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"Sit Down. What Do You Want to Know?": My Dad Never Spoke of His WWII Combat Until I Asked Him

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 21, 2024 3:00 am

"Sit Down. What Do You Want to Know?": My Dad Never Spoke of His WWII Combat Until I Asked Him

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 21, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Tom McManus and his dad had a sit-down talk during Tom's Jacksonville Jaguars training camp. The gridiron grind seemed much more of a privilege after learning that his father - at the same age of 24 - was shot down in his B-24 over Europe.

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Take a pause and enjoy a Keebler Sandies. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And if you love what you're listening to, if you're a fan of the show, we're a nonprofit. Any and all support is appreciated.

Go to Every little bit helps. Up next, a story from former NFL linebacker for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tom McManus. Tom's journey to getting into the NFL was far from linear. Tom walks us through his football career failures and how his dad's time fighting for our country impacted that and every aspect of his life. We grew up about 30 miles northwest suburbs of Chicago, typical Irish Catholic American family, I guess, you know, a lot of love, a lot of action, a lot of tough love.

And to me, that was a very good thing. But my parents were older. My dad, let's see, he was 49, almost 50 when I was born. I'm the youngest, six with his children and four with my mother. She says that she wanted more and he begged her, please, no more.

Six is enough. But I was a kid, you know, like I said, youngest, I was a tough kid. You know, my brothers beat the crap out of me.

They're friends. They loved, you know, knocking the crap out of the big young kid that always tried to hang. It's funny or not, there was one friend of mine, Brennan Kelly, who's still my really good friend and it would be him and I basically, my other friends couldn't take the pounding. They said my brother's friends would just love to light us up on football or basketball or whatever we were playing and you had to be tough. You really, really had to be a tough kid to keep going or they wouldn't let you play either, you know, there was no crying or anything like that. But you know, I was a good athlete. I was in super duper, you know, couldn't jump to the moon. I didn't run a great 40 yard dash or anything like that, but I was fast enough, quick enough. I always physical, I always played linebacker and I loved that position. It was always a chance for me to run into people as fast and as hard as I could, which I enjoyed.

I don't know if I enjoy it as much today, but back in those days, yeah. You're Gene E. McManus, Edward for E. My dad, you know, he was born in 1920. So, he lived, you know, through the Great Depression, always a great athlete since he was young. You know, his dad was an entire salesman prior to the Depression, then went into the labor force working the hard labor. My father at age 12 had overheard, you know, his parents talking that, you know, his dad lost his job and it's got to be really tight and things are good.

I don't know how things are going to go, et cetera. And my dad got on his bike the next morning and pleaded with the manager of a local hotel if he could just, you know, help out, busing tables or whatever. He started working early at the hotel. It grew into high school where he was a football player at Orange High School in New Jersey, was getting recruited. He wanted to go to college. That was his dream to play football in college. His parents didn't want him to go to college because right before he graduated high school, he got a job. He's like a kind of like a clerk at a local bank and learning finance.

My dad was very smart, had great acumen. But he's getting recruited. They, you know, they said, hey, you got a decent job.

We need you at home and we need you at home. And, you know, I think he was making hardly anything, five bucks a week or something like that. And, you know, he he would stay home and he helped out. So for his year 17, 18 and 19, he was working at the bank, playing semi-pro football with the Orange Trojans, who were a group of just ragtag guys that loved to beat each other up on the football field.

And, you know, there was no stands, no money, no anything, I don't think. And, you know, I don't even know if they had a locker room, but they played ball and my dad kept up his game and stayed in shape. He got into boxing. He's actually in the Golden Gloves and used to train at this.

It's a great story, right? And I learned a lot of this for the record after his death at age 75. My dad used to train at this gym in Orange, New Jersey, where two-ton Tony Galento trained. And two-ton Tony Galento, he had just come off a championship fight in 1939 with Joe Lewis, the Brown Bomber. Joe ended up beating him up pretty good. And, you know, Joe Lewis called one of the toughest guys he ever faced. He's 10 years older than my dad. One day my dad's in there training for the Golden Gloves and two-ton Tony goes through, you know, these training, you know, sparring partners. Manager yells out to the crowd, who wants to come in here?

I think it was like 25 cents a round then it grew as my dad got in there. He trained with them for about a year and a half in between some big fights, Max Baer being one of them for two-ton Tony. Anyway, he finally gets a chance to go to college. So, he's fighting, you know, training, he's playing semi-pro and he's working at the bank. And his high school coach had called Rutgers University, asked the recruiting coordinator to come down and watch Gene McManus. They'd seen him before but he, you know, he stayed home. So, they offered him a scholarship but his parents like didn't want him to. They're like, you don't need college, you're at the bank, you're fine. And he was like, look, I need my education.

