Dick Siebert was coaching his third Gophers baseball team in 1950. It was less than a juggernaut, and yet it’s instructive to look back at the multisport competitors and the Gophers that would achieve fame as high school coaches throughout the state:
Basketball star Whitey Skoog and football star Wayne Robinson, and coaches Duane Baglien, Tom Warner and Lloyd Lundeen, and several more, and Glenn Gostick, trainer and baseball statistician supreme.
Also on that team was senior Norb Koch, a righthanded pitcher who could top his teammates on a golf course and in war stories.
Norb talked his way in the Army Air Corps in 1943 at age 17 and became the operator of the 50-caliber gun on a B-24 heavy bomber.
He flew 29 missions, none more adventurous than a final one Aug. 9, 1945. The squadron had a Japanese naval base as a target when Koch saw a mushroom cloud in the distance.
“Nobody else had seen it,” he said. “They thought I was making it up.”
Koch’s plane was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. The pilot was struck in the rear end, started bleeding heavily and passed out. The co-pilot had a piece of shrapnel in his neck.
“I was called up to the front,” Koch said. “The co-pilot was reaching to pull out the shrapnel. I said, ‘No; if you take it out, you’ll bleed to death.’ So, he put me in the pilot’s seat, told me what to do while still pushing the shrapnel into the hole in his neck, and we got back and landed the plane with a good bounce.”
The mushroom cloud Koch saw was the second A-bomb that the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki, although that hadn’t been announced.
“The next day, I was put in a crew with another plane,” Koch said. “They told us to fly to China and back. We went over the river and saw the big guns from a Japanese battleship rotate and aim but not fire.
“That’s when we realized we were the guinea pigs, to find out if Japan actually had surrendered after the second bomb.”
Norb’s now 93. He’s in the process of moving from his home at TPC Twin Cities. There are plenty of keepsakes, including a scorecard from the pro-am at the Las Vegas Invitational, when Norb posted a net 72 and beat his partner, Phil Mickelson.
Read Reusse’s blog at startribune.com/patrick. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Norb Koch on the golf course:
• An exquisite player at North Oaks, he was known for hitting it straight — and, oh yeah, eight holes-in-one.
• Norb on Mickelson: “He hit a ball almost out of bounds and close to a wall. Went over there, took a big swing and hit the ball back over his head and onto the green. True story.”
• His wife, Lenore, died on Norb’s shoulder while they were sleeping on a flight to Phoenix last November. She was 89 and still an avid golfer.