F & AC
Camp Crane, a temporary facility that for 23 months during World War
I served as the training and
mobilization station for the US Army Ambulance Corps, was located about 60 miles north of Philadelphia at Allentown,
Pennsylvania. During the summer of 1917
the Ambulance Corps sponsored both a track & field competition and a successful baseball team at the
camp. As autumn approached a decision
was made to field a football club as well...
A Call to Action
In late September of 1917 John B. Prince, who coached at nearby Muhlenberg College, signed on to direct the Ambulance Corps football team. Once the new coach on board a call was issued for candidates. Roughly 120 soldier-athletes turned out for the team's first practice, and within four days Prince winnowed the roster down to 45 players. The newly formed squad, known by the acronym USAAC or more commonly USAACs, included a wealth of football talent from the collegiate ranks, including five players who would later make their mark in the fledgling National Football League.
Although organized for less than one week, the USAACs opened their inaugural season on the last Saturday in September with a game against Penn State. That first contest was a close one. Just minutes after the opening kick-off, halfback Tuffie Conn took the ball around end for an apparent Ambulance Corps' touchdown. The play, however, was called back because Conn had stepped out of bounds. Penn State responded by kicking a 40-yard field goal on their first possession to take a 3-0 lead. Both teams then played evenly until the middle of third quarter, when the collegians took advantage of an USAACs turnover, which they promptly converted into a touchdown. That first game ended as a disappointing, but encouraging, defeat for the recently formed squad.
Despite their season opening loss, the USAACs were confident as they looked ahead to an upcoming pair of games the following Friday and Saturday. In the first of these they hosted Fordham University. The Corpsmen scored their first points of the season in that one, on a touchdown by tackle Pike Johnson. Unfortunately they also turned the ball over several times, setting their opponents up to scored three touchdowns. The end result was a 19-7 Fordham victory. The next afternoon the USAACs headed over to Easton to take on Lafayette College. Lafayette, a team that included only one veteran player in its lineup, was a truly unproven opponent. This was the the school's first game of the season. Regardless, the Leopards controlled the pace from start to finish, holding the Ambulance Corps' offense scoreless while posting 20 points of their own. This second loss in two days left the USAACs standing at 0-3-0 with a tired defense and virtually non-existent offense.
The Ambulance Corps' next contest was a road game against a team of officers from the 7th Infantry Regiment. That game, played at Harrisburg, was another shutout. But this time the soldiers from Camp Crane came out on top, manhandling their hosts to the tune of 45-0. In addition to being the USAACs first victory, the contest marked another turning point for the squad. It was the last game the team played under the stewardship of John Prince. Having come to the conclusion that it was not possible to simultaneously direct two football clubs to their full potential, Prince stepped down from his post with the USAACs in order to devote his full attention to the Muhlenberg team.
Prince was succeeded by Lieutenant Dud Clarke, a starting tackle on the club who promptly took over as player-coach. Clarke, who had previously served as an assistant under Hugo Bedzek at the University of Oregon, brought a deliberate no-nonsense style of coaching to the squad – a typical daily practice under the new coach lasted three hours.
On October 20 Dud Clarke took his team on the road for a game with the Conshohocken AC. An up and coming club from just outside of Philadelphia, "Conshy" starred Earl Potteiger, a highly talented multi-sport athlete who would later go on to play in the NFL and eventually coach the New York Giants to their first championship. This game was another hard fought contest. Potteiger got Conshohocken on the board just five minutes into the fray by taking a long pass from quarterback Billy Pownall into the end zone. The USAACs struck back with a series of rushes that culminated with fullback Curley Cramer charging over the goal line. A missed extra point, however, left the Corpsmen trailing, 6-7. In the third quarter USAACs quarterback Jack Dunn pitched a short pass to a wide-open Don Abel for a touchdown, giving the Corpsmen a 12-7 lead. Then the defense stepped up to keep Conshohocken in check for the balance of the game, ensuring Camp Crane's second victory of the season.
A team representing the US Marine Corps 1st Regiment, hailing from the League Island Navy Yard in Philadelphia, was the next opponent on the USAACs schedule. The League Island Marines' roster featured Eddie Mahan, a three time All-American out of Harvard. Mahan, however, was recovering from a neck injury suffer the previous week in a game against the Ewing AC, and was absent from the lineup for the Ambulance Corps game. Even without their star player the Marines were favored to win. Undeterred, the USAACs rose to the occasion with a smothering defensive effort and a wide-open offensive performance that scored in every quarter. It was a stunning 27-0 victory for the Ambulance Corps that pulled the team's record even for the first time since the start of the season and established the club as a local gridiron power.
