On Memorial Day: Remembering Bill Combs

May 26, 2014

By Leah Howard

If you are anywhere near Ann Arbor today and interested in celebrating the real purpose behind this most sacred of holidays, take a few minutes and visit Ferry Field. There, in the southeast corner of the track, you'll find three bronze plaques listing the names of the 22 Michigan lettermen who gave their lives in service of their country.

Michigan first installed its memorial flag and flagpole outside Ferry Field -- then its football stadium -- in November of 1919, a year after the conclusion of World War I. Two years later, a bronze plaque was added to honor Michigan's four fallen varsity lettermen. Over the years, the memorial expanded as plaques were added recognizing M Men killed in World War II and Vietnam.

I first took notice of the plaques several years ago while working with the Michigan track team. I had gone out to look at the fourth plaque mounted on the brick memorial, one recognizing the incredible achievement of Jesse Owens at the 1935 Big Ten meet -- four world records in 45 minutes -- and instead became engrossed in the names listed on the others. In studying the names, I found one that I recognized.

Ferry Field Memorial

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In the old wrestling room deep in the bowels of Crisler Center, the program's celebrated history took the form of hundreds of framed photographs affixed to the north wall. The images, spanning more than 80 years of Wolverine champions and All-Americans, depicted an evolution of the traditional wrestling stance. Every year on photo day, the newest era of Michigan wrestlers enjoyed mimicking some of the older stances they spotted on the wall.

Bill Combs' was always among the most imitated, likely because it was among the toughest. Shirtless, hand wrapped in tape, and his muscular arms slightly outstretched in front of him, Combs stares into the camera with piercing eyes underneath a furrowed brow. Look closely and you'll notice a faint smirk spreading across his face. He appears a man ready to fight.

Another photo taken the same day, the one now featured in the lobby display of the new Bahna Wrestling Center, shows another side of Combs -- bright eyes, broad smile and relaxed. He looks welcoming, ready to share a good joke and a conversation.

Less than five years after these photographs were taken, Combs was gone, killed on Feb. 19, 1945, while in command of a Marine platoon on the southeastern shore of Iwo Jima. Five weeks after the invasion, the island was declared secure, but the cost was high. Marines took nearly 27,000 casualties, including 6,821 killed -- the bloodiest single battle in Corps history.

After years of off-and-on research into Combs' story, I decided to commit fully to the project in January. I'm currently working on a larger profile piece to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Iwo Jima, but as we pause this Memorial Day to honor and remember those who died to protect us, I wanted to share a small sample.

Bill Combs Wrestling Photos

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Legendary wrestling coach Cliff Keen had an affinity for fellow Oklahoma boys and regularly sought out opportunities to recruit them to his team in Ann Arbor. During the 1930s, another coaching legend, Art Griffith, was churning out some of the nation's top wrestlers at Tulsa Central High School. Despite being overshadowed by some of his more decorated teammates, like future three-time NCAA champion Stanley Henson, Combs ranked among his best.

At Michigan, Combs was a two-time NCAA All-American, twice earning runner-up honors -- at 155 pounds as a sophomore and 145 pounds as a junior. As the Wolverines' team captain in 1941, he was considered a favorite to contend for the 155-pound title, but ineligibility -- due in large part to his multiple jobs, among them an overnight position at a Ford plant in Detroit -- spoiled his senior season.

Returning the following fall to complete his degree in forestry, Combs dropped out of school just days after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. He went to California and enlisted in the Marine Corps, quickly climbing the non-commissioned ranks before earning an appointment to the Officer Candidates School (OCS) in Quantico, Va.

In July 1944, Combs earned his first Purple Heart when he was wounded during the recapture of Guam, going AWOL from his post as transport quartermaster aboard the U.S.S. Zeilin to join the forces fighting on land. "I felt I could be of some use on the beach," included his official statement. In September he married the former Barbara Swain, a motion picture actress who served as a stand-in for Betty Grable, and then joined the Fourth Marine Division in its final preparation for invasion on Iwo Jima.

Upon landing on Iwo Jima, his regiment, the 23rd Marines, was tasked with capturing the first airfield before pivoting north toward the second. The Japanese, heavily fortified in pillboxes, bunkers and a network of underground tunnels, waited out the first several assault waves before unloading its arsenal. The 23rd Marines' beaches were hit the hardest. Like several other officers in his company, Combs did not survive the morning of invasion day, struck down by mortar shrapnel while leading his platoon inland. He was 26 years old.

Bill Combs Photos

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Several years ago, coincidentally around the same time I started looking into Combs' military record, I received an email from the son of one of his OCS classmates, seeking information and looking to find some way to honor him. His father, who had passed just a couple years earlier, had spoken of Combs at least once or twice a year, every year until his death. Since his father wasn't particularly sentimental, it had left an impression on him. He concluded, "I think he felt he deserved to be remembered."

Over the last few months of research, I've found several surviving links to Combs -- wonderful strangers who have been willing to share stories, photographs, letters and even an old diary. Among them are old Marines who think of him among the finest men they knew, a high school teammate who chuckled when recalling their summer vacations in Tulsa, an 80-year-old who still refers to his uncle as his hero, and a California man, the adopted son of Combs' widow, who proudly carries his name.

Bill Combs has undoubtedly been remembered.

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