In Hawaii, Wedemeyer is Still One of the Good Guys

by Mal Florence
Los Angeles Times, December 22, 1978

  HONOLULU—Comedian Steve Martin, who calls himself a "wild and crazy guy" would have been a St. Mary’s football fan had he been born 20 years earlier.

The Gaels of the mid-40s were a bunch of wild and crazy kids who played a wide-open brand of football the likes of which has seldom been seen since.

The most exciting and renowned of all the Gaels was Squirmin’ Herman Wedemeyer, also known as the hula-hipped Hawaiian and the Moraga Menace.

Seldom has a player captured the imagination of writers and fans as Wedemeyer did when he was an All-American halfback at St. Mary’s in 1945 and ’46. He was an accomplished runner, passer, kicker and defensive star in an era when specialists didn’t exist as they do now.

Grantland Rice, the former dean of American sportswriters, was so impressed by Wedemeyer that he nominated him as the country’s greatest sports star.

Wedemeyer played one season each for the old Los Angeles Dons and Baltimore Colts of the long defunct All-American Football Conference and had a brief fling at minor league baseball.

But Squirmin’ Herman received his most lasting recognition as the leader of a band of beardless wonders, some Hawaiians like himself, who dazzled the nation with their daring—impromptu laterals, ahead-of-their time spread formations and plays made up in the huddle.

No one—not Duke Kahanamoku, Don Ho or James Michener—has done more to bring attention to Hawaii than Herman Wedemeyer, who is still a legend in the islands.

Wedemeyer has had a varied career since leaving football in 1949. He worked for Hawaiian Airlines, a hotel and even tried politics. He served one year with the Honolulu City Council and two terms with the state legislature. Now he’s a fulltime actor.

Wedemeyer is visible every week to millions of television viewers as "Duke," a member of Pat McGarrett’s [sic] (Jack Lord) special investigating police team on Hawaii Five-O. The CBS show, now in its 11th season, is the third longest, primetime dramatic series on TV, rivaled by Gunsmoke and Bonanza.

On a rainy afternoon, typical of the flash storms that drench Hawaii and quickly move on, Wedemeyer sat in the lounge of the Kaimana Beach Hotel on Waikiki.

He looked content as his eyes followed the steady beat of the rain that made the hau trees glisten on the patio.

Wedemeyer is 54 but looks 10 years younger. His oval face is unlined and the salt-and-pepper crop of hair is full. At 5-10 and 189 pounds, he is only 14 pounds heavier than he was 30 years ago.

His voice has a cultural tone and he sounds more like an English-born actor than a Hawaiian who is a mix of German, Scottish, Irish, English, and Chinese.

"We were just 11 young kids who didn’t give a damn and played wide-open football," Wedemeyer said of the Gaels. "I have films where I can show you six laterals on one play. Today the name of the game is possession. You don’t give up the football.

"Also, they’re all specialists now, which is good. When someone gets tired, he comes out. That’s smart football. In my day we’d go after each other for the full 60 minutes."

But it was obvious that Wedemeyer had fond memories of his days with the Galloping Gaels, as they were known. The team was coached by Jimmy Phelan, a sly trickster of his day.

"Phelan used to tell us that we were just a bunch of entertainers, so go out and put on a show," Wedemeyer said, smiling.

And put on a show they did. But let Wedemeyer tell it.

"We played Oklahoma A&M in the 1946 Sugar Bowl game and I swung to my right and was on my way to a touchdown. But when I got to the 15-yard line, one of our guards in back of me started yelling for the football. You know how linemen always want to run with the ball.

"So I turned around and lateraled to him. Then I put a block on the last defensive man and he went in for the touchdown. The crowd went wild.

"Then, I remember playing against Fordham at the Polo Grounds in 1946. They were on their own five-yard line when they quick-kicked the ball over my head. When I finally picked up the ball at about our 30, I saw 11 guys converging on me. So I punted the ball back. The ball was downed on about their seven-yard line and, on the next play, we intercepted a pass and scored. The crowd couldn’t get over it. They had never seen anything like that."

The Gaels might make mistakes but they were never dull. Spike Cordiero, another Hawaiian, was in the backfield with Wedemeyer, along with quarterback Dennis O’Connor. They were at their best in 1945 and ’46. Wedemeyer didn’t have a strong supporting case in 1947, his senior season.

The 1945 team beat USC, 26-6, at the Coliseum, but was upset by UCLA, 13-6. It was the Gaels’ only regular season loss. Later, they were beaten by All-American Bob Fenimore and his Aggies, 33-13, in the Sugar Bowl.

"We weren’t at our best in the Sugar Bowl," Wedemeyer said. "We all had dysentery."

The Gaels played to full houses wherever they performed. They became famous as a wartime team and, after World War II, people were anxious to see them play.

A crowd of 92,976—the largest up to that time ever to see a college night game—was at the Coliseum in 1946 to see the rematch between St. Mary’s and UCLA. The Bruins, headed for an undefeated regular season (they lost to Illinois in the Rose Bowl) won, 46-20.

