
When the editor tasks you to come up some local color in the way of human interest stories, one seldom finds a topic that tells not only a local guy’s story, but includes veterans with an obscure tie-in to the reigning World Champion Chicago Cubs. The late Jimmy the Greek would have called that kind of timing a “Trifecta!”
The year is 1966 and a Hartford High School senior is listening to a pitch from the Navy Recruiter about a special unit being formed of young men from Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Then just 17 years old, Terry Tibbs signed up, enlisting before graduation, and by that July was in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station just north of Chicago. Great Lakes still stands today as the only true “Boot Camp” of the U.S. Navy.
Seaman Terry Tibbs – 1968
As Terry recalls there was not a whole lot special about this special unit his recruiter had described until it was revealed that the Chicago Cubs would be sponsoring the unit. Chicago Cubs Company 402, 1st Regiment, 20th Battalion was born.
“Boot camp was still boot camp whether you have a major baseball team in your unit name or not!” recalls Tibbs. Company 402 saw no special privilege during basics. But no other recruits can claim they were sworn in along third base line at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs connection was a public relations move to make an attempt at connecting something as American as apple pie to a unit headed out to a largely unpopular war in the Vietnam jungle some 8,400 miles away. The year 1968 saw American B-52s bombing North Vietnam for the first time since the conflict began. Just a few months later veterans from World War I and II joined Korean War Vets in New York City for a major protest condemning the war.
“Hey Hey – Holy Mackerel”
The Company proudly carried the colors of our nation and the Navy alongside the official flag of the Chicago Cubs. When the unit completed basic training in September of ’68 the Navy loaded them on a bus for another trip to Wrigley Field for a very special and public graduation ceremony.
“They lined us all up on the third base line to swear us in,” recalls Tibbs, “And I remember shaking hands with Ernie Banks at our graduation.” WGN’s Jack Brickhouse was at the microphone and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daly joined Illinois Junior Miss Kathryn Benysh and a host of Cubs players in saluting the Company that carried the Cubs’ moniker.
Die hard Cubs fans remember the power lineup of the mid 60’s with names like Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Kenny Holtzman, Randy Huntley, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jerkins; while Ryne Sandburg was just a pup, signing with the team in the spring of ‘66. Three years later these Cubs did their level best to break the curse only to be shocked in late season by the ’69 Miracle Mets.
Not all fun & games
While the Cubs make for some interesting press and unique bit of sports history, the real work of wartime was at hand.
Young Tibbs found himself serving stateside as a medic at Great Lakes. “The wounded would come in on buses from Glenview Naval Air Station…” said Tibbs, “…and you have to remember we didn’t have all the modern medical equipment like nowadays, especially in the way of prosthetics.” Terry described a couple of those “things you just can’t ever unsee,” that still haunt his memory, which we will just leave to the reader’s imagination.