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The Rowing Team That Stunned the World

Jul 4, 2013
Originally published on July 4, 2013 3:02 pm

In 1936, a rowing team from the University of Washington stunned the world by winning a gold medal in eight-oar crew at the Berlin Olympics in front of a crowd that included Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.

The sons of American loggers, farmers and shipyard workers defeated elite European teams, grabbing the attention of millions of Americans and transforming the sport.

Daniel James Brown tells their story in the new book “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics“ (excerpt below).

Book Excerpt: ‘Boys in the Boat’

By: Daniel James Brown


In a sport like this—hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every century—well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men can’t see, but extraordinary men do.

—George Yeoman Pocock

This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to the modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.

I knew only two things about Joe when I knocked on his daughter Judy’s door that day. I knew that in his midseventies he had single-handedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, then hand-split the rails and cut the posts and installed all 2,224 linear feet of the pasture fence I had just climbed over—a task so herculean I shake my head in wonderment whenever I think about it. And I knew that he had been one of nine young men from the state of Washington—farm boys, fishermen, and loggers—who shocked both the rowing world and Adolf Hitler by winning the gold medal in eight-oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics.

When Judy opened the door and ushered me into her cozy living room, Joe was stretched out in a recliner with his feet up, all six foot three of him. He was wearing a gray sweat suit and bright red, down-filled booties. He had a thin white beard. His skin was sallow, his eyes puffy—results of the congestive heart failure from which he was dying. An oxygen tank stood nearby. A fire was popping and hissing in the woodstove. The walls were covered with old family photos. A glass display case crammed with dolls and porcelain horses and rose-patterned china stood against the far wall. Rain flecked a window that looked out into the woods. Jazz tunes from the thirties and forties were playing quietly on the stereo.

Judy introduced me, and Joe offered me an extraordinarily long, thin hand. Judy had been reading one of my books aloud to Joe, and he wanted to meet 2me and talk about it. As a young man, he had, by extraordinary coincidence, been a friend of Angus Hay Jr.—the son of a person central to the story of that book. So we talked about that for a while. Then the conversation began to turn to his own life.

His voice was reedy, fragile, and attenuated almost to the breaking point. From time to time he faded into silence. Slowly, though, with cautious prompting from his daughter, he began to spin out some of the threads of his life story. Recalling his childhood and his young adulthood during the Great Depression, he spoke haltingly but resolutely about a series of hardships he had endured and obstacles he had overcome, a tale that, as I sat taking notes, at first surprised and then astonished me.

But it wasn’t until he began to talk about his rowing career at the University of Washington that he started, from time to time, to cry. He talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars, about tactics and technique. He reminisced about long, cold hours on the water under steel-gray skies, about smashing victories and defeats narrowly averted, about traveling to Germany and marching under Hitler’s eyes into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and about his crewmates. None of these recollections brought him to tears, though. It was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements? Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both—it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience—a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

As I was preparing to leave that afternoon, Judy removed Joe’s gold medal from the glass case against the wall and handed it to me. While I was admiring it, she told me that it had vanished years before. The family had searched Joe’s house high and low but had finally given it up as lost. Only many years later, when they were remodeling the house, had they finally found it concealed in some insulating material in the attic. A squirrel had apparently taken a liking to the glimmer of the gold and hidden the medal away in its nest as a personal treasure. As Judy was telling me this, it occurred to me that Joe’s story, like the medal, had been squirreled away out of sight for too long.

I shook Joe’s hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that I’d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, “But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.

Excerpted from the book THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown. Copyright © 2013 by Daniel James Brown. Reprinted with permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


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In 1936, nine young oarsmen from the University of Washington transfixed their fellow Americans, and as one writer later said, wiped the smile off of Hitler's watching face, as they beat the German crew to win the gold medal in rowing at the Berlin Olympics.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

YOUNG: But even before they won the gold, their coaches knew these young men were something special.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: The boys who had made it this far were rugged and optimistic in a way that seemed emblematic of their Western roots. They were the genuine article, mostly the products of lumber towns, dairy farms, mining camps, fishing boats and shipyards. They looked, they walked, and they talked as if they had spent most of their lives out of doors. Despite the hard times and their pinched circumstances, they smiled easily and openly.

