The Legacy of Jimmy Trimble
By James C. Roberts
Special to ESPN.com
At the 2000 World War II Veterans Committee conference "Salute to Baseball Heroes of World War II," Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller said, "The real heroes were the ones that didn't come back." One such hero, a young man named James Trimble III, certainly deserves a place in this volume. More than 50 years after his death on Iwo Jima, Trimble is still recognized as one of the greatest athletes ever produced in the Washington area.
But baseball was Trimble's true passion, and he excelled on the mound as no pitcher before or since at St. Albans, a school noted as a baseball powerhouse for most of the century. He enjoyed spectacular success as the school's leading pitcher, throwing three no-hitters. Fittingly, one of his heroes was Bob Feller.
"Jimmy Trimble is still a legend at St. Albans," said Don Swagart, the school's director of alumni affairs. Swagart's father was a classmate of Trimble's, and said Trimble was considered by many to be the next Walter Johnson. His coach, Bill Shaw, a member of the 1932 U.S. Olympic baseball squad, considered him to be one of the finest baseball prospects he had ever seen.
Earle Elliott was Trimble's best friend and a teammate on the school's basketball, football, and baseball squads. He remembers Trimble as "a solid basketball player, an excellent football player, and an outstanding baseball player -- the best high school baseball player I ever saw by far." St. Albans never lost a baseball game with Trimble on the mound, and only tied one, against Woodrow Wilson High.
"He threw hard and he threw nothing but strikes -- fastballs and curveballs," said Elliott, adding, "He was very intimidating on the mound, even though he never tried to brush anybody back from the plate." It is reported that Trimble threw so hard that his catcher, Buddy Cromelin, had to put extra padding in his glove.
Trimble acquired his baseball skills on the streets of Chevy Chase, Md., a Washington suburb. "We kids played ball of some kind every spare minute we had," Elliott said. During baseball season the two boys took the streetcar to Griffith Stadium to watch the Senators play. A number of the ballplayers lived in the area, and Elliott remembered one time in particular when Senators outfielder Jesse Hill took the two to the ballpark as his guests.
Even though the team was rarely competitive during those years, the boys were rabid Senators fans. "Jimmy was a big fan of Stan Spence, who played the outfield, and Earl Whitehill and Dutch Leonard, who were pitchers," Elliott said.
Another vivid memory is of the first time the two saw Bob Feller pitch. "He wasn't even in the lineup. They brought him in as a reliever," Elliott remembered. "I still remember hearing the incredible pop, pop, pop sound as the ball hit the catcher's mitt. We said, 'Who in the world is that?' And we found out it was Bobby Feller. We had never heard of him."
By his senior year at St. Albans, Trimble had caught the attention of Washington's sports reporters. An April 18, 1943, article by Joe Holman in the Washington Times-Herald reported:
Trimble, a five-foot, 11½ inch, 155-pound boy who is spreading out all the time, says he enjoys all sports and is considering several scholarship offers by major colleges, but admits that he is hopeful of eventually qualifying for professional baseball.
"Ever since I can remember, I've played baseball with older boys," Jimmy tells you. "My buddies all say I'd make a better shortstop than pitcher, but I'm not kidding myself -- I don't hit very well."
One of our staff members, Maury Fitzgerald, who accidentally scouted Trimble recently, says that the youngster has all the action and ability of a seasoned ballplayer.
Fitzgerald saw the youngster strike out 14 Wilson (High School) batsmen, exhibit a blazing fastball, good change of pace and surprising control, and also saw him field his position flawlessly. Maury also saw nothing wrong with Trimble's hitting, recalling that he met the ball well and figured in the scoring.
The article obviously reached the right circles, because Jimmy soon received a letter from Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators:
Joe Holman of the Times-Herald and several of my friends have been calling my attention to your good work as a pitcher this spring. I would like very much to have you come and work out with the Washington club, which would allow manager Bluege and myself to pass opinion as to your capabilities. These are times when we may have to use quite a number of the 17-year-old boys who are not yet subject to the army draft, so it naturally would be a good opportunity for you to get yourself a good job. The ballclub leaves Washington tomorrow night and will not be back until the 27th of April. If you could come out and see me at that time, I would greatly appreciate it. Just bring your glove, shoes, and sweatshirt, and we can furnish you with a uniform.
