Dennis Schmidt – My first question always seems to be ‘Where did you grow up’ because of its meaning to our readers so let’s start with ‘Where did you grow up’
Bruce Holman – I am asked about that often and I like to say I was born and raised in Central America, Kansas. That usually brings a laugh. I lived in several cities growing up. I was born outside of Wichita in Sedgwick and spent a year in McPherson and a year in Newton, but most of the time at Powhattan in northeastern Kansas in Brown county about 60 miles north of Topeka.
DS – Somewhere along the way in high school you became a solid basketball player, which started to open opportunities for you to consider college and where you might go.
BH – Basketball was very important in my life. It got me started and got me into Kansas State. It afforded some good growing up in grade school and high school. I was fortunate I feel in going to a very small school where I got to compete in everything at school. We had an excellent basketball record and schedule at Powhattan for a little school. In those days there were just Class A and Class B, not five classes, so yes it was important.
My folks when I was a junior in high school moved to Phoenix, Arizona and I stayed in Powhattan and finished my last year of high school with a cousin on a farm. I didn’t want to go to Phoenix because there was only one high school in Phoenix. Phoenix Union High School was the biggest high school in the whole United States in 1939. Five thousand students and I could see myself sitting on the bench and I didn’t want to do that. The next summer I played park basketball with the star basketball player for Phoenix Union and I could beat him in a one-on-one game so I knew I wouldn't have setting on the bench. Kansas was a good basketball area to grow up in those days. You could only put five men on the floor as the story goes and that is what we were always told that we were just as good as another five. We struggled. Any sport makes one humble, as you always want to do better than you did. Better than you wanted. I think sports are wonderful to compete just for that reason. There are other reasons too, but it sure teaches you humbleness.
DS – What was college basketball recruiting like in 1940?
BH – I still have two recruiting letters from Phog Allen. I think every basketball player that grew up in the 1930’s wanted to play basketball for Phog Allen at KU, me included. As I had two letters from him, he expected me to enter and when I left home to enter college I too thought I was going to KU, but I had promised that I would stop and talk to Jack Gardner at Kansas State before I enrolled anywhere. I kept my word. Gardner got me a job, he got me a room and he walked me into a bank and the banker lent me enough money to enroll - $78 as I recall. I didn’t know what Phog would do for me. I had written Phog and I said “Phog I don’t have any money”, but that was the condition of everyone in those days, no one had any money in the 30’s and 40’s. Since I didn’t know what Phog would do for me I stayed at Kansas State and enjoyed every minute of it.
DS – I believe K-State was part of the Big Six then?
BH – It was. In fact in my period of playing, before and after WW2 the last year that I played was the last year that the league was the Big Six.
DS –What was the Big Six like when you played?
BH – Kansas State was struggling to keep up with other schools at that time. Kansas State was one of the smallest and Kansas State even today is one of the smaller ones in their league. It was just beginning to catch on. Jack Gardner had been at Kansas State only one or two years before I got there and he was a big plus to it.
DS – What position or positions did you play?
BH – I was a forward. We played a triangle offence just like Tex Winter used. It was back when you didn’t need to be seven foot to play. In fact, I got a few tip-ins and I was only 5’11”.
DS – What was it like playing in Nichols gym?
BH – You know back in those days in high school you had all kinds of gymnasiums. I could tell a lot of stories about Kansas’s gymnasiums. Nichols gymnasium would hold 2,800 people and that was about half of the student body and they would stand in line. I can remember, Dennis, going in for a set up and landing on people. Landing on people because they were on the line. In those days the backboard was only two feet inbounds instead of today where it is four feet. You would go in and lay the ball up and you would land right on people. They would catch you. We new we needed a new gymnasium like a lot of people. KU’s basketball court was a stage and all of there audience was on one side at that time. Ours was no different from many I guess in those days.
Once a year Kansas State would invite the legislature to one of their ball games and as usual the fans were on the rafters, and on the separate goals and just hanging all over. At half time they pushed this dummy off of the rafter and plop down just to demonstrate to the legislature that we needed a new gymnasium. That was quite an experience.
DS –What are your favorite memories of playing for Jack Gardner?
BH – Jack Gardner was an All-American for Southern Cal when he was a sophomore. He was quite young when we traveled on trips. He fit right in with us. They didn’t know who was coach and who were the players. Good-looking man. I think one of his strong points in coaching was when he went recruiting after somebody he usually got him. He could talk an iceman into buying a refrigerator. I don’t know that he was such a good psychologist and I think that is what Phog Allen was back in those days, a real psychologist. That is important.
DS – Did you work while going to school?
BH – The athletic scholarship I had in 1940 they just found you a job and you were happy to have a job. Gardner got me on at the Palace Drug Store, which all K-State new. That was a favorite place. It was real popular in those days. On the low times I even got to jerk sodas. At the high time to watch a good soda jerk work at that Palace Drug store was something to watch. He was real good.
DS – Was your education interrupted by WW2?
