Arlington – Home of Athletes

ARLINGTON, Va. — West Point's Don Holleder, an All-American football player killed in Vietnam, is buried in Section 1, lot 168-A at Arlington National Cemetery, his granite memorial carved with this simple summary: “Major, Infantry . . . United States Army . . . 1934-1967.”

There is no mention of his heroics on the field as an end and a quarterback, nothing that would make the 4 million annual visitors to one of the nation's most hallowed shrines pause on their tours.

They come to Arlington to mourn, pay homage, gaze at history and contemplate the tragedy of war. They visit the graves of the famous and the anonymous: John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline, where the eternal flame burns; the nearby memorial to Robert F. Kennedy, his solitary cross on the grassy hill below Robert E. Lee's mansion; the Tomb of the Unknowns to see the changing of the guard.

Some of the thousands who will come this Memorial Day might wander off to take in the awesome breadth and silence of the place, 278,000 graves spread over 624 acres. They'll walk among the rows of tombstones on rolling green slopes, white marble and gray granite sentinels shaded by oaks and hollies and cherry trees, and perhaps stop to imagine the lives of those buried

More than a few were athletes, the most famous of them heavyweight champion Joe Louis, whose brown granite memorial with his fighting pose in bronze bas-relief is one of the most distinctive and most visited in the cemetery.

There is even a Polk County connection. Buried at Arlington is General James A. Van Fleet, who was reared in Bartow. He played football at the U.S. Military Academy where he was a teammate of future U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower.

There are others whose fame in sports surpassed their military glory. Dwight F. Davis, a Harvard chap, put up a fancy silver cup in 1900 and led his chums in a tennis match against the Brits. The Davis Cup endures, but not many know that Lieuenant Colonel Davis was a World War I hero who received the Distinguished Service Cross, then served as Secretary of War under President Coolidge.

Then there are those whose stellar military careers obscured their early years as athletes. Fleet Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr., for example, who claimed with excessive modesty that he was “the worst fullback who ever went to the Naval Academy.” And five-star General Omar Bradley, a high school baseball star and a West Point football teammate of halfback Dwight D.

Picture them and all the others who are far less-known but more representative of the thousands buried here, men like Holleder and Navy's Swede Larson. Once they were young men, vibrant, playing the sports they loved before taking other paths.


Long before a sniper cut down Holleder in a jungle marsh as he tried to rescue wounded soldiers, he was a handsome athlete with a crew cut, green eyes and a dimpled chin, a sturdy, sure-handed 6-foot-2, 200-pounder who bowled over linebackers.

Shy and quiet off the field, he was popular with his teammates and the girls. He was the kind of guy, back in the 1950s, who was worshipped by a 7-year-old named Biff, the commandant's kid at West Point, who felt thrilled to walk by his side and carry his helmet to the locker room after practice.

“Those were the proudest moments of my life,” recalls Biff Messinger, now a 54-year-old manager of an insurance office just outside the main gate at West Point. On the wall behind his desk is a framed November 28, 1955, cover of Sports Illustrated with Holleder smiling beneath his helmet.

Outside the Holleder Center, home of West Point basketball and hockey, a plaque bears a quote from General Douglas MacArthur: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.”

Inside, a trophy case holds the silver cup Holleder won as the MVP in Army's 14-6 victory over Navy in 1955, along with a photo of him leading Army onto the field with gray-uniformed cadets in the background. There is a list of his football honors: All-America teams, his posthumous induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

At nearby Michie Stadium, framed in the fall by the red, gold and purple of leaves in the hills, there is the bronzed inscription from General George C. Marshall that Holleder and all Army players touched on the way to the field: “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.”

In South Vietnam, Holleder made the ultimate sacrifice not long after he arrived. Flying over dense jungle in a helicopter north of Saigon on October 17, 1967, he witnessed an ambush of the Black Lions. Dead and wounded lay on the ground. Holleder ordered the pilot to land, then charged in to pull out the wounded, calling out to retreating soldiers to join him as he ran. He didn't get far.