Trusting to have a favorable reply from you and wishing you all success, I beg to remain,
Yours most sincerely,
Clark Griffith President
Trimble was called to Griffith Stadium for a tryout on May 29, 1943. His parents were divorced and his dad wasn't around, so, Elliott recalled, "My dad went with him to Griffith Stadium. Clark Griffith was there to watch him, and Jimmy did very well." Heinie Manush, a 17-year veteran of six major league teams and later a coach for the Senators, saw Trimble pitch and called him "one of the finest prospects he had ever seen."
Clark Griffith wanted to sign Trimble up for the Senators' farm system, Elliott recalled, but his mother insisted that he first finish school. So Griffith gave the young player a $5,000 signing bonus and agreed to pay for a four-year scholarship at Duke University in the hope that at some point Trimble would elect to put college off until later and join the Senators.
In another article about Trimble, Holman wrote:
The 17-year-old youngster . . . enters Duke University, where he hopes to become eligible for a Navy V-8, which will enable him to study for a naval commission.
After the war is over Trimble, who has been scouted by several major league clubs other than Washington, plans on attending school in the winter and playing with the Nationals (Senators) in the summer.
Jimmy Trimble was an all-around athlete at St. Albans, being a basketball forward and football end. He plans passing up football hereafter, although he will play some basketball if granted the necessary permission by his benefactor, Griffith.
In those days Duke was a baseball powerhouse. The team's outstanding coach, Jack Coombs, was a retired major league pitcher. Trimble played fall baseball for him in 1943 and, according to Elliott, would have been Duke's best pitcher if he'd played the following spring.
While at Duke, Trimble was disqualified from officer training because of defective sight in one eye. He declined to use his political contacts in Washington to get a waiver, and instead opted to enter the Marine Corps as an enlisted man.
Concluded Elliott: "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jimmy would have been a major-league star." But, of course, that was not to be.
White remembered that although Trimble was "handsome in a rugged way," she hadn't liked him at first. She knew nothing about baseball, and he was pitching against her school. "I couldn't understand it," she recalled. "He wouldn't let our boys hit the ball. It seemed so unfair." White hastened to add that she soon learned what a rare achievement a no-hitter was.
In late 1943, a friend arranged a double date for the two girls, and the friend's date was Trimble. White recollected that when she opened the door and introduced herself, Trimble just stared at her, unable to remove his eyes. For young James Trimble, it was love at first sight.
"He told me, 'I want you and baseball,'" White remembered. "I never knew which was first, but it didn't matter."
During his basic training on Parris Island, Trimble was given an opportunity to stay for two additional months and play baseball for the base. At the end of this time he could have entered a special program that would have given him the rank of corporal. Had he done so, he would not have arrived in the Pacific until almost the end of the war. In a fateful -- but typical -- decision, he declined.
"I would not stay on this island unless forced," he wrote his mother. "After all, I got in the Marines to kill Japs." In July 1944, Trimble shipped out to join the Third Marine Division in the South Pacific.
Trimble saw combat on Guam as part of patrols mopping up the remaining Japanese. He was a member of the division's Amphibious Reconnaissance Company, assigned directly to division headquarters. In another fateful decision, he next volunteered to serve in an elite scouting platoon that would put him ahead of the front lines on Iwo Jima.
While on Guam, Trimble showed his C.O. a letter from Clark Griffith, which won him a tryout as a pitcher for the Third Marine Division baseball team. At a time when baseball truly reigned supreme as America's national game, the sport was a major factor in maintaining the morale of the men in uniform. Baseball leagues and exhibition games were organized whenever conditions permitted, and Guam became a baseball hub in the Pacific.
