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The Rowing Team That Stunned Hitler And The World

Jun 16, 2014

In 1936, an American rowing team from the University of Washington stunned first the elite American rowing squads by qualifying for the Berlin Olympics, and then the rest of the world by winning the gold medal in front of a crowd that included Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.

Daniel James Brown told their story in his book “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” which was recently released in paperback. We revisit our conversation with Brown from last summer.


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The World Cup is dominating sports headlines, but we thought we'd take a few minutes today to consider an historic athletic victory, which got much more attention around the world and is a great summer read now. The year was 1936, before television and social media. At the Olympics in Berlin, sprinter Jesse Owens's gold-medal performances challenged Hitler's ideas about racial superiority, as did another American victory, which was perhaps just as stunning.

The rowing team from the University of Washington transfixed their fellow Americans, and as one writer later said, wiped the smile off Hitler's watching face as they beat the German rowing team and the rest of the world to take the gold medal.


YOUNG: But even before these young Americans won that medal, their coaches knew these boys were something special.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: (Reading) 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, he knew, added up to a lot of potential in a crew.

YOUNG: That's author Daniel James Brown reading from his book "The Boys In The Boat" about that University of Washington crew team and the sport of rowing. But also about life in Depression era America. We spoke to Daniel James Brown when the book was first published last summer. It's now out in paperback. So today here's a part of our conversation.


BROWN: 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 at 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 Rance, 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 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 being rowing and come east, people thing 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: 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. Oarsman were sometimes featured on the cover of Saturday Evening Post and other nature magazines. And so becoming an oarsman was a big deal.

YOUNG: But what we see, thought, through the prism of crew is, again, this East West divide. The East coast was said to own the sport of crew. You 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, an 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 own way.

BROWN: Right. What happened was a number of the sports writers 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 a piece 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: We know who wins.

BROWN: Right.

YOUNG: But yet, as you tell this 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 the 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 - openhearted, 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.

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 oarer - the fellow who sets the rhythm of the boat, the most critical oarer 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 foot 7 inches, which is how tall I am. So I identify a lot with Bobby Moch. And like 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 his megaphone on his mouth is guiding these eight rowers in front of him, holding them back. And we're holding our breath. 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 in to 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 - were actually on their feet cheering Deutchland, Deutchland, Deutchland.

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 on sure guts at that point.

YOUNG: Yeah. They win.

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

YOUNG: Quite something. 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, we spoke to Daniel Brown last July. His book is now out in paperback. Grab it. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.