A bond between individuals or a commemoration of an achievement — a ring can symbolize either. It’s not often, however, that a single piece of jewelry can serve as a reminder of a life lived quite like it did for one American soldier.
A few years before that soldier entered the military, the young airman was undoubtedly one of the most recognizable men on the campus of Ohio State University — he participated in student government, honor societies and competed as a member of the football team for three seasons. But as of Aug. 15, 1944, the most important thing he had been involved in was World War II. At zero two thirty hours, military time, he took up his spot in a B-24 Liberator as an observer, taking off from San Pancrazio in southern Italy with his pilot, bound for a bombing raid in southwest France.
But they didn’t make it. The plane crashed on takeoff. Medics were quickly sent to retrieve the bodies — or remains — of the two men, but darkness combined with exploded ammunition, fuel and a terrible fire made even identification nearly impossible.
But then a member of the search party noticed something on the fallen observer’s finger: a ring. That led him to the identity of the man who lay before him.
His name was William Conklin Nosker, and it would’ve been difficult to find anyone on the OSU campus in the late 1930s who hadn’t heard of him. Even now, his name is familiar among OSU students who lived in a residence hall named after him — a building now in its final days. But this wasn’t Columbus — it was war, and he was one of the millions of people to lose their lives in one of civilization’s greatest conflicts.
But the man who found him knew what he was seeing. John Allen, an Ohioan, an OSU fan and a then-future OSU graduate himself, put the pieces together when he saw the small band of silver around deceased Nosker’s finger. It told him all he needed to know about the man he had found:
1939 Big Ten Champions: The Ohio State Buckeyes.
Born in 1919 and a native of Upper Arlington, William Nosker — or, as he was more commonly known, Bill — came to OSU after being the captain of the UA Golden Bear football team during his senior year of high school. The locally rooted man eventually made his way onto the Buckeye football team of coach Francis Schmidt — the man whose famous quip about the University of Michigan’s football team putting their pants on one leg at a time eventually led to the creation of the Gold Pants tradition in the two schools’ long-standing rivalry.
But Nosker was much more than a football player. He was not only described as “one of the best-liked men on campus” by The Ohio State University Monthly, but he was also voted president of his sophomore class, and was profiled on the sophomore class officers’ page of that year’s Makio Yearbook.
“Tall, blonde William Nosker had the privilege of leading the Class of 1941 as its president during its sophomore year in the university,” the entry said. “Nosker, in addition to cavorting at a guard position on the varsity football team, is a member of Phi Gamma Delta. His list of activities include Phi Eta Sigma, Strollers, membership in the Y.M.C.A., Scarlet Mask, and Romophos.”
All of those feats in two years. Two of the aforementioned groups were the men’s honorary of each class: Phi Eta Sigma for the freshmen, and the backwardly titled Romophos for sophomores. Nosker was also selected for the same kind of group his junior and senior years, Bucket and Dipper, and Sphinx, respectively.
Meanwhile, Nosker was making an imprint on another and perhaps even more visible aspect of OSU campus life — football. He played guard on the 1937 freshman team, before being tabbed by The Lantern as one of several freshmen eligible to play the next season on the varsity team “who have shown significant promise.”
And although Nosker split time with one other teammate in the team’s season-opening victory over Indiana, he became a regular in the 1938 lineup, and it was during this campaign that he seemingly acquired his familiarity with not only injury, but also recuperation: he was “shaken up” against Chicago, and then took “another kick” to his head in a shutout loss to Purdue.
That season’s Michigan Week couldn’t have begun any better for Nosker after winning the election for sophomore class president by 169 votes that Tuesday. Then The Lantern predicted he’d have a starting place come Saturday’s rivalry game. Unlike the election, the game wasn’t a success for Nosker — Michigan won, 18-0.
Despite The Lantern reporting that Nosker had been usurped in his right guard position two days before the 1939 opener against Missouri, he was still listed as the probable starter the day before a 19-0 home win — and the position was his the rest of the season.
But Nosker wasn’t only lauded for his football talents, though. While the team attended a performance at the Minnesota Union, Nosker and six other teammates “put on an informal skit for the dance crowd and made a great hit,” Lantern sports editor Don Smith wrote.
On the football field, The Lantern wrote that “Bill Nosker’s play this year at guard has been above criticism. Enjoying a tough battle, Nosker is one of the Buckeyes’ stalwarts on the forward wall,” after OSU’s big 23-20 victory against Minnesota. But the proceeding game against Cornell didn’t go so smoothly. OSU lost, 23-14, with Nosker injured to the point where he was “still unconscious” after the game, according to The Lantern. But he wasn’t down for long. The paper reported that “the Buckeye guard was up and around the Bucks’ training room Sunday morning with his usual vim and vigor,” and he was back in practice on Monday and class on Tuesday.
The Buckeyes rattled off three straight wins after the Cornell defeat, clinching a share of the Big Ten title. But they needed to beat Michigan to claim their first outright conference crown since 1920 — or so it seemed. Instead, while the Wolverines came from 14 points down to claim a dramatic victory, OSU’s closest rival Iowa tied Northwestern, 7-7. Even in defeat, the title belonged to the Buckeyes.
