When I first started researching ballplayers who served in the military during World War II, I stumbled upon a little-known fellow named Lefty Brewer. Lefty had enjoyed a successful career pitching in the minors during the late 1930s but never made it to the big leagues. The war saw to that.
Lefty lost his life fighting for his country. For that, and many other things, he has become my hero and my all-time favorite player. We will never know how often he reflected on his baseball career during those final days of his life. Perhaps it went something like this:
Dropping his ball glove to the ground and kneeling down to tie the laces on his paratrooper jump boots, Lefty Brewer looked up at the crowd in the stands and then at his fellow paratrooper infielders. Briefly, his mind drifted back to the summer of 1938 – six years earlier – when the smell of roasted peanuts had filled the air, and this tall, slender 19-year-old left-handed pitcher had unleashed a season of blistering fastballs on his way to a 25-win rookie season as a professional baseball player.
Returning to his feet and wiping a sweaty palm on his khaki pants, Lefty realized that only the game remained the same. No longer was he pitching for the St. Augustine Saints in the Florida State League, and no longer were his teammates eager young men hoping to get a shot at the big leagues. This day was May 28, 1944, and Lefty was in England, dressed in his paratrooper fatigues because that is all he had, pitching for the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment before an enthusiastic crowd of 7,000 who were more accustomed to watching soccer, rugby or cricket.
Forrest V. “Lefty” Brewer, who grew up in the impoverished neighborhoods of Jacksonville, Florida, during the Depression, had been a paratrooper since 1941 – the year the United States entered World War II. Before that, he had spent three seasons as a minor leaguer in the Washington Senators’ organization, which included a couple of late-season, bench-warming trips to the capital.
Lefty Brewer’s pitching for the Piedmont League Charlotte Hornets caught the eye of Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith. One week before reporting to the Senators’ training camp in 1941, Brewer entered military service with the Army.
Looking in for the sign from his paratrooper catcher, Lefty’s mind briefly returned to 1938. On June 6 that year, he hurled a no-hitter against the Orlando Senators, walking one and striking out 14. That was almost six years ago. Lefty wondered what he would be doing on June 6 this year – 1944.
Organized as a way of developing relationships between American troops and English civilians, the game proved to be a rout for the 508th as it easily overcame the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment 18-0. However, there may have been other reasons this game was staged because it was organized by Brigadier General James M. “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. Was it designed to fool the Germans? If American troops were having fun playing baseball in England, how could an invasion be imminent?
But an invasion was imminent — the invasion of Normandy. As the crowd cheered each crack of the bat, the rest of the regiment and many others were making their way to airfields scattered all across the English countryside, and Lefty and his teammates soon joined them after the game finished. These airfields were hives of activity as the countdown to the invasion began. Runways were packed with C-47 transport planes adorned with the soon-to-be-familiar black and white invasion stripes, while paratroopers packed equipment, cleaned their rifles, studied maps, played cards and wrote letters home.
It was a waiting game and Lefty had time to reflect on his pitching days for the 508th when it was still stationed back in the United States. During the summer of 1943, he had pitched for the regimental team during off-duty hours at Camp Mackall in North Carolina, helping the team to a 26-4 record and the camp championship. Unfortunately, a regimental order disbanded the team because it was felt that further play would result in the loss of valuable training time. Had the season continued, it is likely they would have played against teams such as the mighty Norfolk Naval Training Station, where major leaguers like Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio were playing their service baseball.
Members of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment enjoyed playing ball games during their off-duty hours. This photo of the 508th Red Devils baseball team was taken in England in 1944 before the invasion of Normandy (Lefty Brewer is in the front row, first left).
On the night of June 4, the paratroopers were ready to take off, but bad weather forced a delay. The following night the invasion was on. With their faces blackened and hearts racing, 24,000 Allied paratroopers were airborne above the English Chanel in the early hours of June 6.
Sitting in the uncomfortable metal bucket seats that lined both sides of the plane and listening to the roar of the C-47s’ engines. Lefty recalled his last season as a professional baseball player. He had been with the Charlotte Hornets in 1940. Charlotte played in the Piedmont League, a Class B circuit, and Lefty had a good season for a team with hopeless offense, making 28 appearances for an 11-9 record and 3.68 ERA. He joined the Senators at the end of the season and would have reported to their spring training camp if military service had not intervened.
Military service suited Lefty, who was 23. He rapidly rose to the rank of staff sergeant, but a lifelong propensity for getting in trouble followed him into the army. Overstaying his time on leave and getting into fights saw him busted back to private more than once. Nevertheless, Lefty was admired by his fellow paratroopers — not just because he had the glamour of being a former professional baseball player but because he was a tough, excellent soldier.
As the C-47s approached the French coastline, German anti-aircraft fire filled the air. The dark skies were illuminated with searchlights and deadly tracer bullets as inexperienced pilots tried desperately to locate the drop zones. When the red light over the door of each plane flashed on, everybody stood up and clamped himself onto the overhead cable. At around 2 a.m., amidst yells of “Go! Go! Go!” Lefty jumped from the plane and descended through darkness and into chaos and confusion.
The 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment had been dropped miles from its intended zones. Surrounded by the enemy and the flooded, hazardous Merderet River, the paratroopers began assembling as dawn broke. Around 5 a.m., Brewer arrived bringing 10 men with him.
The assembly point was close to a half-dozen heavy stone buildings known as La Fiere that were occupied by German troops. Lefty was appointed a squad leader, and at around noon the paratroopers attacked the buildings. Despite heavy resistance, the attack was successful, but they were soon counterattacked by an overwhelming force of German tanks and heavily armed infantry.
In the face of certain death, Lefty and many others made a run for the Merderet River in the hope they could swim to the safety of the other side. As Lefty approached the water, a burst of machine-gun fire was heard. Lefty pitched forward and fell face down into the river. Exactly six years after pitching his no-hitter, he was dead.
Lefty had been reported missing in action, and it was four agonizing months before his family received confirmation of his death. “I want you and your family to know that I mourn the loss of this fine boy,” wrote Senators owner Clark Griffith upon hearing the devastating news. “Forrest was such a fine upstanding young man and Calvin [Griffith, vice president of the Senators] and myself and all connected with the Washington club dearly loved him.”
In 1947, at the request of his family, Lefty’s body was returned to Jacksonville, Florida, and now rests at the Riverside Memorial Park Cemetery.
Lefty, you will always be my hero.