During this time he got to know someone involved with the New York Yankees operation, who told him that he would be able to get Trimble a spot on the Yankees' pitching staff. In another letter to his mother, Trimble asked her to check the contract she had signed for him with the Senators to see if there was any escape clause. She replied that the contract was binding and that he was morally as well as legally bound to honor his commitment to Griffith. He wrote back that he would, of course, keep his word.
The Marine who knew Trimble best, the man who saw him on a daily basis and watched him die in combat, was Donald Mates, now retired in Palm Beach, Fla. Mates was Trimble's tentmate for three-and-a-half months on Guam, from November 1944 to mid-February 1945. Although Guam was officially pacified in early August of 1944, there were still isolated pockets of Japanese resistance until 1946. The Marines stationed on Guam thus spent much of their time on patrols chasing after Japanese guerillas. Trimble spent some time on these patrols, Mates said, but he was often called away to pitch.
Mates was awed by Trimble's fastball. A native of the Cleveland, Ohio, area, Mates recalled that "I thought he was the next Bob Feller."
At night, the two men often talked baseball. "I had seen the game where DiMaggio's streak ended," Mates recalled, "and Jimmy wanted me to replay the game over and over and over.
"Jimmy would drive me crazy asking all these technical questions like, 'How would you pitch to (Indians third baseman) Ken Keltner? Fastballs, curve balls, low and outside, high and inside?' That kind of thing. He made me go over Cleveland's pitching rotation -- Al Milnar, Mel Harder, Al Smith, and of course Bob Feller -- and describe how each one pitched. He was just insatiable for this kind of information.
"Trimble was a cut above everybody else. Most of the Marines had never even thought about going to college, but he had already had a year of college. Also, he'd gone to a fancy prep school in Washington, and he would toss off the names of congressmen and other famous people left and right.
"Jimmy was a celebrity in camp; he carried himself like a movie star, but he was liked by everybody, officers and enlisted men alike."
Jim White, another friend in Trimble's platoon, recalled that Trimble "was always optimistic, always laughing and joking and trying to buck people up."
He also had a sentimental side, White said. "One day," he recalled, "Trimble threw a wild pitch and killed one of the little stray dogs that had become a platoon pet. He was pretty broken up about it and wouldn't pitch any more that day."
When baseball wasn't the topic of conversation, Trimble's fiancée, Christine White, was. "He talked about her constantly," Mates recalled. "He was always showing me pictures of her and talking about how beautiful she was, which you could see from the pictures she obviously was. He would hold up the picture and say, 'This is what's waiting for me when I get home.' It was all wholesome 1940s talk about love for his girl back home. There was none of the raunchy talk like you hear today."
During the eight months he spent in the Pacific, Private Trimble kept up a furious correspondence with White. "Thank God for God, you and baseball in this dark wilderness," he wrote. "Taps is sounding. I will sign off with my love." Many of his letters were playfully signed "Private Jim."
"He wrote more than 70 letters," White said. "By the end he was 19 going on 35. The letters showed an incredible maturity for someone his age."
Trimble's religious faith was also growing during this trying time. In a letter to the headmaster of St. Albans, he wrote:
In his last letter to White, Trimble quoted Shakespeare: "Mine honor is my life. The two grow in one. Take honor from me and my life is done."
In a letter written to his mother on February 18, 1945, en route to Iwo Jima on the USS Harry Lee, Trimble wrote:
Just back from communion, Mother, and feel better for having partaken. Yes, dear, in some ways you won't recognize your irresponsible offspring. Thank you so much for obtaining another St. Christopher Medal, Mom. I'm sorry to have caused you the trouble.
It's getting colder, Mom, and believe it or not I am glad for once to get away from the heat.
The weather is beautiful, a clear sky and bright sun shining on the water. What scenic beauty for the tourist!
Mom, will you get some flowers for Chris, Easter lilies if possible? . . .