“It was unusual. It was a good team, it was really a good team,” author and OSU football historian Jack Park said. “It’s the only time Ohio State (became) outright Big Ten champions and still (lost) to Michigan that year.”
Nosker was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention, and he and his teammates got the customary reward for their efforts: a championship ring.
In time, the honor would define him in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
None of this was news to John Allen. At the same time that Nosker and company became kings of the Big Ten, Allen — “Doc” to those who know him — was a 16-year-old boy from Chillicothe and a big Buckeye fan. He attended Miami (Ohio), but the world Allen knew when he went to Oxford, Ohio, in 1940 was about to transform beyond anything he or his fellow Americans could’ve imagined. Once the United States got involved in World War II, everything changed.
“I was in pre-med, about three years of it, and I got drafted,” 91-year-old Allen told The Lantern a few weeks ago. “I went from Chillicothe, Ohio, to Columbus, Ohio, to the examining place and (got) sent home for a week and then sent to Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.”
From there, Allen continued to move around. A few days in Indiana were followed by basic training in Utah and then studying to be a medical laboratory technician in Denver. Once he graduated, he joined to the 449th Bombardment Group of the 15th Air Force in Alamogordo, N.M. After more traveling, he was promoted to sergeant until finally, in late November 1943, he headed to war.
The kid from Ross County suddenly found himself in places like Natal, Brazil, and Dakar, Senegal, and ultimately a station in French Morocco at Marrakech. When he arrived, one of the headquarter squadron’s lead planes had just crashed into the nearby Atlas Mountains during a storm, meaning the rest of soldiers weren’t allowed to fly until things cleared up. The extended stay gave Sgt. Allen a chance to see, right before him, some of the war’s most famous names.
“We were at Marrakech, French Morocco, in a dining hall, something like this, it was a little cruder than this,” he said, laughing as he pointed around the restaurant where the Lantern’s interview took place with his son and son-in-law. “And our crew was sitting at a table eating, and several C-47s (cargo planes) came in.
“And off of the C-47s — one of them — was a car, a vehicle, got off, and another plane got off with the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. And they brought him up in this car, you know, he had polio when he was younger. Off of there came (Commander of the British Eighth Army Bernard) Montgomery, (British Prime Minister Winston) Churchill, (Soviet leader Joseph) Stalin and Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, was quick to spot Allen and his fellow soldiers across the room.
“He came into this mess hall, and he sees these American boys over there and he comes over, and he’s a young boy, looks like you, and he says, ‘What are you GIs doin’ here?’ ‘Well, we’re eating, General,’ and we jumped up to salute him and he said, ‘At ease, sit down.’ So we told him we were weathered in and we asked him how he got in there and he said, ‘I’ve got a ways of getting in here.’”
The future 34th president of the United States wasn’t as coy when he told the group where they were headed once the skies cleared: Italy. Eventually, Allen and others landed in Grottaglie, Italy, at a former air base of Benito Mussolini’s Italian Air Force. He was part of a group who went over in December 1943 to set up the base’s four dispensaries, while the rest came the next month. Allen got acquainted quickly: he and another medic were sent into town on Christmas to make sure everyone stationed there got to a have special treat — ice cream — for the holiday.
But the base was also near treachery. It was in a farming area, complete with vineyards and olive groves, and it could be difficult to land in.
“A British plane had an airstip there, a medium bomber. And one of those planes came in from a mission, and landed in the olive grove,” Allen said. “And the 50-caliber ammunition and the fuels on it were very explosive and it was a terrible fire. There was three medics representing the 716th Squadron, and I was one them. We were involved in rescuing these people, there were six of them on (the plane). Two dead, and four alive, and we took the four alive ones to a British hospital in Italy close by.”
Doc, however, might have sold himself short. An official narrative submitted by the 449th Bombardment Group described the actions of Allen and his two comrades on that day in late February:
“Wheeling their ambulance about, these men rushed to the scene of the crash. Upon arrival they found the plane a mass of flame spouting tracer, incendiary and armor piercing ammunition interspersed with bursting flares. Unmindful of danger to themselves, they dashed into the flame and began the almost impossible task of rescue. In their repeated trips they were in constant danger of live ammunition, flares, bombs and spouting gasoline.
“Six separate trips were made into the holocaust … Only when certain that all men had been removed, did these three men withdraw with their burdens to a safe distance,” the statement read.
Not only that, but they treated the victims and “set out for the nearest hospital where they delivered four alive men instead of the corpses they might have been.” All three medics were awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the highest non-combat award given out by the Army. Allen would once again be on the rescue less than six months later, and it’d be another memorable experience.
This story is part one of a two-part series about Maj. William Nosker and the man who identified his remains, Sgt. John Allen. Part two will run in Tuesday’s paper.
Correction Nov. 24, 2014 An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a C-47 is a bomber aircraft when in fact, it is a cargo aircraft.