“We were fighting our way back with wounded men, and we were at the edge of the jungle in this marshy vee,” recalls Tom Hinger, then a 21-year-old medic for the Black Lions and now retired in Auburndale. “He saw my aid bag and yelled something like, ‘Come on, Doc, there's more wounded in there. We're going to get them.' He took off and automatic weapon fire cut him down, stitched him across the chest. When I got to him and started to work on him, he died in my arms.”

Holleder, who left behind a wife and four daughters, was one of 58 Americans killed at Ong Thanh, with two others missing in action, and 60 more wounded — out of 147 who fought in the battle.

One of those who attended his funeral was Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who had recruited Holleder to West Point while serving as Coach Red Blaik's assistant. For the rest of his life, Lombardi kept in his Bible a small tasseled prayer card from Holleder's memorial service.


If Holleder epitomized the best of Army, Marine Colonel Emery Ellsworth “Swede” Larson meant as much to Navy. Like Holleder, his story is not widely known outside the military. In three years as a football player, from 1920-22, and three years as head coach, 1939-41, Larson's teams never lost to Army.

A fading sepia-toned photograph of Larson, taken in 1939, shows a trim man with a receding hairline, an easy smile and friendly eyes. He's wearing sweat clothes and sneakers, standing next to his teen-age son, Emery Jr., in T-shirt and shorts and holding a squash racket. They had just finished a couple of vigorous games, Dad winning as usual.

“He was a fierce competitor,” said the son, now 78, as he studied the photo in his home in suburban Lutherville, Maryland. “He wouldn't let me get to the ball. When you're playing squash, you can block your opponent from getting to the ball. You had to earn it when you played him. I beat him a couple of times, but I'd say he was ahead of me. And I never got the chance to catch up.”

Larson still has some of his father's memorabilia — banners, silver cups, a small wooden football carved out of the south goal post of Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia, where the Army-Navy game was played for many years.

At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, the senior Larson played center on offense, linebacker on defense, and served as team captain. He was a second-team Walter Camp All-American in 1921, when Navy lost only one game (against Penn State) and came close to claiming the national title.

As a coach, Larson favored a gray felt fedora and coat on the sideline, as Tom Landry would years later. A taskmaster at practice, organized down to the last details, cool on the field, Larson was loved as much as he was respected by his players. He demanded discipline, but never chewed out a player in front of the rest of the team.

“Swede was a real softhearted guy with a great personality,” says Bill Busik, who led Navy in rushing, passing, punt returns and punting under Larson and later became the Naval Academy's athletic director. “He was nervous as the dickens before any game. He was more nervous than we were, but he'd relax us. He was a tough Marine. He knew how to lead out there.”

Larson's final game was Navy's 14-6 upset of Army. Afterward, he announced with great prescience: “This is my last game of football for a while, boys. There's a bigger game coming up, and I aim to be right in it.” Eight days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.

Larson, who saw action in the battles at Tarawa and Kwajalein, was awarded four combat stars after serving with a Marine detachment on carriers, battleships and cruisers. Through it all, he wrote to his two sons and daughter.

At the time the war was coming, Larson was being promoted by the Washington Redskins' owner and future Hall of Famer, George Marshall, as a candidate for commissioner of the NFL. Bert Bell eventually took the job. At the end of the war, while serving as chief of Marine Corps special services, Larson considered an offer to become coach and athletic director at the University of Washington. A short time later, in 1945, he died of a heart attack.

A gym at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, is named after Larson, and a special ball that belonged to him sits in a trophy case at Annapolis.

“When we beat Army in '41, on the train we took the game ball and we all autographed it and give it to him,” said Busik.

“Years later, his widow gave me that ball when I became the athletic director. I kept it on my desk, then on our 50th reunion of the team in '91, I gave that ball back to the Naval Academy.”


