The last time I saw them, each man was in a wheelchair. One unable to talk at all, the other limited in his capacity to communicate. Both men caused the same kind of inner excitement in me. Their individual deeds are the stuff movies and myths are made of. Both are now dead, and are remembered with devotion and respect throughout the world. Having the honor to serve as secretary of the Army provided me with the opportunity to have been in the presence of both Gen. Omar Bradley and Joe Louis.
In recent years, Omar Bradley moved through the halls of the Pentagon without fanfare. He was natural, unassuming -- so real. The stories told about him when he was alive were not whispered; they were spoken the way family members boast about one another, with pride and humor. It was appropriate that between the somber hymms at his funeral they played the theme song of his favorite race track. This man, who considered himself a "country boy," who prided himself because he was known as the "GI's general," meant so much to our Army. Although travel had become difficult for him, he continued to make many trips on behalf of his Army as recently as last year. Those five stars on his shoulders and on his flag were richly deserved.
Unfortunately, I remember little of Omar Bradley from his glory days of greatness during World War II. His was, for me, a name association with historic but distant deeds. World War II was a war of the great generals. Bradley was little more than a name to me then, one of a group leaders who were a great ocean and half a world away in Europe -- a place that itself did not seem real. But I did know that those men were leading our troops and our allies on to victory. Philosophically, it was a simple war. We knew that we were right, that eventually we would win, that good would prevail over evil and that those larger-than-life generals would by the ones to lead us to victory.
Victory came at the end of a war fought very far away in this young boy's mind. But for those of us who grew up in Harlem, Joe Louis was not just the greatest sports hero of his time, Joe was "home town." Never mind that he was claimed by other cities; we knew that he was ours, our own Brown Bomber. During the years that he was "king," he lived at 555 Edgecombe Ave. in New York City, the building where my wife grew up with her family, so close to the old Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium that you could hear the crowds cheer during the fights. The other tenants would see him going in and out of the elevator, and he would always say hello to everyone. When there was a Louis fight, everybody in New York would crowd around a radio; in their homes, on the stoops and in the bars. All the children would get to stay up late on those nights and listen. Yes, there was betting on those fights in Harlem, but never on who would win -- only on what round Louis would finish off his opponent. And from the mid-1930s on through the 1940s, Joe continued to knock them out.
When Joe kicked the stuffing out of Max Schmeling it was a victory for America and all that seemed good in the world. Much more than just a championship fight, it was a victory for democracy over the evils of Nazism. Even those Americans who looked for a Great White Hope to beat Joe on other nights were out cheering and waving their flags when he beat Schmeling.
Sadly, it seems almost inevitable that the great champions try to go on too long. It is the lure of the "good life" that makes them spend beyond their means, or more likely be exploited by agents, advisers or "friends." It is also the seductive siren song of the crowd: the throngs who want to reach out and touch the champ. The intoxication of standing in the ring with hands raised in victory must be the headiest wine ever tasted. We have seen it with Joe Louis, with Sugar Ray Robinson, with Muhammad Ali: all beaten eventually by men we quickly forget, men who were never the stuff of which legends were made, like Joe and Sugar Ray and Ali. When the speed and the power and the resilency were long gone, the desire was not, and they all had to try "just one more time" while we cringed and waited. We were more pained for those men in the ring who fought age, and not a better opponent, than they were for themselves. They felt that they had to do it, but all we could do was watch and listen.
I met Joe Louis in Las Vegas in 1978 when I presented him with the Army's Distinguished Civilian Service Medal. During the last few years of his life he had found a new home for himself in Las Vegas, and it wasn't a bad life either. Caesar's Palace had a treasure in Joe, and they treated him with kindness and respect. If some of the visitors who met him there did not remember who Joe Louis was, they all had parents who did. For some of the thousands who came up and spoke to him, he was the Brown Bomber whom they remembered, and for some of them, like me, he was a home town kid who was also the hero of the whole country.
Some people have said that it was beneath Joe's dignity to have him lie "in state" in the Sports Palace in Las Vegas, but it really wasn't. The huge hotels there, the gambling casinos and the Sports Palace itself are the public halls of Las Vegas. This is where everyone comes. People all colors, from all parts of the country and in all walks of life came by the thousands and waited patiently in line to pay their last respects to Joe Louis who lay in his coffin in the raised boxing ring in the Sports Arena.
For General Omar Bradley, interment at Arlington National Cemetery was an atuomatic privilege due him and his rank. President Reagan acted with grace and dispatch when he used his authority so that Joe Louis could also be burried there. It surely should be so, because if our country has ever had a hero whom we should remember in this way, it is Joe Louis. If any one event ever said to Americans about to enter World War II that the United States could defeat the Germans, it was our Joe clobbering their Max.
Omar Bradley was one of the last living heroes of that era and Joe Louis was another. I like to think that in Arlington National Cemetery these two great men will now be neighbors, moving into the same block at the same time.