Well, Mom, I'll leave you now as my limited information has exhausted itself. Always thinking of you and thankful that you are my mother. My love to the whole family. Until then,
Your Loving Son,
Despite the growing faith evidenced by this letter, Trimble was certainly not above taking a drink and having a good time. Recalled Mates, "The last two days before we shipped out to Iwo we were bivouacked in tents in a field. A young Guamanian boy came by selling bottles of 150-proof grain alcohol. Jimmy bought two gallons of the stuff and we drank it all and got sick as dogs. We were definitely not feeling well when we boarded the ship for Iwo."
Trimble and his buddies were headed into one of the most hellish operations of World War II.
U.S. military planners estimated that it would take four days to quell Japanese resistance. In fact, the battle lasted more than a month. At its end, nearly 7,000 Americans were dead and more than 20,000 were wounded. Japanese dead totaled 21,000 -- out of 22,000 men.
With the 500-foot-high Mount Surabachi on the southern end of the island, one Marine called Iwo "an ugly wart on the face of the Pacific." Stripped of almost all of its sparse vegetation by the U.S. bombardment, the island resembled a lunar landscape, covered with coarse black sand and volcanic ash. Steam rose from the porous lava rocks, and the burning sulfur escaping from pits bombed by U.S. planes made the whole place smell like rotten eggs. "It looked like hell with the fires out, but still smoking," one Marine said.
Moreover, it was February; the weather was cold and rainy and the volcanic ash had become cement-like mud. It was on this desolate, barren island that the U.S. Marines fought their bloodiest engagement of the war in the Pacific.
The landings were preceded by three days and nights of naval bombardment supplemented by daytime carpet-bombing by B-29s. (Unbeknownst to Trimble, the battleship Alabama was one of the ships supplying this gunfire support. Trimble's hero, Bob Feller, was a gunnery crew director onboard the Alabama.) It was the most intensive bombardment of the Pacific war up to that time. For Mates, Trimble and the other Marines on the ship, it must have seemed impossible that any Japanese soldiers could have lived through it. But, in fact, so entrenched were the 22,000 Japanese troops in their deep tunnels and fortifications that almost all of them survived and lay in readiness awaiting the Marines.
On Feb. 19, the Fifth Marine Division landed on the southernmost beaches at the foot of Mount Surabachi. The Fourth Marine Division went ashore farther north. Except for the mined beaches, which took their toll in casualties, the Marines faced little opposition until almost 50,000 of them were ashore. Then the doors of the fortified Japanese gun emplacements opened and the heavy artillery poured a merciless rain of bullets on the massed forces of men and equipment. Totally out in the open, the Marines took huge casualties on the beaches and, lacking protection, had no other option but to move forward foot by foot.
On Feb. 24, the Third Division went ashore in the wake of the landings by the Fourth and Fifth Divisions. The scene that Mates and Trimble saw upon landing was one of carnage: bodies and body parts on the beach and in the water, with burned-out equipment strewn about on all sides. "The burning sulfur created an eerie haze that hung over everything," Mates said. "All I could think of was Basil Rathbone in The Hound of the Baskervilles with that thick fog. The only difference is that it was Japs, not dogs, running at us through the haze."
During the first three days Mates and Trimble's Fourth Reconnaissance Platoon saw little combat, as they were assigned as personal bodyguards to the Third Marine Division's commanding officer, Major General Graves Erskine. "Erskine knew Jimmy personally, because he was the star pitcher for the division," Mates said.
During the day the hulking mound of Mount Surabachi dominated the scene. On Feb. 26 the Fifth Marine Division took Mount Surabachi and raised the American flag there. The moment was photographed by Joe Rosenthal in what would become the most famous image of World War II. Don Mates recalled that he and Trimble had seen the flag and took heart, thinking the worst was over. In fact, the battle was just beginning.
The battle plan for Iwo Jima was for the Fourth and Fifth Divisions to move across the island, cutting it in half. After the capture of Mount Surabachi, the Fifth Division was to move up the western side of the island. The Fourth would move up the eastern side. The Third was to move between the two divisions and head north through the center of the island. By day the marines inched forward, taking ridges and hills, only to have Japanese soldiers emerge from tunnels behind them and engage in hand-to-hand combat.