On the first Saturday in November the USAACs hosted one of the oldest football clubs in Philadelphia, the Ewing AC. Although a respectable team with good speed, Ewing was lightweight and proved to be no match for the much heavier Corpsmen. The USAACs defenders held the Philadelphians scoreless while the offense tallied 34 points in the first half alone. Dud Clarke sent his second team onto field in the third quarter as the Ambulance Corps rolled to a 40-0 victory.
There was plenty of hype surrounding the USAACs next contest, a follow-up with the League Island Marines. In preparation for the game the League Islanders sought the help of University of Pennsylvania coach Bob Follwell. The Marines also strengthened their roster through the addition of former Penn center Lud Wray, and Johnny Scott, an excellent back out of Lafayette. The USAACs, meanwhile, relied on a combination of their size advantage and disciplined execution. Any number of dignitaries were on hand at Franklin Field on game day, along with some 3,000 soldiers who had made the trek from Camp Crane to witness the festivities. Mike Murphy and Brooke Brewer set pace early with a fearsome running attack. This led to two first quarter USAACs field goals and set up a short second quarter pass that Ben Cubbage, the former Penn State star, took twenty-eight yards for a touchdown. Just prior the end of the first half the Marines received another serious blow when Eddie Mahan was forced from the game with a leg injury. The Corpsmen kept the Marines pinned in their own end of the field for most of the third quarter. Then Curley Cramer stepped up and dominated play in the final quarter, setting up another field goal in the closing minutes of play, sealing a 16-0 victory for the USAACs.
US Army Ambulance Corps
The following Wednesday the USAACs squared off against John Prince's Muhlenberg team. Prince, looking to get his squad a little extra work in before its Thanksgiving Day finale against Ursinus College, called on his old team for a scrimmage. The Ambulance eleven, taking the game seriously, was disappointed with their 0-20 loss. Prince, however, placed little value on his collegian's victory, as his team lost several players to injuries. Three days later the Ambulance Corps hosted the Springfield (MA) YMCA Training College. Eight different players contributed to the points total as the USAACs steam-rolled their way to a 62-0 victory. The Springfield game served as a warm-up for the Corpsmen's next clash, against a team of officers from Camp Meade (MD).
The week between the Springfield and Camp Meade games was an emotional one for the Ambulance Corps players and fans. Early in the week the USAACs extended and invitation to the Newport Naval Reserve eleven, a highly successful military team hailing from Newport (RI). The much anticipated contest, to be held at Franklin Field on December 15, would see two of the most successful military teams in the East. Although the Navy team's management initially accepted the challenge, word was soon received that, owing to the lateness of the season, the commandant at Newport declined to give his consent and the game was cancelled.
Rebounding from their disappointment at the spoiled Newport contest, the USAACs met the "officers eleven" from Camp Meade on the last Sunday in November. That game, played at Reading (PA), was marked by frigid temperatures and a bone chilling wind that contributed to numerous fumbles on both sides. The Ambulance Corps jumped out to a thirteen point lead in the second quarter on the strength of two Curley Cramer touchdowns. Edgar Caughey added another in the third quarter. The officers from Camp Meade staged a comeback of sorts, scoring two touchdowns of their own in the final quarter, but USAACs defense tightened its grip and put an end to the scoring, enabling the Corpsmen to walk away with another win.
Another short week for the USAACs followed, as the team headed to down to Washington (DC), for a Thanksgiving Day contest with Georgetown University. The Hoya defenders put the clamps on the Ambulance Corps' offense early and and never let up, holding the Corpsmen scoreless throughout. At the same time the Georgetown offense, led by the running of Johnny Gilroy and kicking of Jackie Maloney, ran roughshod over the USAACs defense. When the dust settled the score stood at 27-0 in favor of Georgetown.
Shortly after Thanksgiving most for the USAACs players received new orders and shipped out to different units. As a result the team disbanded, bringing an end to the Ambulance Corps' very successful first season.