"I think that was the first time the match stunt was ever performed," Wedemeyer recalled. "All of the lights were turned out at the Coliseum and everyone lit a match. It was a breathtaking sight."

Squirmin’ Herman did his best to put UCLA’s lights out, too. He threw two touchdown passes to end Hal Van Giesen, another islander; rushed for 83 yards and a 6.5 average, and returned a kickoff 91 yards to an apparent touchdown. The run was nullified because St. Mary’s was offsides.

"I think I threw the ball into the stands after the touchdown wasn’t allowed," Wedemeyer said, laughing, "and the crowd booed for 10 minutes."

Wedey, as he was known, did everything well in 1946. Look at these statistics: he led the nation in punt returns (29 for 436 yards, a 15 yard average), ranked second in total offense (1,325 yards), ranked third in kickoff returns (11 for 217, 19.7 average), ranked fifth in rushing (116 carries for 666 yards, a 5.7 average), ranked eighth in punting (38.2 yard average) and ranked eighth in passing (41 of 109,648 yards).

Wedemeyer was drafted by the Rams after his final collegiate season in 1947 but chose to sign with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Conference.

"Jimmy Phelan and I went there as coach and player in a package deal," Wedemeyer recalled. "I signed for $17,500 and that was top money for a pro then."

The Rams of the NFL and the Dons of AAC were trying to get established in Los Angeles then and the signing of Wedemeyer was considered a coup.

Phelan didn’t spare the adjectives when he talked about his protégé. Here’s an excerpt from a column written by the late Al Wolf in The Times, quoting Phelan: "Wedemeyer has no weaknesses. He instinctively reacts correctly to any situation that suddenly arises, he’s cool under fire, he possesses uncanny accuracy in throwing both long and short passes, he’s fast and shifty as a ball carrier, he’s an excellent punter both for placing and distance, he is a whiz on defense, especially against passes and his spirit never lags."

But Wedemeyer never had the success in pro football that he did at St. Mary’s. He was a wingback on a single-wing team (Glenn Dobbs of Tulsa was the tailback) and only distinguished himself as a tail runner.

Wedemeyer didn’t volunteer much information on his one season with the Dons (he was sold to Baltimore in 1949), saying only, "Jimmy took the single-wing offense into pro football and it didn't work out and he wasn’t knowledgable about the T. Dobbs was a perfectionist. Things had to be done just so. If you made a mistake, that was it. You were out."

Wedemeyer signed with the San Francisco 49ers (an AAC team now in the NFL) for the 1950 season but didn’t play.

"I felt it was time to go home," said Wedemeyer between sips of a glass of white wine. "I didn’t know how far pro football would take me. If I continued to play, I’d still have to come back here some day and reestablish myself."

But how did Herman land the part of Duke on Hawaii Five-O when he had no previous acting experience?

"When I was in politics I had an opportunity to go on the show," he said. "I was playing golf and this fellow said to me, ‘Why don’t you do some reading for us?’ That was in about 1968 and 1969. So I did. All athlete are ham actors."

He started with bit parts—a cop, a lawyer, a civil defense worker—before he became a regular playing Duke, one of McGarrett’s key team members.

A long-running TV series like Hawaii Five-O, however popular, is due to run its course.

"I would think that if Hawaii Five-O folds we’ll see other companies coming in to establish a similar type show. I think the market would demand it," Wedemeyer said.

Wedemeyer, who lives near Diamond Head, says he’s just a "wedge shot" from the CBS studio. He said that he has a moderate life style that includes golf (he’s a 6-handicapper and has been the Waialae Country Club champion) and jogging.

The jogging was prompted by two heart attacks he had in the early 70s. "I jog because I want to and my doctor wants me too," he said.

Wedemeyer is now vacationing. He said he does an average of 25 shows a year and is off from December through April. In his free time, he travels (like to San Diego to see his married daughter) and looks after his interests, such as a $99,000 condominium he recently bought.

He had had a stimulating life. He was born in Hilo on the island of Hawaii, one of 10 children. His grandfather was a German wrestler who had run away from home. His grandmother was an islander.

"My ethnic background is what you’d call chop suey," he said, laughing again. "My mother married an Irishman. He was about 6-4. The German was 5-4."

Wedemeyer grew up in Honolulu, where his father, William, was a crane operator at Pearl Harbor. Herman said he was playing football for St. Louis High on Kauai on the weekend Pearl Harbor became an unforgettable name in American history.

"We were having breakfast Sunday morning (Dec. 7) when we got word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor," he said. "We were stranded on Kauai for 30 days because of transportation priorities. We were just a bunch of high school kids but we had to guard reservoirs and the waterfront at night."

"Can you imagine a bunch of kids walking through cane fields and looking up to see if there were any parachutes in the sky?"

Wedemeyer was a three-sports star in high school and he said he got scholarship offers from Notre Dame and Ohio State.

"Three of us were involved but the transcripts didn’t get back in time and transportation to the mainland was difficult because the war was still on," he said. "So we took the first available ship to California, took a left turn at the Golden Gate and wound up at St. Mary’s."

Aloha.

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