On the day Pfc. Jack Patterson’s body was reinterred in Ohio, his fellow Marines gathered that morning, all dressed snappily in green uniforms and barracks caps. Together they went, a unit in mourning. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
Until his burial on March 26, 1949, the former Anniston Ram’s remains had rested nearly five years in a military cemetery on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, site of one of the United States’ earliest World War II bloodbaths against Japan. Trained at Parris Island and assigned to the Sixth Marine Division, Patterson earned battle stars for landings in the Carolinas, Gilbert, Marshall, Mariana, Peleliu and Guam islands.
His death on Nov. 2, 1944, was one of the United States’ 405,000 losses during the war. But combat didn’t take him. Instead, the former minor-league pitcher perished in a bulldozer accident while working on a Guadalcanal recreational complex after U.S. forces had secured the island. A month after his death, the Marines named that complex — a baseball field and two softball fields — in his honor.
Viewed through the eyes of baseball fans in Anniston, Patterson was one of the many Rams who served during the war, a story not unique. Tommy West, the player-manager who led the 1946 squad to the Southeastern League championship, endured an 18-month Pacific deployment with the Navy. Moe Burtschy spent 37 months aboard the USS Ticonderoga — and survived a kamikaze attack. Dick Wentworth enlisted in the Navy but couldn’t serve because of a basic-training injury. George Hader spent nearly four years in the Navy. Joe Cleary fought in North Africa with the Army. Paul Schoendienst served in the Coast Guard. The complete roster is lengthy.
Patterson, though, may have been the only Ram to die during the war.
By the time he arrived in Anniston in 1940, the Zanesville, Ohio, native had pitched without commendation for six minor-league teams. After throwing a few innings in 1936 for Zanesville’s Class C team, Patterson officially broke in at age 19 the following year with the Owensboro (Kentucky) Oilers of the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League. What followed became an uninspiring trend: Patterson would be shipped from one team to another, or released and signed elsewhere, or he’d return home to play semi-pro ball with a team in Zanesville until another opportunity arose. Instead of gaining traction, his career never pulled out of the mud.
Nevertheless, Patterson joined a Rams team that managed a legitimate claim of optimism. Though the first-year Rams had floundered, the 1939 squad had posted a winning record (71-70) and lured Annistonians into believing it could challenge for the league title. Patterson, who’d won 18 games for the Class D team in Huntington, West Virginia, pitched well during the spring but then disappeared from the Rams’ rotation. Between opening day and his release on May 14, Patterson pinch hit once and pitched once in relief, giving up a hit and a run in two innings against Montgomery.
When the Rams optioned him to Greenwood, Mississippi, The Anniston Star reported that he instead chose to “return to his Zanesville, Ohio, home for a tonsillectomy in the belief the operation would ease his ailing arm.” When he did report to his new team, he stayed less than a month before rejoining the semi-pro team in Zanesville. With a Class C team in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1941, Patterson didn’t make it through the year before again going home to Zanesville. In 1942, back with Erie, he voiced his displeasure to a reporter for the local newspaper after again being cut loose.
“Jack doesn’t expect to play baseball around here, but I think a little talking will bring him around because if I don’t miss my guess, there’s plenty of good baseball games left in that arm,” the reporter wrote. “He expects to go to work somewhere immediately, so don’t be slow passing out the jobs, fellows, because here’s a real pitcher.”
Patterson would never throw another pitch in professional baseball. By November, he’d joined the Navy.
Four months after Patterson’s death, in the late winter of 1945, his widow, Dorothy Patterson, participated in a “Souvenirs from Overseas” display at the Zanesville Art Institute that featured items sent home by residents serving in the U.S. military. Dorothy’s contributions produced “an exceptionally fine display,” according to the Zanesville Times-Recorder: a Japanese two-handed beheading sword, bayonet, knife, artilleryman’s ear plugs, dog tags, rating cord, fountain pen, officer’s cap, opium pipe, razor blades and a collection of photographs.
When the Marines exhumed Patterson’s body and brought it home to Ohio in 1949, his funeral was planned for a spring Saturday at Memorial Park Cemetery in Zanesville. Two Pattersons were buried that day — Jack Patterson, the former Anniston Ram, and his mother, Lila Mildred Miller, who had died that week after a lengthy illness. She was only 49.