Following the landings, the Third Marine Division took heavy casualties from Japanese rocket attacks launched from the hill that came to be known as Hill No. 362. On Feb. 27 the Fourth Platoon commander asked for eight volunteers to find the location of the rocket sites and to call in artillery to destroy them. Mates recalled that "Trimble's and White's hands were the first to go up." Mates also volunteered.
The next night, four two-man reconnaissance teams were deployed forward of the rest of their platoon in four foxholes running up a ridge, all connected by radio wire. Said Mates, "As we started out, I told Jimmy, 'If there are guardian angels, I hope they are with us here.' He made the sign of the cross."
At midnight Mates and Trimble were in the second foxhole from the bottom, preparing to trade places with the men in the next one up the ridge. Then the attack came. Mates described what ensued:
Then all hell broke loose. I could hear McCloskey on the radio, "Green Tiger calling Red Circle." Flares lighting up the sky. Grenades exploding, rifle shots, Jap officers screaming orders, Marines cursing, and then two clicks, and Jim screams "grenades" as he fired his rifle. (Jap grenades are ignited by hitting them on something solid, usually their helmets.) One grenade landed between my thighs and exploded and the other along Jim. Because he was sitting up he caught the full blast of both grenades, the rising shrapnel. The grenade between my legs ripped off 20 percent of my left thigh, 5 percent of my right thigh, and fractured both legs.
Jim's back, upper arms, and the back of his head were a mass of wounds, but he was alive. I pulled myself out of the hole and turned to Jim and he reached out his arm and hand to have some help to get out with. At the same time a Jap jumped into the hole with a mine strapped to his stomach and proceeded to wrap himself around Jim. The Jap blew himself into a thousand pieces and blew a hole into Jim's back bigger than a basketball.
It took a bayonet, two grenades, and a Jap suicide attack to kill James Trimble III.
By this time, a tank and a Marine platoon had joined the battle and turned the tide. The fighting raged for more than three hours and when morning came, there were more than 60 Japanese bodies found lying on the ground.
But the Marines took a heavy toll as well. Of the eight scouts in the foxholes, two were missing. One was later found in a cave where he had been dragged by the Japanese, tortured and hacked to pieces. Mates, badly wounded, escaped by rolling down the hill, yelling out the names of presidents (the code of the day) until he was near another foxhole.
Jimmy Trimble lay dead in the foxhole. In the breast pocket of his uniform was his wallet, containing the picture of Christine White that he always carried with him.
When told of Trimble's death, General Erskine was reported to have been "moist-eyed." Two months later, at a ceremony on Guam, the Third Division baseball field was named in memory of Jimmy Trimble by the personal order of Erskine, who was also wounded on Iwo Jima. The general himself attended the ceremony, a highly unusual honor rendered to a deceased private, and wrote the citation that was read to those attending. It said in part:
James Trimble remains a vivid memory to the dwindling number of people who knew him. While he never had the opportunity to become a hero in the major leagues, in the words of Bob Feller, he became a "real hero" nonetheless. Jimmy Trimble put his country ahead of himself and everything he held dear: his fiancé, his family and friends, and baseball. He volunteered to serve on the front lines and he died as the man he wanted to be: "Private Jim."
Jimmy Trimble was remembered at a Veterans Day 2000 tribute to the baseball heroes of World War II. Christine White quoted General Erskine's words about Trimble's character -- his courage, loyalty, and high ideals. "These are qualities that are desperately needed today," she said. "If we remember Jimmy Trimble and his example, then his death was not in vain."
An evensong service in honor of World War II veterans followed at Washington's Church of the Epiphany. Taps was sounded in memory of the dead, and the choir sang:
This excerpt from "Hardball on the Hill" by James C. Roberts is reprinted by permission of Triumph Books/Chicago. Copies of the book can be ordered from the publisher by calling (800) 335-5323.