DET "D"/DET 1 Sports Report: the Great Years 1956-1957 and 1957-1958
by Ronald R. Rader, 1955-1958
Big changes were underway at Tempelhof AB 1956-1958, and the biggest of these was the rapid growth of Det "D"/Det 1 to become a major element on the base itself. The advance of our Detachment at the sports level gave the very clearest indication of what was going on. In 1956, instead of being part of the 7350th ABS teams as previously, we began to field our own teams in such sports as volleyball, touch football, and basketball with many important successes. Next year, most remarkably, the circle came full. It was the 7350th and another Base group AACS which joined with us and did not even try to compete on their own, especially in the BC level touch football and basketball leagues.
But, in another important respect, sports became an essential factor for the Detachment itself at this time. The Det "D" of a small, relatively independent, highly motivated group of intercept operators changed almost overnight into a larger, more traditional military organization. The new sports teams helped bring the unit together, gave exciting off duty focus, and built morale/esprit de corps where it had started to falter. The situation called for some kind of new group dynamic, and sports became a main way for providing it. Basketball became the center of all this and reached its highest point in the 1956-1958 years, especially the l957-l958 season. Below are the 1957-58 Det Jets.
Front row: Les Weber (10) player/coach, Ron Brennan, (32), Wheeler (30) - 7350 ABS, John Wallak (22), Jim Johnson (40), Glenn “Jim” Whitley (11), Buck Steelman (24) - AACS. Back row: unidentified (2_), Ed Nowicki (44) – 7350 ABS, “Tex” ? (35), Raymond Krosnicki (35), Don Kiser (20), unidentified (_2), unidentified (1_).
Names underlined were starters. There are 6 because Weber, as coach too, was in and out a lot.
Picture provided by Glenn Whitley
It was John Alexander, Ops NCOIC during this period, who first came up with the idea of putting the story into the printed record. I was, indeed, a scorekeeper and did news stories for that team; but, when he asked me about it, I was very hesitant. Who wants to write about something from memory 50 years after the fact? As it worked out, I managed to get some excellent help from team members such as Glenn ("Jim" in those days) Whitley, Jim Johnson, and Spence Barksdale (1956-1957). Whitley’s contributions of superb team pictures and comments, particularly about Les Weber, were of highest value. Johnson and Barksdale sent useful materials to fill in the 56-57 story. I am very grateful to them because someone else did the score book/news work then. I attended all the games, but that was it.
First, though, there was touch football. We put up our own team in 56 and enjoyed some notable successes. Then, in 57, with two 7350th players aboard, we won the International League championship, but lost out for the BC one. Outstanding Det players in these years were Hugh Clark, Hank Haddon, Dick Kelsey, and John Wallak (came in 57).
The #1 excitement in 56-57, however, was the Detachment's first ever basketball team. The hype which was in full blow in 57-58 actually began with that first team the previous year. That's when the Det Jets were born. They didn't even have a name in the beginning, but soared to a 60-50 victory over the 7350th and were the Det Jets from there on.
With the long, one handed "swishers" of Barksdale, the shorter jump shots and stellar defense of Jim Johnson, plus the aggressive play of Kelsey and Don Kiser under the net, they were highly competitive in the International League and always put up a hard fight.
In the early going, the Jets were big winners with several lop sided victories and, for a while, held the League lead. But, sure as they had the fight, they did not have the height, and that began to tell. Barksdale and Johnson were only 5-10, while, up front, Kelsey and Kiser measured in at 6-1. Against some of the much taller, more seasoned Army teams, three straight losses at one point knocked the Jets out of League title contention. But those games were all strongly contested, and the Jets never gave up. In doing so, that team created the basketball momentum in the Detachment and established the Det Jets firmly as an official part of the Berlin athletic family. They left the strong hope for even bigger and better things to come the following year.
Indeed, dramatic changes soon occurred bringing these hopes to the fullest reality. The coming of John Wallak, Les Weber, and "Jim" Whitley not only took care of the height issue, but also gave us college level experience and basketball savvy par excellence. Weber taking over as player/coach was of very greatest significance and set matters on a course full speed ahead. Some others from the previous year were back too, especially Jim Johnson, who was "one hell of a player", as John Alexander recalls. And that was not all. As in touch football, the 7350th and AACS joined us rather than going with a separate team in the other league. Three very talented players came over to us that way, two of them staying on for the whole season. They gave additional height, basket power, defensive strength, and floor finesse. But the team was always preponderantly Det “D”/Det 1 personnel. No one at the time or during the entire season raised any question about this "mixing". Very likely, the Army assumed that one of their teams would win anyway.
However, it did not turn out that way at all. The Jets fairly zoomed through International League competition with, as I remember, only one highly controversial, last minute loss to an MP team. The BC teams just could not cope with the powerful, smooth, diversified attack the Jets brought against them. When they would try to gang up on the big boys Wallak, Weber, and Steelman (AACS) - under the basket, Johnson and Whitley would open fire and pop in shots from a little further out. The defense was equally overwhelming, and most of the games were not even close.
