Terry Frei, an award-winning journalist, writes for ESPN.com. He is the author of the acclaimed "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming: Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie's Last Stand." He lives in Denver.
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Wisconsin Historical Society Press: You've said that you received many heartwarming phone calls and emails after the hardcover book appeared. What were some of the messages you heard from people who read the book?
Terry Frei: The responses in many cases were either heartening or sad. In many cases, they were both. I heard from family members of the '42 Badgers who appreciated that their tales finally were told, and quite often it was apparent that the book was a bit of catharsis for the men involved they decided it finally was time to talk about these things at length. I heard from readers whether from Wisconsin or Washington who recognized a certain universality in the experiences of these men and remarked that their fathers, their uncles, their grandfathers, their next-door neighbors had been similar. They "got" what I had talked about in the prologue and other parts of the book: This was one team, they were all athletes, but they represented the type of cross-section effort that won the war. I heard from classmates and friends of these men, and their remembrances have been added to the paperback edition. I heard from many younger readers who didn't know much about this team or these men until they came across the book, and their reactions were most gratifying. I was very appreciative that the Wisconsin athletic department understood that Badger Nation is about a legacy, a tradition, and torches being passed.
WHS Press: Have any aspects of the reaction to the book disappointed you?
TF: We're speaking among friends, right?
One, I was very disappointed that as supportive as some members of the Wisconsin media were in Madison and around the state, the Milwaukee media in most cases ignored this book after publication and seemed to think that it was irrelevant. As I think should be obvious by now, readers did not believe it was irrelevant. I found that very disappointing and believe that if I had not been an outsider, or if someone from Milwaukee whether from the newspaper staff or otherwise had written it, it would have gotten a lot more attention. I saw some of that with "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," but I saw more of it with "Third Down and a War to Go,"which was especially perplexing because of the personal nature of the story and my father's involvement. And remember, I say this from the perspective of being in the media and having witnessed many instances of this sort of pettiness over the years. Also, I understand that many media executives and writers believe a state's history begins the second they get a job in the state after being raised somewhere else. I've seen that many times in my career, in several places. Personally, I can handle it and understand it. But I think it did and still does a disservice to the men in this book.
Two, I was a bit disappointed that there was not more recognition that this story was not a "Wisconsin" one, but a national one.
WHS Press: You urge people whose loved ones served in World War II not to wait too long to ask about their experiences. In what ways do you think "Third Down and a War to Go" might be different if you'd started researching and writing it earlier?
TF: There certainly would have been more first-person contributions from the principals, including my father. That would have been the primary difference. But doing it when I did after my father's death and with the number of survivors dwindling, and in a time when I was angry at and disappointed with myself created a certain atmosphere I think many identified with. I try to address this in the book, though, and I am frustrated that I didn't do a better job. But I think that anyone who reads the book and gets to that point understands what I mean. Written in 1978, it might have been "better" and certainly would have had more information and first-person accounts. But maybe I needed to have that sense of urgency and regret to make it what it turned out to be.
WHS Press: Your ongoing research, plus feedback from readers, helped you make many updates for the paperback edition. What new finding was most surprising to you? How did you uncover it?
TF: There were many new findings, but I'll mention two.
One day, and I'll never forget this, my wife wasn't home and the dog Vici, the nutty Afghan hound and I were on the porch when the mailman came. I had a letter forwarded from my office (don't tell anyone, but I almost never go to the newspaper office). It had a Bucky Badger return address sticker, from an Arlene Chandler in San Luis Obispo, California. She disclosed she had been the fiancιe of Bob Baumann, one of the players killed on Okinawa, and thanked me for writing the book and telling her that Bob had not suffered when he died. I had not been able to find her in my research; she found me. She sent me Bob's letters and pictures, and those are in the paperback, along with Arlene's wonderful remembrances.
Also, I heard from a writer who put me onto the family of Don Pfotenhauer, one of the Badgers I had not been able to locate. They sent me his journal from his Battle of the Bulge and POW experiences. It is very riveting material and it is in the paperback.
WHS Press: You've called the 1942 Badgers "typical college students." How were they typical, and how do you think they compare to college students today?
TF: In most cases, they didn't run out and say, "Let us at 'em." They said, "Well, we're here, what do you want us to do?" I think that willingness is the most underrated aspect of the Greatest Generation. I think it demeans their contributions to make them into men eager and thirsting to fight. They just were of the view, in general, that they would do what they were asked to do. And what was needed to be done.
Perhaps this cuts against the grain, but I think some of the talk about the Greatest Generation every darned bit of it deserved sells short the young people of today. I think it's a good thing that we know and understand the horrors of war. The young people of 1942 didn't necessarily have that kind of grasp because of the state of communication and media. They were absolutely heroic in their response, and I am more proud of that than ever, especially after years of studying the evils we well, they were confronting (And I'm sorry, I have nothing but disdain for the ridiculous tendency of some to forgive and forget. I have done neither.) Yet all that said, I believe that if a similar national emergency arose, the young people of today would react in a manner we could be proud of.
WHS Press: What is your favorite "scene" in "Third Down and a War to Go"?
TF: I don't know if this qualifies as "favorite," but the reconstruction of Dave Schreiner's final hours was difficult for me to do and to handle in more ways than one. But as I tracked down and heard from his fellow Marines, what I found out was riveting. And very, very, very sad.
WHS Press: If you could time travel, which of the 1942 season Badger games would you attend?
TF: That's easy. Wisconsin 17, Ohio State 7, on Halloween. Sixty-five years later, I still have not heard a coherent explanation of how those teams could both end up with one loss and Ohio State was voted the national champion. It's nice to know sportswriters were as ignorant as they are now. (Just kidding. Well, mostly.)
WHS Press: The seed of "Third Down and a War to Go" was planted in 2000, when you began to learn more about your dad's experiences as a P-38 reconnaissance pilot. This project has been a part of your life for the better part of a decade. How does it feel to see the paperback edition in print, and where does the project go from here for you?
TF: Coincidentally, I did the touchup and revision work while in the early stages of my next book, '77, which I just have completed and will be out later in 2007. I am very proud of that, too, by the way, and again it is because of the material, not me. But now that that is out of the way, and before I move on to the next book project, I am going to turn to completing a screenplay adaptation of "Third Down and a War to Go" and take a swing at the windmill there. (It would be my second screenplay.) There have been many tentative discussions of the book as a movie property, but nothing came to fruition, and now I'm going to attempt to show folks my vision of it as a film. I already have it written in my head. I know it will be quite challenging to distill down an omnibus tale of a team, but I already know in general the approach I will take. There have been many World War II projects, many of them terrific. I have watched "Band of Brothers," for example, from beginning to end twice. There have been many football projects. There have been none that combine the two. (Are you listening, Mr. Spielberg?)
WHS Press: As you discuss in the book, you were raised in Oregon and have lived only there and in Colorado. Has telling this story enabled you to reconnect with your parents' Wisconsin?
TF: Oh, absolutely. Wisconsin residents and UW fans have been wonderful. I have been back to Syttendemai in Stoughton, where my father was inducted into the city hall of fame; I have been back to several Badger games; I have tailgated and broken bread with the world-famous Badgermaniac contingent near Camp Randall and in Orlando; and I remain in touch with many wonderful Badger fans and media members. And my association with the Wisconsin Historical Society has been more than I could have hoped for.