They extended calloused hands eagerly to strangers. They looked you in the eye, not as a challenge but as an invitation. They joshed you at the drop of a hat. They looked at impediments and saw opportunities. All that, Bowles(ph) knew, added up to a lot of potential in a crew.

YOUNG: In other words they were rowers, and they were Americans. That's Daniel James Brown reading from his new book "The Boys in the Boat," which is about rowing, but it's also about America at a certain time and place. And Daniel James Brown joins us in the studio. One writer calls this "Chariots of Fire" with oars. Congratulations.

BROWN: Well, thank you very much.

YOUNG: Yeah, so where to start? How about where did you start? A lot of people knew that the African-American Jesse Owens ticked off Hitler at those Olympics.

BROWN: Right.

YOUNG: I did not know about the Washington state crew.

BROWN: I did not know, either, and I had lived in Seattle for about 20 years when I started this. The story literally walked into my living room one afternoon in the form of a woman named Judy Willman. She said that her father was under hospice care, living in her home, and she had been reading one of my earlier books to him, and he wondered if he could meet me.

So a few days later I went down to her house and sat down with him. His name was Joe Rantz. And he talked a lot about growing up in the Depression, and then he began to talk about this experience he had had of joining the University of Washington's crew, and ultimately of going to Berlin in 1936 and rowing against, among others, a German crew in front of Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis.

And as I listened to that story, I just - I was mesmerized by it.

YOUNG: Yeah, well, we've heard a little bit about who they were. Set the scene, which is also a character, of where they were. Washington state, 1930s, late '20s, so unknown to easterners that when they finally do begin rowing and come east, people think Seattle is in Washington, D.C.

BROWN: Yeah, people on the East Coast in some cases literally didn't know where Seattle was. Seattle in the late '20s and early '30s was a pretty dark, dismal place where not much was happening.

YOUNG: And Joe Rantz becomes a metaphor for this time. He - his mother died when he was young. His stepmother didn't like him. She was an aspiring violinist and was living now in poverty with Joe's father, and they just left him.

BROWN: Yes, right, in 1929, in the fall of 1929, Joe came home from school one day and found his whole family packed into a car with the car running, and his father told him that he was taking his new wife and the other kids, and leaving, and Joe was not to come. And so for quite some time after that, he had to subsist literally by foraging in the woods for mushrooms and berries and poaching salmon from the Dungeness River.

YOUNG: Well, but that terrible rejection also may have been what fueled him. He gets to the University of Washington. He doesn't dress well, but he's a hard worker, and crew will keep him in school.

BROWN: Yeah, exactly, crew ultimately is his salvation. Because he had to depend on himself, he had nobody but himself to depend on, he became very independent, but he had a hard time trusting other people, understandably, after what had happened to him.

And when he first joined the crew, he had trouble fitting in with the other boys in the boat. He had a hard time just opening himself up to other people or trusting other people.

YOUNG: You can't have that in a skull.

BROWN: No, crew is all about cooperation. I mean, it is, of all the sports that are out there, crew more than any other depends on a fine degree of mutual trust and mutual cooperation. The oars all have to enter the water at precisely the same moment. They have to be held at the same angel. The oars have to be pulled with the same amount of force.

The crew really has to become one melded together.

YOUNG: How big a deal was crew as a sport in the U.S. in the late '20s, '30s?

BROWN: We forget, crew was in fact enormously popular in the '20s and '30s. Hundreds of thousands of people would turn out for a regatta. Oarsmen were sometimes featured on the cover of Saturday Evening Post and other major magazines. And so becoming an oarsman was a big deal.

YOUNG: But what we see, though, through the prism of crew is again this east-west divide. The East Coast was said to own the sport of crew. You've had Princeton and Harvard. How much of an upset was it that the University of Washington began winning, beating these Ivy League schools, with this ragtag team of what people - you know, people all assumed they were lumberjacks.

BROWN: Right. It was a big deal. It was not a terrible surprise to the people from the west, I think, but it was a terrible surprise to the people from the east, these kids from the west coming in and suddenly beating schools that had had rowing programs for decades and decades. Nobody at the University of Washington had ever held an oar in his hand before he turned up at the crew house.

Many of the kids rowing for the eastern universities had rowed, at least, since high school age.

YOUNG: Well, and there was a little bit of dirty business because they win the Olympic trials, and suddenly the Rowing Association says to them, well, you know, you have to pay your way.

BROWN: Right. What happened was a number of the sportswriter from Seattle, within an hour of that, began making phone calls back to Seattle, and phones started ringing off the hook all over Seattle all that night.

YOUNG: Suddenly we're in "Boys in the Boat," the musical, on Broadway.


BROWN: Exactly.

YOUNG: Because people are running around collecting pennies...

BROWN: Exactly. By the next morning, there were people on the street corners with cups collecting pennies and nickels and quarters. They sold little paper tags for a quarter apiece to raise funds to send the crew to Berlin. And within two days, they had amassed $5,000, which during the Depression was an extraordinary amount of money. And the boys from Washington were good to go.


YOUNG: OK, and we'll hear what happened when they got to Berlin. That's Daniel James Brown. His book is "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics." In it we learn about working with wood. We meet legendary boat builder George Pocock, who built all the early skulls and teaches these young men about the swing of the crew. That's that transcendent moment when they work as one. We'll have lots more after the break.


And we'll be back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.


YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, I'm Robin Young. If you're just joining us, we're having an Independence Day conversation about a slice of American history many of us weren't familiar with: the Olympic gold medal win by the University of Washington nine-man crew team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Daniel James Brown has written a goose-bump-inducing book about the American farm boys and lumberjacks who made up the team, the evolving post-Depression Northwest that produced them and the Nazis they challenged in Berlin. The Olympics was Hitler's pre-war chance to whitewash his true agenda. His friend, Leni Riefenstahl, then airbrushed the games further in her propaganda film "Olympia."


YOUNG: Daniel, pick up the story there because for your book, you researched the history of Seattle, of boat building, but also of the Berlin Olympics. Your thoughts?

BROWN: Yeah, I was stunned at the extent to which they transformed Berlin for the sake of appearances. So they swept all the homeless people from the streets, they imprisoned all the gypsies, took them off - out of their homes in the middle of the night and sent them off to concentration camps from which they never returned. They really transformed it into sort of a movie set for this fantasy version of the Third Reich that they created.

YOUNG: Well, then onto the stage comes the nine boys from the University of Washington, gawking at everything they're seeing. I mean, they're out of the country for the first time. We know who wins.

BROWN: Right.

YOUNG: But yet as you tell the story, we don't think they're going to win. How high were these stakes in this race?

BROWN: The stakes were enormously high. I mean, they were representing the United States of America, and when you look back at it in historical context, they were really representing a set of values that we still cherish today opposed to a set of values that we I think universally despise. It's hard not to see it literally as a conflict between good and evil.

The American crew, these guys were - I've come to know each of them, even though most of them had passed away by the time I started, by talking to their families. And these were nine very nice young men, open-hearted, eager, pleasant, young men. And they came up against the cynicism of the Nazi regime. That's part of what makes that gold medal race so compelling. It also just happened to be one heck of a race.

YOUNG: Unbelievable.

BROWN: The Americans got off to a terrible start. They and the British were assigned the two outermost lanes, which meant they had to row into the face of a stiff headwind. The German and Italian boats, the two fascist states, were assigned the two innermost lanes, which were very much protected. So they started off with terrible handicaps.

They missed the starting signal, so they got off...

YOUNG: Nobody could hear it.

BROWN: No, they couldn't hear it. The wind carried it away. Plus the starting signal was in French, and it's not entirely clear that any of them understood it. Their stroke oar, the fellow who sets the rhythm of the boat, the most critical oar in the boat, Don Hume, had been sick in bed for days leading up to the race, and they literally got him out of bed, put him in the boat and asked him to row.