When an Air Force team won the BC championship going away, the Army became very angry and insisted that their runner up team and not the Jets should go to Bremerhaven for the next level of the competition. This was because two of our starters were not from the Detachment, the first time the matter ever came up. Very unpleasant days in Berlin followed. AFN sports never liked us anyhow. But the Jets refused to buckle to Army pressure; and, when the train went west to Bremerhaven, the Jets were on it, together with a BC "observer" along just to make it official. We lost, incidentally to another USAFSS outfit, using subs for the players in question. For whatever satisfaction the Army sports bigwigs in Berlin got from essentially undermining themselves, they could not change the fact that we were the BC champs, and not any of them.
The very same Jet team then went into base/battalion level play, now as the TAB Flyers; and the non-Det player issue was moot. The competition was certainly rougher, but the results were the same. I remember that we had trouble in one of the final, decisive games, but came back to win it handily in the second half. At the end of the season, one Army player told us that he took pride in being able to give us a game for three quarters. In the USAREUR championship in Frankfurt, we got to the semi-finals where an old nemesis "The Big Blue" (another spy outfit based in Frankfurt) knocked us out of the running and brought that great season and team to the end of the line.
Also, along the way, we faced up both to Army teams from the zone and to increasingly strong German teams. Except for the "Big Blue", which was big alright, but for sure not blue (they had come to Berlin earlier in the season, and no Army team would take them on; so we did and lost, curiously to the cheers of the soldiers afraid to play them themselves), it was a record of straight victories for us. In one case, we again were the only ones willing to battle a USAREUR All-Star team which came to Berlin. They and the crowd were all set to celebrate; then, in the last seconds, we tied them up and John Wallak (I'm sure) put in the winning basket. "Stars and Stripes" recorded the score, but not the gnashing of Army teeth as they left the Berlin gym that night.
Then there was the game of the season, personally arranged by John Alexander through our Sembach Hdq. and connections from there with the USAFSS unit at Chicksands, England. Again, because we had those two non-Det players, we were excluded from the USAFSS European championship tourney. There, the Chicksands "Chicks", as they called themselves, took home first place and stood as one of Europe's most highly regarded AF teams. To some surprise, they agreed to give us a game, provided that it was on their court. We quickly made the trip on a MATS a/c with one of our own officers as pilot. Chicksands had a very classy guard, deservedly named to a top All-Europe team, but that did not save them in the game. The TAB/Jet boys won in a runaway; and, when it was over, those Chicks were nothing but deep fried. As John Alexander once said: when you beat the champs, you are the champs. Naturally, great consternation prevailed at Chicksands; you could feel it everywhere. We were out of there in an hour and off to a big weekend in London. This one was also in "Stars and Stripes".
It is absolutely necessary to add a few words about our coach Les Weber, who was the leader and driving force in this whole panorama. Previous to the AF, he had been at Phillips College in Enid, OK. He had the bearing, demeanor, and stature of an officer/military pro. But during a game or on the court, he was tough as nails and always played to win. Any opponent who got too close to him always came off second best. You would see them grimace, fly through the air, and go off the floor wincing in pain. Of course, if the officials caught it, Les would be out of the game. It was something that did not happen often, but he was always a force to be reckoned with.
His coaching was superb and shrewd. I remember one example vividly. It was that vital game for battalion honors which I mentioned earlier. We were trailing badly at the half, and it looked like doomsday had finally come. An Army player was breaking loose from the left side, getting open for 20-25 foot shots, and dropping them in one after the other with deadly accuracy. The half-time meeting was grim. Les took the score book from me, looked at the shot position diagram, and said that we had to do something about that guy. He thought for a moment and then proposed that someone grab very lightly and inconspicuously the seat of the pants of that fellow just long enough to slow him down for a brief second. Our best defensive player (one guess) got the job. It worked perfectly, and we went on to win the game. Coaching! Winning in the clutch! Weber's trademarks. Sad to note that, after getting out of the AF in 58, he passed away about a dozen years later from cancer.
We much benefited as the season was drawing to an end when two new men came into the Detachment and quickly became team regulars. One was a truly amazing jumper/put-back man and strong under the defensive boards as well. Though brand new, he worked into the team like a veteran and could liven up the play considerably with his spectacular rebounding and scoring moves.
Even the venerable Mel Allen, “The Voice of the Yankees”, showed up at the half of our Det level championship game to help celebrate the occasion (whichever side won), but we were ahead and well in the lead. Trouble was that Mel had already been celebrating too much in advance. Easy to do in Berlin! It was something of a farce; however, we did not mind. He had come to cheer the winner on, and that was us. And a little later, we were doing our own celebrating too.
As I understand, this team and these years were something unique and distinctive for our organization and the AF in the Berlin sports record. No one then could ever imagine other than that those Det athletic triumphs, once started, would go on indefinitely. But, evidently it didn’t happen, and the Det Jets became a thing of the past. Perhaps the immense growth, the move away from Tempelhof, and other changes in the unit precluded any repetition. For us in the Detachment at the time, however, our team was an endless source of excitement and fascination to watch, talk about, and follow in the columns of the TAB newspaper. It was true enjoyment and tremendous pride to be the best in Berlin. As Glenn Whitley, our always hustling, starting forward and now partner in a South Georgia law firm, says: “That was lots of fun".
© 2007, the Berlin Island Association