The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 wreaked havoc on the early part of that year's gridiron season, causing collegiate and club teams across the country to postpone and sometimes cancel games. The Ambulance Corps delayed organizing its team until the epidemic began to level off in mid-October. Merton Clevitt, head of Camp Crane's YMCA program, stepped forward to assume coaching responsibilities for the team. Clevitt was no stranger to the coaching, having succeeded the legendary Glenn "Pop" Warner at the Carlisle Indian School. He quickly issued a call for candidates and set about preparing his men. The players who turned out were not as well known as some of those of the previous season, but the team held a strong mix of former collegiate and club football veterans and promised to be a good one.
The USAACs finally opened their sophomore season opened on the first Saturday in November, when Camp Crane hosted a team from US Army Medical School of Washington (DC). The medical school eleven proved to be a tough opponent. Both teams were evenly matched and the contest ended in a scoreless tie. The USAACs had just four days rest before their next game, a Thursday afternoon contest with Susquehanna University. The Corpsmen dominated the field, rolling to a 19-0 victory. Just two days later the Ambulance Corps took to the field again, this time hosting Dickinson College. As it had against Susquehanna, the USAACs defense held the visiting team scoreless, and this time it also contributed to the points total, scoring a safety. This pair of victories gave the squad a very respectable 2-0-1 record.
The armistice, signed November 11, brought not only celebrations of an end to the fighting in Europe, but also an end to the previously urgent need for newly trained members of the Ambulance Corps. Activities at Camp Crane quickly began to wind down. The USAACs first game after the fighting stopped was a somewhat unusual one, having the odd distinction of being a home game for both the Corpsmen and their opponents, the Muhlenberg College eleven. For the fourth week in a row Camp Crane's defenders held their opponents scoreless. That effort, coupled with the squad's most productive offensive effort of the season, netted a 14-0 victory.
For their next game the Ambulance Corps took a break from playing collegiate opponents to face another military team, the Wissahickon Barracks of the Cape May (NJ) Naval Training Center. The two squads slugged it out in a defensive struggle, but the naval team gave a little bit better than it got, and a single Wissahickon field goal provided the margin of victory. Determined to rebound from that loss, the USAACs took to the road, for a Thanksgiving Day meeting with Lehigh University at Bethlehem. The Ambulance Corps defense quickly returned to its previous form and the offense came through with a solid effort. At the end of the day the score stood at 12-0 and the USAACs had notched yet another victory.
As it had the previous season, the team disbanded shortly after the holiday, ending the season with a 4-1-1 record. The USAACs victory over Lehigh proved to be not only the season finale, but also the squad's final game ever. Demobilization in Europe changed the focus of Camp Crane. By December the number of troops at the camp had been greatly reduced and the efforts of those remaining turned toward helping combat the resurgent flu epidemic in the surrounding communities. That work was completed in early spring, and Camp Crane finally closed in April of 1919.
The USAACs roster included some pretty good ball players, especially in 1917. Five members of that team later found their way into the fledgling National Football League, then known as the American Professional Football Association. In 1920 fullback Curly Cramer, was a member of the newly formed league, playing fullback with the Cleveland Tigers. The following season he moved on to the Akron Pros, were he played through 1924. There were two other former USAACs standouts playing in the league in 1920, Pike Johnson and Tuffie Conn. That season Johnson started a two year stint with the Akron Pros, while Conn saw action with both the Akron Pros and Cleveland Tigers during his only season in the league. In 1922 Pud Brewer also found his way onto the Akron roster. Former Penn State star Carl Beck seems like the odd man out, his only NFL experience coming with the 1921 Buffalo All-Americans. Beck also spent time playing in the Pennsylvania coal region's Anthracite League with the Pottsville Maroons. In 1924 he was joined there by another USAACs alum, Vic Emanuel. The two teamed up to help Pottsville capture that season's Anthracite League championship.
By the Numbers
As its 11-5-1 record over two seasons would indicated, the Ambulance Corps fielded one of the stronger military teams of the WWI era. Evidence of this can be seen in the USAACs 4-1-1 record against other military clubs. The Corpsmen played a much more average game, however, against war weakened college teams, going 5-4-0 record over the same period.
US Army Ambulance Corps Season Summaries
Links to Additional Information
of the Gridiron's Virtual Scrapbook Vol. 7: US Army Ambulance Corps
Cinderella Team of 1917
Crane, Allentown, PA
History of the US Army Ambulance Corps 1917-1918-1919
© John J. Fenton, 2012-2004, all rights reserved.