War rumbled in Europe 80 autumns ago, while in the Far East, the Japanese military was secretly mounting a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Back in Minnesota, Gophers football fans had an additional worry: Their beloved university team was limping into the 1941 season, hoping to defend its national title despite captain and star halfback Bruce Smith's bum knee, wrenched while working summertime construction on the viaduct in Faribault, his hometown.
Although that knee would find him on crutches later that fall, Smith scored two touchdowns against the University of Washington in a 14-6 season-opening victory on Sept. 27, 1941. Four weeks and four victories later, Smith was carried off the field on a stretcher when his knee snapped during an 8-7 squeaker against Northwestern in front of a season-high 64,464 home fans.
Smith watched practice the next week from crutches as his three backfield backups went through their drills. Like the injured starter from Faribault, the three juniors below him on the depth chart came from Minnesota towns: Mike Welch from St. James, Joe Lauterbach from Redwood Falls and Gene Bierhaus from Brainerd.
A new rule allowed free substitutions for the first time in 1941, meaning players didn't need to sit out the rest of the quarter if they came to the sideline for a break.
Welch, Lauterbach and Bierhaus were "three rural Minnesota prep stars aiming for their first college breakthrough in 1941 … [who] could only hope that unlimited substitutions would create more opportunities," writes KARE-TV reporter Danny Spewak, author of "From the Gridiron to the Battlefield" — a new book out this month that chronicles the 1941 Gophers (tinyurl.com/1941Gophersbook).
Spewak, 30, dedicates the book to his grandparents, Jack and Virginia Spewak. His grandfather, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, played for the '41 Gophers freshman team, served in the Army Air Corps in World War II and rose to president of Senack Shoes.
Spoiler alert: For me, the best part of Spewak's book came after the Gophers finished unbeaten to defend their national title in 1941. Smith fought through the knee trouble to become the only Gopher ever to win the Heisman Trophy, given to college football's best player.
Japan attacked Pearl Harbor two days before Smith was handed his trophy in Manhattan. In an acceptance speech broadcast nationally just before President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the country, Smith said: "I think America will owe a great debt to the game of football when we finish this thing off. … It teaches team play and cooperation and exercise to go out and fight hard for the honor of our schools, and likewise the same skills can be depended on when we have to fight like blazes to defend our country."
Smith joined the Navy, staying stateside during the war before briefly joining the NFL. He died from colon cancer at 47 at his lake home near Alexandria, Minn. But what about his backup trio — Welch, Lauterbach and Bierhaus?
In Spewak's well-researched book, we follow along as they become war heroes after stepping out from behind Smith's shadow.
Born 100 years ago, 1st Lt. Welch was aboard the Navy minesweeper USS Tide, clearing out the English Channel before the D-Day Invasion on June 6, 1944. The next morning, the Tide hit a mine near Utah Beach, launching the 221-foot ship into the air and killing more than 20 crew members instantly, including the captain.
The blast broke two of Welch's vertebrae, but he dodged flames and found a life raft to save one sailor in the water. Just as the ship started to sink and men clamored onto rescue vessels, Welch returned to save five African American cooks and stewards whose severe leg injuries left them trapped. After the war, Welch worked in advertising, living in Colorado and California until he died at 96 in 2017.
Bierhaus and Lauterbach faced similar chaos in the Pacific. At the Iwo Jima invasion on Feb, 19, 1945, Marine Lt. Bierhaus was peppered with shrapnel to his arms, legs and shoulders. He witnessed Japanese soldiers burned with flamethrowers and his fellow Marines planting the flag after the island had been secured.
Lauterbach, a Navy ensign, fared worse. On the beach, facilitating radio communication between ship and shore, a Japanese mortar exploded — shredding Lauterbach's left leg. It would eventually be amputated six inches above the knee.
After the war, Bierhaus spent time in Colorado before returning to Brainerd, where he died in 2006. Lauterbach sold insurance in Iowa, returning to Minneapolis upon retirement. He died in 1996.
He talked little about the war injury that cost him his leg, but his daughter told Spewak how he loved to discuss "the camaraderie and the people" he played with in 1941.
The last living member of that '41 team passed away in 2018, but Spewak's book brings the team back to life.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.