BH – I had two and a half years at Kansas State. Being a state school we had compulsory ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Candidates) so we could at least march. I could see what they were doing to my friends, sending them to ninety-day wonder school, making them a 2nd Lieutenant and then right up to the front in Europe. I thought, “Gee, you know maybe I wanted to do something else”.
DS – What year did you go into the army? Was it the army?
BH – Early, early in 1943. I was married to Audrey Somers three days before I entered the Army Air Corps in February 1943. I was in the service just over three years.
DS – Where was your stateside training?
BH – I entered in St. Louis at Jefferson Barracks and they weren’t ready for us. I think it was the worst station I ever had to stay. It was deathly cold. I remember I didn’t change my long underwear one day in the three weeks that I was there. We all had bad colds when we left and I went up to CTD (College Training Detachment), which was just a place where they put cadets until we got down to San Antonio, Texas for classification. They sent me to Albion, Michigan, to little Albion College just outside of Lansing. I was there five months. It was a good training area. We would strip down in shorts and play ping-pong all night. Hank Greenburg was our captain and CO. Hank Greenburg was a good ol’ Jewish boy playing for the Detroit Tigers. We just loved him.
When we were in San Antonio they made the smarter ones navigators and bombardiers and the rest of us they made pilots.
DS – What are some early memories from the Army Air Corps?
BH – I wasn’t in there long. I didn’t feel like I did too much as a B-24 pilot by the time I was trained. We picked up a new plane after we had picked up a radar man in Langley Field Virginia and trained with him for a couple of months so we had an extra officer on our crew, five officers instead of four. Then we picked up a new plane out of McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento and flew it to the south Pacific and Okinawa where we were flying missions hitting Japan and the China coast when the war ended.
DS – What are other memories from the Army Air Corps?
BH – I never thought that I was an important part of the war. The big boys had the tough job done for us ahead of time. I get a kick out of telling we were right there on Okinawa when both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit. Nagasaki was supposed to be the mission that finished the Japanese war, but our squadron hit a railroad station just south of Nagasaki the next morning. We were dropping back down from 12,000 feet to 10,000 feet our bombing altitude and just passed Nagasaki the next morning at six o’clock it was so dusty you couldn’t see anything at that time. We like to tell, and think, we ended the war not the Nagasaki bomb. We were happy to get home. Being a newer crew they broke us up and I was stationed in Tokyo at a little fighter strip named Chofu. I had a B25 and an A20 that I flew around Japan. I had two tech sergeants that all they had to do was keep those two planes in good flying order for me to fly. That was the only time I was in the service that I wasn’t told when to take off and land. I enjoyed flying.
DS – Upon your return to Manhattan what type of team did you have?
BH – There were so many athletes returning to college in ’46-’47 that it was just a revelation. I captained that team, not because I was the best player, but because I was a senior, I was the only senior starter on that team early in the season. We had a fair season, I think; we won 14 games and lost 10 - a little above average. The next year without me, Howie Shannon came in and started and they went to the Final Four with the same players. I like to tell that to show the load I was on the team. They did real good the next year. A K-State 1995-96 basketball media guide said, “The 1947-48 team was considered the beginning of the modern era of Kansas State basketball”.
DS – Bruce, when you came back to Kansas State to play basketball after being away for three years was it especially challenging to maintain your skills?
BH – Being in the Air Corps you were busy. If you were a pilot you were doing things and when you came back it was different. I think I lost half a step. Every elbow jab felt a little harder. It was tough, more competition, but I think I was one of the best before. Let me give you an example. I was the leading scorer as a sophomore and this was five months after the bombing at Pearl Harbor and we went on a road trip to Seattle. We played Washington University one night and Washington State the next night. Missouri was there to play the other game. I was featured in the local papers so my picture was shown. A cousin of mine called, because he saw the picture and got in contact with me. I had never met him. I am bringing this up because forty years later our daughter had gone to Seattle to enter the University of Washington for a Master’s degree and she entered a hotel and didn’t have enough money to check out. I can’t recall why I couldn’t wire her money, so forty years later I called this cousin and he went and paid her bill and got her out of the hotel. It is funny how some things happened there. It was a big change when I came back it was harder, you felt the knocks. I think you lose a little of your eye. I think the year went on I played less and less. A younger classman had come in and Gardner could see that I wasn’t going to be around the next year.
DS – Were there rule changes in basketball?
BH – That was the year the backboard was moved from two feet inbounds to four feet. In every court in the nation in ’46-’47 was resurfaced and painted. We opened the season at Iowa University. I was shooting free throws before the game and I called Gardner over and I said “Jack this is the longest free throw line I’ve ever seen. I watched him walk it off. After the game I happened to be walking out of the field house behind Gardner and Pops Harrison, the coach of Iowa at that time and I heard Jack Gardner say, “Pops, I bet you a straw hat that free throw line is off”. We were travelling by train and stayed at a hotel that night and a friend of mine who was a PhysEd major, like me, at Kansas State before WW2 was going to Iowa and I came up to the hotel and I was telling him about this. Would you believe it that a week later he sent me an Iowa Collegian paper telling us that we played that whole basketball game with the free throw line seventeen feet from the basket instead of fifteen feet.