I'm never going to play pro football but I know I can play college and it'll get me to my degree. So, he does go and he's playing, having the time of his life, you know, it took him a while to get there. It was a lot of hard work, a lot of dreaming and played his freshman year 1940, boxed, played his sophomore year 1941. And then, of course, Pearl Harbor happened on December 7th.

I did some research. He's one of the earliest to enlist from Rutgers into the Army Air Corps. He walked in there, knew nothing about planes, knew nothing about flying but again, his acumen was pretty high. So, he goes into the Army Air Corps and learns to fly the B-24 bomber. He was a pilot and they trained for a long time, like a year and a half, two years, quite the journey.

June 9th, 1944, three days after D-Day, they were shot down on their 23rd mission. And you've been listening to former NFL linebacker for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tom McManus, tell the story of his father, Gene McManus, and what a life he led. And by the way, I can just see two-ton Tony Galento and what it must have been like to train this guy who fought people like Joe Lewis and Max Baer back when boxing was really brutal. But he goes to college and ultimately, it gets disrupted by Pearl Harbor and he takes one of the toughest assignments possible, volunteering to fly B-24s only to be shot down a few days after D-Day. When we come back, more of the story of Gene McManus, as told by his son, Tom, here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

But we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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Let's pick up where we last left off. There were times when, you know, my dad probably drank a little bit too much at night. As I look back and talk to him later in life, you know, those haunting memories of the war, probably, you know, how the drink had helped soothe it a little bit. I will tell you, he was up at the crack of dawn every morning, lifting weights. Didn't matter what went on the night before or what time he went to bed. He was, he worked out his whole life. He had these old iron weights.

I can remember him as kids, just watching them. And then we had our own weight room. I remember doing pull-ups once we made this pull-up bar in our laundry room was. And I was, I was using my knees to like, you know, give me a little momentum.

And I didn't know he was behind me. And he's like, you keep, you keep those legs down. Don't, don't cheat.

Do it just with your upper body and just, you know, old school. You know, it was, it was, it was tough love. It was a lot of praise, a lot of, you know, adulation, a lot of hugs, you know, a lot of, I love yous. And it was also, you know, accountability. If he didn't make the honor or if he talked back, you know, my dad was thinking that, you know, if, you know, in school, if you, if he's like, I don't know, a teacher that, that doesn't like a kid that sits still and pays attention and doesn't cause any trouble.

It does his homework on time studies and does well. There's not a teacher in the world that wouldn't like a kid like this. It's not the teacher who's always you.

I remember trying to transfer out of Boston College after my sophomore year, I wasn't getting enough play in time. I thought I deserved more. He said, it's not, it's not them. It's you.

Show them, prove to them that you're the best. Late at night, just him and I in New Smyrna Beach, Florida at his kitchen table. My dad told me that story of being shot down. For me, it was, it was, I was always afraid to bring him up.

Like to me, it was like, I didn't want to bring him up, but I believe in faith and where it interjects and the Holy Spirit and all that. You know, it was two weeks before I'm going to my training camp, try out with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995, the first year of the team. And, and I I'd been out for two seasons, you know? So I was like, I was lower than a rookie.

I was like, they call them, call this street free agents. And I was only there because Tom Carlson knew me from Boston College, but it was before going to that camp. And this was my last try. I was, this was it.

I failed twice before with the Saints and the Redskins. I just, you know, I was sitting at the table and, you know, just talking about things and, you know, going away to camp and it's really proud of me and the way I've worked and all this stuff. And in between my tryouts with the NFL teams, I was bartending in Chicago and then eventually in Boston. So when I came home, he thought that was great and that, you know, I was his professional bartender. When I came home, I'd be doing sprints out at nighttime and he'd be like, Hey, can you come in and fix me a drink? Come in and fix it for him. I'd do anything for him though.

I'd do anything for him. But so I get up to make the drink and I, I just got off the nerve. And I said, dad, how come you never talked to me about the warning? He sat back in his chair. My dad had these big forearms, big arms.

You're still working out. And he sat back and his whole demeanor changed. And he's like, what do you want to know? And I asked him about, well, tell me about the time you got shot down.

And he's like, sit down. And he went into it and I felt like I was watching a movie the whole time. It was quite the moment in my life.

And he told me the story of being shot down and I was just blown away. We were the same age. I was 24 at the time. And he was 24 at the time that they went down and it shaped my life because every time I, that camp was really hard. Every time I felt sorry for myself, I'm like toughen up. Let's think what your dad was doing at the same age.

You just trying to make a football team for crying out loud. He just lived this incredible like larger than life kind of life. And then he comes back.