At the end of the 19th century, Dwight F. Davis was a dashing Harvard student who parted his hair in the middle in the style of the day. He found far more pleasure on the tennis courts, baseball diamonds and football fields than he did in the classroom.

A tall, strong and agile left-hander with an aggressive style, Davis worked on his tennis game incessantly with classmates Holcombe Ward and Malcolm Whitman at the Longwood Cricket Club in Cambridge, Mass. They developed a variety of booming twist serves that helped propel them to the top ranks of American players and befuddle the Brits in the first match for the “International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy.”

When the United States mobilized for World War I, Davis enlisted and eventually served as an officer in several fierce battles in France. He served under Coolidge and Herbert Hoover and returned to uniform briefly during World War II as director general of the Army Specialist Corps.

Davis died of a heart attack at 66 in 1945. His simple, government-issued white marble tombstone in section 2 now tilts to the side like a player with an injury — 100 yards from the grave of JFK, a later Harvard grad who favored golf, sailing and touch football.


If Davis is better remembered for his contribution to sports than for his career in the military, the opposite is true of some of the nation's most famous warriors.

Years before William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr. became a Fleet Admiral, he was Billy Halsey, Navy's fullback. At 5-foot-11, 155 pounds, he had a barrel chest and slender legs. What he lacked in speed and power, he made up for in the gritty spirit that characterized his whole life.

A short time after meeting Halsey, Eisenhower wrote about the importance of sports in training military leaders:

“I noted with great satisfaction how well ex-footballers seemed to fulfill leadership qualifications. I believe that football, almost more than any other sport, tends to instill into men the feeling that victory comes through hard — almost slavish — work, team play, self-confidence and an enthusiasm that amounts to dedication.”

One of those who fit that view perfectly was General Omar Bradley, Eisenhower's teammate at West Point and a high school baseball star in Missouri. Born in a log cabin near Clark, Missouri, in 1893, Bradley played ball for Moberly High School and lettered in football and baseball at the Military Academy. “The Soldier's General,” as Bradley became known, often commented on the importance of sports in teaching group cooperation.

The commander of the U.S. Army Group during World War II, the largest single command ever held by an American general officer, Bradley played a key role in the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. He also served as Army Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He died in 1981 and was buried in section 30 at Arlington, near many other World War II leaders.

Another West Point teammate who fit Eisenhower's idea of leadership honed on the football field was General Van Fleet, the Polk County native. A teammate of Eisenhower and Bradley in the class of 1915, Van Fleet was a 6-foot fullback with what was described as “an easy grace” as he helped the Cadets go undefeated in his senior year.

Van Fleet, who died at 100 in 1992 at his home in the Green Swamp, had a military career that stretched from chasing Pancho Villa in 1916 to battles in both world wars and Commanding General of the 8th U.S. Army and the U.N. forces during the Korean War. He is buried in section 7 at Arlington, along with his wife and son, an Air Force captain lost on a bombing run over Korea.


Not far from those military giants is a World War II Army sergeant who never saw combat and did not meet the strict rules for burial here. Yet for the generations of Americans who admired him, Joe Louis belongs here as much as anyone.

The son of an Alabama sharecropper, the soft-spoken “Brown Bomber” loomed large on the political and social stage of his time.

Amid the segregation and poverty of the 1930s, millions of black Americans idolized Louis, drawing hope from his triumphs as they huddled around radios to listen to the blow by blow of his bouts. President Roosevelt visited Louis in 1938 before his return bout against Hitler's favorite fighter, Max Schmeling, a reluctant symbol of the Nazis' claim of Aryan superiority. When Louis pummeled Schmeling in a first-round knockout, the whole country celebrated.

Louis, who held the heavyweight championship longer and defended the title more often than anyone in history during his reign from 1937 to 1949, served during World War II in the same segregated unit as Jackie Robinson.

When he died at 66 in 1981, President Reagan, at the request of Louis' widow, waived the technical requirements for burial at Arlington.

“Joe Louis was more than a sports legend,” Reagan said. “His career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of white and black people around the world.”

Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment