War Vets Showed Athletic Prowess in Winter Olympics
Veterans have shown their grit in winter sporting events
January 31, 2014
By Kelly Gibson
Winter Olympics are relatively young, appearing on the sporting scene for the
first time in 1924. As early as 1928, though, war veterans participated. Here
are a few of the better-known Olympian-vets among them. (Vets of the 10th
Mountain Division who skied in the Olympics and biathlon vets are covered in
Eddie P.F. Eagan
(1897-1967) b. Denver, Colo.
Eagan served stateside with the Artillery Corps during
WWI, from July 4 to Dec. 28, 1918. However, during WWII, he saw service in the
China-Burma-India and European theaters with the Army’s Air Transport Command.
He served as chief of special services from May 13, 1942 until Sept. 30, 1944.
As the only American to win a gold medal at both the Summer
and Winter Olympics, Eagan showed natural athletic talent growing up. He is
best known for his success as a boxer, winning titles in middle and heavyweight
In 1919, he won the heavyweight title in the U.S. amateur
championships as Yale’s boxing captain. Eagan, attending Oxford as a Rhodes
scholar, became the first American amateur boxing champion of Great Britain.
In 1920, Eagan participated in the Summer Olympics in
Antwerp, where he won a gold medal in the lightweight boxing division.
Despite having no experience with a bobsled, Eagan was
invited to join the four-man team participating in the 1932 Winter Olympics at
Lake Placid, N.Y., along with fellow veteran Billy Fiske. The team earned a
gold medal that year.
“That run will always be vivid in my memory,” Eagan once
recalled. “It took only about two minutes to make, but to me it seemed like an
eon. I remember the snow-covered ground flashing by like a motion picture out
of focus. Speeding only a few inches from the ground without any sense of
security, I hung onto the straps. My hands seemed to be slipping, but I still
Eagan was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in
1983. His likeness was immortalized on a commemorative postage stamp in 1990.
Lindsley “Billy” Fiske III
(1911-1940) b. Brooklyn, N.Y.
Fiske was the first American pilot killed in WWII,
joining the British Royal Air Force (RAF) in September 1939. To bypass U.S.
neutrality laws at the time, the American pretended to be Canadian so he could
join the war effort.
He flew 42 missions in 27
days with the 601st Squadron, known as the “Millionaire Squadron” for its
wealthy members. The unit was stationed at Tangmere Aerodrome, where on Aug.
16, 1940, Fiske’s Hawker Hurricane suffered major damage during the Battle of
He glided the aircraft back to Tangmere, but the landing
caused his fuel tank to explode. Fiske was trapped inside and critically
burned. He succumbed to his wounds on Aug. 17, 1940. He was 29.
Often called “The King of Speed,” Fiske earned the nickname
after completing the Le Mans, a 24-hour auto race. He exhibited a natural
talent for athletics, first introduced to bobsledding during his time at St.
Moritz in Switzerland. At 16, Fiske became the youngest member of an entirely
rookie American bobsled team, racing in the 1928 Olympics. Despite being the
secondary team, Fiske’s sled took gold that year.
He made a second Olympic appearance at the 1932 Winter Games
at Lake Placid, N.Y., where he beat his first gold-earning time by two seconds.
Fiske studied economics and history at Cambridge, leading
him to work in the international banking business. He was living in London at
the outbreak of WWII.
“There is really only one
reason, other than my own amusement, and that is the fact that I believe I can
lay claim to being the first U.S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the
outbreak of war,” Fiske wrote in his diary at the time. “I don’t say this with
any particular pride, except perhaps in so far as my conscience is clear.”
A plaque at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London immortalizes
Fiske “as an American citizen who died so that England might live.”
Fiske is buried at Boxgrove Priory Church in Sussex,
England, where visitors can find a stained glass window memorial, which was
dedicated to him in 2008.
(1907-1967) b. Konigsberg, Norway
Mikkelsen was part of the separate 99th Infantry
Battalion. The unit consisted of only Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans fluent
in that language and who knew how to
The unit trained with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. On
Aug. 24, 1943, it moved from Camp Ripley in Minnesota to Camp Shanks in New
York, where it shipped out to Scotland to prepare for the D-Day invasion,
landing in France on June 21, 1944.