He comes back just like everybody else. Like he came back 120 pounds, gained the weight, went back to Rutgers, played two years of football and got his degree. And his last game was the Eastern College All-Stars. They played the New York Giants in 1947 at the Polo Grounds. His last game ever. And I often think about like what that must've felt like standing there on the sidelines during the national anthem after all the stuff they had been through.

I mean, that just had to be just so glorious, just so incredible. You know, I found this article when I decided I wanted to write my father's story. My mom says, gives me all this information. I see this article and it's yellow. It's like from 1947. It's newspaper.

I think it was a Newark Ledger maybe. And it says Blanchard and McManus headline the Eastern College All-Stars. And I looked at my mom. I'm like, Mom, like this is Doc Blanchard. She's like, I know.

I'm like from Oregon, like the Heisman trophy winner, the all-famer. Yeah, no, I know. I'm like, what? He never said anything. And she's like, well, he didn't brag.

I was like, well, that would have been a good one to brag about, but he didn't. Which is the humility of them all. They went, they did what they had to do to fight for our country, fight for our freedom. And then they just came home and they just went back to their lives. I'm sure a lot struggled.

Don't get me wrong. I know they did, but they did what they had to do. And they came home and got back to their life.

Quite amazing. Actually got a job verbally committed to a job. And then I got a phone call from my old linebacker coach from Boston College. She was Tom Cauffin's new linebacker coach at Jacksonville. And all they asked me was would I be willing to work out for them?

I never knew Jacksonville existed. And I immediately, again, the Holy Spirit comes in and I said, yes, knowing that, you know, the chances of me even being signed are ridiculously low. I had two months to get in shape. Got in the best shape of my life.

My dad, Gino, he was there for every run and workout he'd tie me. We had to have a good 40. And they ended up giving me a one-year contract, $5,000 sign-up bonus. I thought it was like the Gino, you know, the Gino, the sign-up bonus.

I thought it was like the jackpot. I went and bought a CJ7 Jeep, old beat-up Jeep so I could get back and forth, see my parents and stay up there and ended up making the team the first year. And I was playing in the NFL and he was proud and I was proud to do it. When I told him when we made the team, I said, we made it, Dad. He's like, no, you made it. I said, no, no, no, we made it. We made it.

You were right there with me every step of the way. I actually started four games, one game against Chicago. Coach Cough, on my old team, but down here in Jacksville, he made me a captain and my dad did get to see that. So that was really cool. He got to see most of the year in 1995. We weren't very good, but I was living the dream.

You know, we had so much fun. See, I always had to go see, not always, I didn't know what half it was like, it was a drill start, but I would always go talk to my father after every game, high school, college, pro, and just be like, what'd you think? And he'd give it to me straight.

Give me a grade. And he'd be like, well, you made some great tackles. You hit that one dude, your guy really hard. That was great. Great stop. You know, but you missed here.

You might've missed that type of thing. Always keeping me level, level headed, which I appreciated. The year after my father passed in 1996, I ended up starting for the rest of the year and had a pretty good year overall. We went all the way to the championship game, one game away from the Super Bowl.

So much emotion that year, you know, just thinking about him and wanting to play good for him. My dad was never like, he was never like, you gotta be the best. You gotta be, never, never.

It's all about effort and attitude. And I'll tell you when you do great. And I'll tell you when you do okay.

And I'll tell you when you didn't do very good. It was always honest. You know, it was always fair.

It was always black and white. And it was like, you got to earn it. And, uh, I just always gravitated towards that because the reward is always great. You know, that the, the, the, the hug or the great job, Tommy, or the pat on the back, or, you know, I'm really proud of you. I mean, that it's all worth it.

That's what makes it worth it. It was just, I loved him. I loved him so deeply and my mother too, and just my family in general. But I just, my dad was, he was just, he was just so good to me.

And that's how I raised my family. You know, it's all love. It's all honesty.

It's all, there's no, you know, sugar coating. He taught me a lot. And a terrific job on the production, editing and storytelling by our own Madison Derricott and a special thanks to Tom McManus for sharing the story of his father and in the end of his of his own life, because he ended up parenting a lot like his dad did. And by the way, Tom's book about his dad will always be palaces available wherever you get your books. And what a moment that must've been sitting down and asking his dad at the age of 24, finally getting up the nerve to ask his dad about his war experience and the dad saying, let's take a seat. And my goodness lessons learned about fatherhood, about honesty, accountability, discipline, tough love, and real love. The story of Tom McManus, his father, every father wishes he had a story like this told by his son here on our American stories.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-02-21 04:14:06 / 2024-02-21 04:24:11 / 10

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