Arlington Cemetery will conduct a special ceremony June 13 that will weave together a tragedy from World War II and achievers in current-day Arlington youth sports.
The Merrill Hoover Award, which is given annually to a top female high school athlete by the Better Sports Club of Arlington, is named for a sports star from Washington-Lee High School’s Class of ’41 who died fighting the war.
Hoover’s modern brethren in the fraternal Order of DeMolay have arranged with cemetery authorities for erection of a headstone with full military honors by the Coast Guard, even though Hoover’s body was never recovered.
Merrill Walter Hoover, born in 1923 and raised at 4323 N. Pershing Drive, was a football and track star at W-L. That’s according to clippings compiled by Tom Varner, a Richmond-based DeMolay member who birddogged the Hoover story as part of a quest “to know what kind of men DeMolay made,” he told me.
“Hoover was considered the best athlete W-L produced in first half of the 20th century,” Varner said. Record-setting place-kicker on the football team, shot-put medalist on the track squad, winner of a football scholarship to Clemson University. He was chunky, his classmate Rosemary Trone Lewis recalls – his photo revealing a sober, square-jawed young man with parted dark hair.
His stay in faraway South Carolina, however, didn’t last long. He was enrolled back home at American University to be near his mother, a widowed piano teacher, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He also became a past master councilor in DeMolay’s George Washington chapter in Arlington.
Like thousands whose educations the war interrupted, Hoover enlisted. As a Coast Guard recruit and seaman second class, he was on a two-masted schooner called the Blue Water patrolling for German U-Boats off the coast of Virginia with the Coast Guard’s Corsair Fleet (nicknamed the “Hooligan Navy”).
On April 10, 1943, amid nighttime fog and the ships cruising without lights to avoid detection, the vessel collided with a Dutch freighter. Hoover raced to warn his shipmates sleeping in the forepeak before he was, apparently, washed overboard, according to official Coast Guard accounting.
In letters to his family, the shipmates, all of whom survived, testified that Hoover would have known his action meant certain death. “Arlington boy, football star, lost at sea,” reported The Washington Post on May 27, 1943. Hoover received a posthumous accolade from President Roosevelt.
For decades Hoover’s devastated family, according to Varner, “had had no closure and had done nothing because the mother kept thinking her son would walk through the door one day.”
In 1946, W-L memorialized all its alumni killed in the war and created the Merrill Hoover athletic trophy for the outstanding senior athlete. When the Better Sports Club was formed in 1957, it took over the award, I’m told by president Rick Schumann, who plans to attend the June 13 event.
Varner, a chemical engineer, said he felt “chills going down my spine” when he was finally able to link up the Coast Guard historians, Hoover’s niece (she lives in Arlington) and the cemetery authorities for the committal service (postponed in May) in a section of the cemetery for those missing in action.
He is researching other DeMolay heroes, and plans to nominate Merrill Hoover for the fraternal order’s own medal and hall of fame. A local hero gets his due.
I mark here the May 11 passing of Herman Obermayer, 91, publisher and editor of the Northern Virginia Sun from the early 1960s to the late 80s.
A World War II vet who witnessed the Nuremberg trials, Obe learned writing at Dartmouth College from Robert Frost. He took on the American Nazi Party in his editorials soon after they landed in Arlington, and later was among the first Jewish members of Washington Golf and Country Club.
I was honored that Obe hired me in recent years as his legman for a possible book on why a “stumblebum” like Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell could exert such an impact on the Jewish community. A decisive taskmaster, Obe eventually decided enough had been said on that grim subject.