'The Undying Flame'

A comprehensive guide to the Olympians who perished in the war

‘The Undying Flame: Olympians Who Perished in the Second World War’ is a full of fascinating characters - men and women who were full of spirit, striving for the heights of human endeavour, often in other fields as well as sport. Yet every tale ends badly. About as poignant reminder of the sheer waste and futility of war as one could imagine.

Many people and nations are represented, the following excerpts cannot do justice to the true scope of this study. They are offered as as a mere indication of the diverse range of experiences to be found here:

Heywood Lane Edwards … 1905-1941

Heywood Lane Edwards was born on 9 November 1905 in San Saba, Texas, son of Winston C. and Louise (Smith). He was educated at San Saba High School and the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. As a midshipman he wrestled, played football and boxed. He graduated, becoming ensign, in 1926, and was sent on a short course in aviation before joining the USS Florida. He rose through the ranks to become lieutenant commander in 1940.

Of the many sports he was involved in, wrestling was his passion. In 1928 he represented the USA in the Amsterdam Olympics, fighting light-heavyweight. He finished fourth, just missing out on a medal.

Returning to duty, he served on the cruiser USS Reno, before joining the destroyers Kennedy and William B. Preston. He also served on several submarines, including Bonita, Bass and Barracuda. In 1935 he joined the destroyer Detroit, flagship of the Battle Force. On 6 June 1940 he was posted to command the destroyer USS ReubenJames, but on 30/31 October 1941 west of Iceland she was torpedoed and sunk by U-boat 552 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Erich Topp (Topp sank thirty-five ships in the war, and after the war worked for NATO). She was the first [US Navy] ship to be sunk in the battle for the Atlantic. Edwards and ninety-nine members of the crew died in the attack, forty-six were later rescued from the sea.

Lieutenant Commander Edwards was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. In 1943 the USS Heywood L. Edwards was named in his honour. He was one of the first American casualties of the Second World War, being killed more than a month before Pearl Harbor.

Lilli Hennoch … 1899-1942

Also in memory of all those Jewish athletes who never took part in the Olympic Games because of the Nazis’ race laws.

I have included Lilli Henoch here, although she never took part in an Olympic Games. An outstanding all-round athlete, she took ten German national championships in four different disciplines and set four world records, the discus (twice), shot put and 4 x 100 metres relay.

Being Jewish she was banned by Hitler from taking part in the 1936 Olympic Games despite being one of Germany’s finest athletes. Henoch, together with her mother, was deported from Berlin to the ghetto in Riga. They were removed from there in September 1944 and shot by a Nazi murder squad, their bodies thrown into a mass grave. She was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.

Werner Seelenbinder … 1904-1944

Werner Seelenbinder was born on 2 August 1904 in Szczecin. He grew up to become a joiner by trade, but his passion was wrestling, especially the Greco-Roman style, at which he excelled. He wrestled for Sportvereinigung Ost Berlin, winning German titles in 1933, 1935-38 and 1940. In 1937 and 1938 he finished third at the European Championships. His success would have been greater had he not bravely refused to give the 'Hitler salute’ in the 1933 German Games. For this insult to the master race he was banned from his sport for eighteen months.

He had always had an interest in Marxism and had connections with the young people’s workers while still young. His interest and affiliations to left and communist groups led to him being expelled from his sporting club in 1928. He represented Germany in the first Spartakiad games in 1928 held in Moscow (the Spartakiad was an international sporting event sponsored by the Soviet Union; five were held between 1928 and 1937). He eventually joined the Communist Party of Germany, as a result of which he was arrested several times and held in prison for short periods.

Surprisingly, he was selected to represent Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. He fought in the men’s individual light-heavy weight Greco-Roman style. Injured in the competition, he only managed fourth. This was particularly disappointing for him because he again wanted to refuse to give Hitler his salute.

Working as a courier, Seelenbinder joined the Uhrig Group, a communist underground Resistance group named after Robert Uhrig (1903-44, also murdered by the Nazis) who organized it. He was arrested along with dozens of other members of the group on 4 February7 1942. He was tortured for eight days before being moved from camp to camp over the next two years. He was finally murdered for treason on 24 October 1944 at the Brandenburg- Gorden prison by being beheaded with an axe. He wrote a last letter to his father from prison:

I would have liked to have experienced the delights and comforts of life, which I now appreciate twice as much, with you all, with my friends and fellow sportsmen, after the war.

'The time has now come for me to say goodbye. In the time of my imprisonment I must have gone through every type of torture a man can possibly endure. Ill health and physical and mental agony, I have been spared nothing.

I would have liked to have experienced the delights and comforts of life, which I now appreciate twice as much, with you all, with my friends and fellow sportsmen, after the war.

The times I had with you were great, and I lived on them during my incarceration, and wished back that wonderful time. Sadly fate has now decided differently, after a long time of suffering. But I know that I have found a place in all your hearts and in the hearts of many sports followers, a place where I will always hold my ground. This knowledge makes me proud and strong and will not let me be weak in my last moments.’

After the war he had many streets and stadiums named after him. In 1963 the East German Post published a stamp with his portrait, and in 2008 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of German Sport.

The Undying Flame: Olympians Who Perished in the Second World War

These excerpts appears by kind permission of the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, copyright remains with author.