The “shark tooth” logo on Air Force’s football helmets dates to World War II. It is so cool it makes you want to suit up and sack a quarterback.
On Tuesday, former Air Force Falcons tight end Capt. Keith Madsen, part of the 47th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, knew exactly what the Falcons wanted to see: Shark Tooth jets, the A-10 Warthogs, which Madsen flies.
The Shark Tooth Tour was the best part of the Falcons lead-up to Friday’s Arizona Bowl — better than a team dinner and rodeo at Old Tucson, better than $500 gift bags given to each player, better than five nights at the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass.
“This is the real part of it for our guys,” said AFA coach Troy Calhoun. “It hits the nail on the head.”
About 40 miles from Davis-Monthan as the Shark Tooth flies, in his Tubac home, 93-year-old Walter Ram spoke bluntly about the “real part of it.”
“I’m planning to attend the game Friday, and I hope I can meet some of the boys,” he says. “I feel a connection with them. One of my final missions before going overseas in World War II was to train as a radioman and gunner at Davis-Monthan.”
Walter Ram didn’t play football when he was a Nogales High School Apache. But a few days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, he hitched a ride to Phoenix with a highway patrolman and joined the Army Air Forces, which in 1947 would formally become known as the United States Air Force.
Ram didn’t fly Shark Tooth jets. He flew B-17 bombers over Germany when he was the same age as today’s Air Force football players.
On his sixth mission as a radioman/gunner, June 13, 1943, Ram’s plane and crew of 10 was shot down by fighter planes over Kiel, Germany. Six of the crew were killed; Ram, who was seriously burned and suffered numerous fractures to his upper body, parachuted before the B-17 exploded.
“Our bomber was called Helno-Gal, kind of an inside joke among the boys,” he says now. “But in the end it was just pure hell. We started that mission with 50 bombers, 10 men on each crew. More than half were shot down. More than 200 men — boys, really — were killed; I knew so many of them.”
Ram lived because his crewmate, Chuck Lewis, pushed him out of the plane moments before it spiraled out of control. Lewis went down with the plane.
If you think stealing sideline signals in a football game is serious business, you should talk to Walter Ram. After spending four months in a prisoner-of-war hospital, he was interrogated by Germans and was told he would be killed if he didn’t provide details of the Air Corps’ flight routes into Germany. Each time a German officer demanded information, Ram repeated his name, rank and serial number and nothing else.
An infuriated German officer placed a gun to Ram’s head and said he was going to kill him.
“I thought of my mother; it gave me some peace,” he remembers. “At the time, after what I had gone through, it might’ve been better than the life I was living. I told him, ‘Shoot me.’ ”
The German officer walked out of the room.
“You’re a fool,” he shouted at Ram.
For the next 18 months, Ram lived a life worse than any fool. He existed in the notorious Stalag 17-B. It wasn’t much different from prisoner-of-war movies like “Schindler’s List.” There was no heat in winter, no medical care, no real food. For some of the time he didn’t even have shoes.
Ram stayed alive eating rutabagas and maggots. He lost almost 40 pounds. His toenails fell off.
In April 1945, as the Russians and Allies overwhelmed retreating German forces, those in Stalag 17-B overpowered their guards and were made free. After some rehabilitation, Ram ultimately was returned to New York, then El Paso, and, via military air transport, to Davis-Monthan.
His mother and two sisters, who once thought he had been killed, picked him up at the old Tucson Greyhound bus terminal.
“They were all wearing black; I knew something was wrong,” Ram remembers. Wrong? His brother Humberto had been killed by the Japanese in the Philippines; another brother, Alex, had been killed by the Japanese in New Guinea.
“It was rough, very rough,” he says. “I bought a car with my back pay and would drive up by Patagonia and Sonoita and just pull off the road by myself and cry. It was another 35 years before I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD. I had so much anger in me. Once I met a draft dodger across the border in Nogales and jumped him. We had a big, scary fistfight. I was just so angry.”
Ram ultimately left Nogales, moved to Los Angeles and graduated with a degree in business administration from Woodbury University. He returned to Santa Cruz County, established a prominent produce business and married his hometown sweetheart, Katherine Georgelos. In their 62 years together, they raised a family (three boys) until she died in 2014.
Now, 70 years later, Ram wants to watch the Air Force Falcons play a football game and meet those who hope to fly the Shark Tooth jets.
“I don’t care who wins,” he says. “I paid the price long ago. Now I just enjoy life. I’ve even sat in the streets during German beer festivals and been given free steins of beer from the people whose land I bombed all those years ago.
“I’ve had a good life, a good family and good health. I made a good living selling tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers. You can’t beat that, can you?”