Attached to various outfits, the 99th participated in
battles in France, Belgium and Germany. The 99th became the third battalion of
the 474th Infantry Regiment in January 1945, ending the war in Drammen, Norway,
For its actions during WWII, the 1,000-member 99th received
a collective 15 Silver Stars, 20 Bronze Stars, 305 Purple Hearts and 814 Combat
Infantry Badges. Some 54 members were KIA.
Mikkelsen, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1924, participated
in the ski jump event at the 1932 and 1936 Winter Olympics. While he did not
medal either year, he did earn national titles in 1933 and 1935 at the U.S. Ski
Jumping Championships. Mikkelsen was instrumental in getting the Olympic Winter
Games to Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1960.
Mikkelsen was inducted into the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in
1964. His statute stands at the Western SkiSport Museum near the Boreal Ski
area outside of Soda Springs, Calif.
Norman D. Vaughan
(1905-2005) b. Salem, Mass.
Vaughan joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in February
1942. He commanded the search and rescue element of the North Atlantic Wing of
the Air Transport Command, leading a dogsled team on some 200 rescue missions
across Greenland during WWII.
“This push came from a strong sense of patriotism and a lust
for adventure,” Vaughn wrote in his 1995 autobiography My Life of Adventure. “I wanted a chance to live
Perhaps his most important mission took place on July 16,
1942, when he was sent to rescue 25 airmen stranded on a remote part of
Greenland. He played an instrumental role in keeping abandoned technology from
falling into enemy hands.
Vaughan also designed a dog parachute to drop rescue dogs
into Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge to tend to wounded soldiers. Due to
logistical issues, the plan was scrapped at the last minute.
As an Air Force reservist, Vaughan also served as part of a
psychological warfare unit operating out of Tokyo during the Korean War. He
flew some missions out of Japan over Korea in 1952.
His part in competitive winter sports began 20 years
earlier. Qualifying after he won a New England Sled Dog Club race in
Wonalancet, N.H., Vaughan was invited to participate in the 1932 Winter
Olympics at Lake Placid. It was the only time dog sledding (mushing) was an
Olympic event. Of the 12 competing teams—Canada with five teams and the United
States with seven—Vaughan’s placed 11th.
He is best known for his role in exploring Antarctica with
Adm. Richard Byrd in 1928-30. Vaughan was very active late in his life,
completing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race six times after he turned 70. At
89, he climbed Antarctica’s Mt. Vaughan, named after the explorer himself.
Vaughan is honored in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. He
also ranks among the handful of “Polar Luminaries” listed by the American Polar
Wordsworth Michael Elliott
(1942- ) b. Durango,
Elliot enlisted in the Army in June 1966 for a three
year stint, reporting to Vietnam in May 1968. He served on MACV Advisory Team
70 as an assistant regimental advisor to the 3rd Bn.,7th Inf. Regt., 5th ARVN
Div., operating near Phu Hoa Dong, a village north of Cu Chi near the 25th Infantry
Division base camp. He was awarded a CIB.
“I had a very positive experience in Vietnam,” Elliott told
Universal Sports. “I am extremely proud of serving in the U.S. Army and the
duty I performed in Vietnam.”
He said he was nearly convinced to sign up for a second
tour, but decided to complete his education and return to skiing. He was
honorably discharged in May 1969 upon returning from Vietnam.
Elliott participated in three Winter Games (1964, 1968 and
1972.) He competed in the 15 km, 30 km, 50 km and cross-country relay events.
The relay was his best event, in which he ranked 13th in 1964, and 12th in both
the 1968 and 1972 Games. He was put on temporary duty in the Army to train for
and compete in the 1968 Olympics.
Additionally, Elliott made appearances in the International
Ski Federation World Championships in 1962, 1966 and 1970. He participated in
the Military World Skiing Championship in 1968, and he won 10 National Master’s
Elliott served on President Ford’s Commission on Olympic
Sports. In 1993, he was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of
Currently, he is the
director of skier services at the Purgatory-Durango Ski Resort in
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