A Scottsdale man who played an integral part in a football game 51 years ago in London to raise funds for the first- and least-known World War II memorial hopes to increase awareness of the remembrance.
On Dec. 6, 1956, Jim Martin coached a championship U.S. Air Force football team to victory over their European counterparts based in Wiesbaden, Germany. The contest was the first American football game played at historic Wembley Stadium, used primarily for soccer. Three previous title games took place at a high school field.
Part of $250,000 collected from the game helped rebuild St. Clement Danes Church in London, constructed in 1682 and damaged by a German Luftwaffe bombing in 1941. A scroll with the names of 16,000 United States WWII casualties is attached to a pipe organ bought with a portion of the funds. Martin said bells in the church still ring on the hour to remember the dead.
The well-known U.S. World War II Memorial didn’t open until 2004 in Washington, D.C.
Martin, a retired football coach, journalist and journalism teacher at Scottsdale Community College, recently wrote a booklet, “A Game That Mattered,” to commemorate the event in which his London Rockets crushed the Wiesbaden Flyers 32-6. He hopes to hear from relatives of some of the men whose names are on the scroll. He doesn’t believe relatives were ever notified of the memorial.
Martin realizes parents and most spouses of those killed in action are dead, but thinks nieces, nephews or grandchildren may be alive and interested.
“This is a memorial that is overlooked,” said the 76-year-old Martin. “I thought it would endure, like it has for those of us who haven’t forgotten those who lost their loved ones serving in England. Football was big in the Air Force then. It started as a morale builder and was played at 16 bases.”
The 1956 European United States Air Force championship game wound up at Wembley after American actor Dana Andrews met Martin and one of his assistant coaches, Joe Penny, at a cocktail party in London. They told Andrews, who was working on stage in England, about the contest, which was two weeks away. He offered to promote and appear at the event. Andrews brought several British entertainers with him, including Petula Clark, who gained fame in the U.S. in 1964 with the song “Downtown.”
“Andrews and I were both from Texas and he said we should show the British what our football was all about,” Martin said with a chuckle. “He said we should play the game at Wembley. The commanders agreed. Andrews had connections and promoted it in the British media. Every newspaper in the British Isles, along with BBC Television gave extensive publicity before and after the game.”
Martin said the U.S. media wasn’t informed of the game, which drew 40,000 spectators, because it was played in London. His book recounts the game and a halftime drawing for gifts from several British firms. Martin said travel agencies provided round-trips to Rome, the United States and Madrid, Spain, while clothing stores donated wardrobes for men and women. The grand prize was an Austin-Healey sports car.
One of Martin’s most vivid memories is assistant coaches questioning his liberal substitution of the all-collegiate team. The Rockets, listed as 21-point underdogs in the armed forces Stars & Stripes daily newspaper, scored the game’s first 25 points.
“I sent in subs in the second quarter and kept sending in other subs,” Martin said. “We were making history. All those kids deserved to play. They were part of the effort for the memorial. None of us will forget that.”