YOUNG: Yeah, but they had another weapon, the coxswain.

BROWN: They had Bobby Moch.

YOUNG: Small but smart.

BROWN: Yeah, and pugnacious. He was a real character. He was 5'7", which is how tall I am, so I identify a lot with Bobby Moch, and as any coxswain, he had the task of ordering around a lot of men who were much bigger than him, but he was very, very good at it. He commanded everybody's respect.

YOUNG: And in this race he scared even the coaches, the University of Washington coaches. He held back so long.

BROWN: He did, and he had a habit of doing this. He had a habit of terrifying the coaches. Washington liked to row from behind, but Bobby Moch would sometimes hold the boat as much as four lengths behind, an unreasonable distance from the leaders, and then wear down the other crews by just sitting in place and then turn it on at the end, and he kept getting away with it.

YOUNG: So Bobby Moch with this megaphone in his mouth is guiding these eight rowers in front of them, holding them back, and we're holding our breaths. How can they possibly win? For a time they can't even hear anything because of the heil, because of the Nazis, who are cheering on the Germans.

BROWN: As they come into the last couple hundred meters of the race, the Americans, the way they were positioned, rowed right in under the stands where a good part of the 70,000 German fans were seated or actually were on their feet cheering Deutschland, Deutschland, Deutschland. And so the roar of this chant overwhelmed them, and the other boys in the boat couldn't even hear Bobby Moch at that point.

And so they're rowing in this sea of sound and just rowing n sheer guts at that point.

YOUNG: Yeah, they win.

BROWN: Right under Hitler's nose, they win by six-tenths of a second, yeah.

YOUNG: That's something. But they kind of went back to - you know, they went to the University of Washington, so they became engineers, they became part of Boeing. They lived the lives that many of their parents couldn't have imagined because of the poverty of the Depression. But never the accolades.

BROWN: No there was never - for one thing, they all arrived home in dribs and drabs, so there was never a grand parade or anything like that in Seattle. They - as they got home that summer, they did what they had always done. They immediately began looking for jobs in order to make it through another year of university at UW.

YOUNG: What are the - even when they were very old men, what did they tell you about what that was like when they were on the boat, and everything was perfect?

BROWN: You know, it was an experience that none of them ever forgot. And the thing that really impressed me was it must have been almost like the kind of experience men in combat have because it bonded them together. And for the rest of their lives, until they were very old men, in fact until the last two of them died, they were almost inseparable.

Every year they rowed - every 10 years, rather, they rowed an anniversary race on Lake Washington in front of news cameras. Their families became like one family. When there were only two of them left, Joe Rantz and Roger Morris, they were both very old men at this point, Joe and Roger would get on the phone and sometimes sit for an hour or two hours and say almost nothing to each other. They just needed to be together, remembering that perfect thing that they had once been.

YOUNG: What are you hearing from people in Seattle and in Washington state?

BROWN: We had a wonderful evening the other night. At a bookstore we had - in Seattle to launch the book. Part of what was gratifying for me is that probably 100 of those people were relatives of these nine boys, descendents or whatever, of these nine boys, and they are so excited to have this story finally be told because they - all nine of these families have nurtured this story for 75 years now, hoping it would somehow get told.

And so they are very, very excited about the book.

YOUNG: Well, they should be. The book is "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics." Just a terrific read. Daniel James Brown, thanks so much.

BROWN: Thanks for having me.

YOUNG: And, again, from Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia," the brief reference to that historic race for gold at the 1936 Olympics.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

YOUNG: Or as he said: Germany took the bronze, the Italians silver and the University of Washington boys won the gold in eight-oar crew. If you go to UW, you can see the winning boat, the Husky Clipper, hanging at the shell house.

HOBSON: And still ahead today, the latest frontier for privacy concerns: our DNA. Who has access to it, and what can they do with it? That story coming up. The news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.