Located in rural Moraga, California is St. Mary's College, a small Catholic liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 500 students. But in spite of its size and location, in the two decades preceding WWII, St. Mary's football team stood toe to toe with some of college football's biggest and toughest powerhouses. The St. Mary's Galloping Gaels made regular bowl appearances from the 1920s through the 1940s, won the Cotton Bowl in 1939 and garnered nation-wide respect as a force to be reckoned with.
When World War II broke out, St. Mary's (an all-male school) lost almost all of their students to military duty. Coach Jim Phelan was able to piece together a team together for the 1942 season, but it was feared that the St. Mary's football program might have to be suspended until the war ended.
In the 1943 season, only 20 students showed up to play on the team, and of those, only 3 weren't going to be in the military by the fall. So, Phelan decided to put together a team of players who were all freshmen, as they would be 17, and too young to be drafted into the military.
Most of the players that year were clearly young and inexperienced, but one freshman stood out.
Herman Wedemeyer, a 17-year old from Honolulu had shown great promise playing high school ball in Hawaii and had been recruited by Notre Dame and Ohio State. However, he had decided to go to St. Mary's because the larger schools were taking too long to answer about whether or not they wanted him and because St. Mary's was closer to home.
Born on a remote part of the Big Island, Wedemeyer had grown up playing a chaotic version of football, in which there would sometimes be as many as 30 players on each team and cornstalks substituted for goalposts. Playing under those conditions had given Wedemeyer an uncanny ability to slither and squirm past other players on the field.
In St. Mary's first game of the 1943 season, they were favored to lose, 7 to 1 against California--a much larger and more experienced team. But Wedemeyer fielded a punt and juked so well escaping tackles that two Bears ran into each other. He bolted 40 yards down the sideline and just before he was tackled, he tossed the ball to a fellow Gael who ran it in for a touchdown.
St. Mary's ultimately lost 27-12, but since they weren't even expected to score, giving the Bears a good run for their money was victory enough for them. Wedemeyer was carried off the field at the end of the game.
Newspapers declared that Wedemeyer was "the most sensational discovery to come over the horizon since the Santa Maria... California won the ball game but Herman Wedemeyer won the hearts of every man, woman, and child present."
One writer said that Wedemeyer was "the only back I've seen in many years who could handle [running, passing, blocking, tackling and kicking] with poise and grace thrown in....His reflexes are far quicker than anything I've seen on a football team in many, many years."
His speed and turn-on-a-dime agility on the field earned him the nicknames "Squirmin' Herman," "The Flyin' Hawaiian," "The Hawaiian Centipede" and "The Waikiki Wonder."
Although the 1943 season was far from a championship season for St. Mary's, Wedemeyer's abilities (which included passing and kicking) kept the under-manned Gaels alive. In the post-season, Wedemeyer was the first freshman ever picked to play in the Shrine game.
In 1944, St. Mary's had to do without Wedemeyer, as he enlisted in the Merchant Marines. The Gaels only scheduled five games that season, and minus Wedemeyer, they lost every one of them.
Wedemeyer returned to the team for the 1945 season (which began shortly after the end of WWII), but St. Mary's enrollment was still under 100 students. The team once again showed promise, even though they were the youngest college team ever put together. They lacked experience, but they were a very closely-knit team. They would sing and play music together, entertaining crowds in their hotel lobby the night before a game. They the had an enthusiasm that matched the national post-war sentiment of optimism and joy.
Wedemeyer, with his dark hair, dark eyes and singing and dancing abilities, became a bona fide teen idol, replete with throngs of bobby-soxer fans. Of Wedemeyer, one writer said "Some football heroes are dull and solemn dodos... But Wedey has a bubbling boyish air about him that is seldom found elsewhere."
What the Gaels lacked in size and power that year, they made up for with guts and speed. The result was a confidence that offset their dearth of experience. Enchanted by their youth and their ability to upset of California that season, the press dubbed the Gaels "The Singing Saints," "Beardless Wonders" and the "Moraga Minstrels."
The Gaels continued to plow through their schedule and by halfway through the season, they were undefeated and contending for the national title. The Gaels remained undefeated until their last game of the season, which they lost to UCLA, 13-7.
The Gaels went on to face the Aggies of Oklahoma A&M in the Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma A&M were heavy favorites. The Gaels went onto the field wearing only t-shirts and pants--with no pads. The sold-out crowd at the stadium laughed at them.
By the half, the crowd's attitude had changed. St. Mary's went into the locker room met by raucous applause, behind only 14-13. The Aggies were totally demoralized. Although the Aggies ultimately defeated the Gaels 33-13, the final score belied the excitement of the game.
One writer said, "They left a lost cause taking consolation in the fact that they had treated New Orleans' largest football crowd to some of the most thrilling, most spectacular, and most exciting football ever seen."
Wedemeyer was drafted into pro football in the first round by the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football conference. Even though he led the league in punt returns that year, he was waived by the Dons and was picked up by the Baltimore Colts.
But after one season with the Colts and then some time playing minor league baseball, Wedemeyer grew disillusioned with professional sports and called it quits. In an interview with Sports Illustrated a few years before his death, Wedemeyer explained, saying, "I think I'd finally gotten tired of football by the time I turned pro. The atmosphere was entirely different. It was no longer a game for me. There was so much pressure--somebody always behind you, trying to take your job. I knew it was time to go home again and try something new."
He returned to Hawaii and went into business and politics. He served on the Honolulu City Council in 1968 and in the state House of Representatives in 1970 and 1972. He aspired to be Governor of Hawaii, but after suffering a pair of heart attacks, he was forced to give up his political career.
One day in the early 70s, he was playing golf with one of the directors of Hawaii Five-0, who asked Wedemeyer to come in for a reading. Although he had no acting experience, Wedemeyer was cast on the show as a uniformed police officer. He eventually became a regular character, Edward D. "Duke" Lukela, a plainclothes member of the core Five-0 team. His character's name "Duke" was a homage to the great Hawaiian athlete, Duke Kahanmoku.
On January 25, 1999, Herman Wedemeyer died at the age of 74.
Although Herman Wedemeyer is not a household name, he is a sports legend to Hawaiians and to those who remember his days with the Galloping Gaels. And in fact, a 1948 Herman Wedemeyer rookie card is currently worth an amazing $500.