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Hawkeye hero

More than 5,000 people attended his funeral on that warm spring day, May 14, 1921, in Waterloo, Iowa. Mourners filled the church and flowed out onto the parking lot. Later that afternoon, they packed the local cemetery.

They came from all over the state to honor Fred Becker, who had given his life fighting in France during World War I. It was believed to be the largest crowd ever assembled in Waterloo at that time.

Fred H. Becker was born Nov. 6, 1895. The family lived in a modest, one-story house on the east side of the river, just two blocks from where the five Sullivan brothers – who all perished on the same ship during World War II – grew up in the 1930s.

Becker first gained attention playing sandlot football on dusty, makeshift fields around the Midwestern city. In those rough-and-tumble games, he carved out a reputation that would serve him well and make him known as a fighter.

Handsome and popular, Becker was involved in a variety of activities, including football, basketball, track and several after-school clubs. He was elected vice president of his junior class and was a member of the German Club. Little could he have imagined then that he would one day lose his life fighting against Germany, the country where his mother had been born, and where his father’s side had originated.

Acclaimed as the finest football player in East High’s short history, Becker moved on to the University of Iowa, and quickly made an impact on and off the football field. "He is on the high road to football fame," wrote a reporter for one newspaper. "With only 166 pounds to back him up, he has made the team in his sophomore year thru sheer fight and ability."

The Iowa team finished just 4-3 for the 1916 season, but Becker was selected as a lineman for the All-Western Conference (forerunner to the Big 10) team. An article in a newspaper summed it up: "The honors came to the Waterloo boy because of his fighting qualities, which have manifested themselves from the time Becker first began playing the gridiron sport."

He was also awarded a spot on the All-American first team, as selected by Walter Eckersall, the foremost football authority of the time.

"No matter where he was placed, his work was a feature," Eckersall wrote. "He was strong and powerful and quick to size up the attack of his opponents. He seldom failed to open holes for the backs and was on top of the play all year."

When Eckersall added that Becker was "unparalleled in Iowa football annals," he still had two more seasons ahead of him. No previous Hawkeye player had achieved such stardom on the national scene and at such a young age. He was an extremely popular figure on campus.

The future for Iowa football and Fred Becker looked bright as developments grew more grave in Europe. Like most college students across the land, Becker was aware of the tensions engulfing the globe during the late fall and winter of 1916. And when war was officially declared by the United States, he answered the call. Fueled by that fighting spirit, he left school and enlisted on March 16, 1917.

Becker undertook infantry training at Fort Snelling and was commissioned a second lieutenant on Aug. 15. He came back to Waterloo for a brief visit, then departed on Aug. 27. After a long sea journey and more officers training in France, he arrived on the front line.

A story in the Waterloo newspaper told of the impact he made on those around him: "During his course of training at Fort Snelling and since his transfer to active duty in France, he has won the praise of the officers with whom he was associated. He was absolutely fearless on the football field and carried this same spirit into his duties on the battlefield."

Along the 475-mile Western Front between France and Germany, Becker marched into the teeth of trench warfare. Machine gun and flamethrowers made the crossing of any open ground extremely deadly. Barbed wire prevented troops from moving easily across the terrain.

Becker found himself at a place and time vividly portayed in the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, whose main character, a German soldier, was overwhelmed by life at the front.

"The summer of 1918 is the most bloody and the most terrible … never was so much silently suffered in the moment when we depart again for the front line … never was life in the line more bitter and more full of horror than in the hours of the bombardment, when the blanched faces lie in the dirt."

On June 3, 1918, Becker was struck in the left shoulder by a piece of high explosive shell. Days later, he wrote to his parents in Waterloo, telling them about the war and the wound. He said his company had been under heavy fire for more than two hours at the time he was injured, and added that "everyone wants to get into action and all feel slighted when they are not engaged in combat when there is important work to be done."

The last major offensive launched by the Germans on the Western Front was the Battle of Reims, at the Marne River near Paris. It began on July 15, 1918, and lasted 20 days. During that period, an estimated 120,000 were killed, including 95,000 from France, 13,000 from Britain and 12,000 Americans.

Eight large American Divisions, under Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, teamed up with 24 French divisions for a furious counter-attack against the Germans. Becker was with the 5th Regiment of the U.S. Marine Corps.

His platoon pinned down by an enemy machine gun nest, Becker moved forward and took out the nest. The exact details are lost in the mists of time, but according to information sent from service officials, his action was crucial in "preventing the death or injury of many men in his command."

The Marine Corps report continued: "….his self-sacrificing courage permitted his platoon to advance, but as he completed the performance of this noble work, he himself was killed."

Less than two years had passed since he was na All-American college football player. On July 18, 1918, Fred Becker paid the ultimate price for his country nearly 4,000 miles from home, in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry.

Details of Becker’s death were reported in a letter to his parents from a fellow officer, Lt. John D. Clark. He told them that Lt. Becker was found on the battlefield in advance of his comrades, "indicating that he was leading them in the fight." He had been hit in the throat. He probably died instantaneously.

At first buried where he fell, his body did not remain in France. The War Department was determined to bring home as many of the fallen as possible, and on May 7, 1921, the former Hawkeye hero arrived in Hoboken, N.J., and was taken by train to Waterloo, arriving on May 13.

A large crowd of family and friends were at the station to see the flag-draped casket removed and taken to the funeral home. An honor guard was posted around the clock, until the day of the service. It was front-page news in the Waterloo Evening Courier, under a headline, "Thousands join in last tribute to Lt. Becker."

The story read: "While 5,000 persons stood with bowed heads, the mortal remains of Lt. Fred H. Becker were consigned to their last resting place in the soldiers plot in Fairview Cemetery yesterday afternoon." Following brief speeches and the volleys of shots over the grave, Taps was sounded.

"Thus was taken the last step in the transplanting of the remains of the American boy, brave and true, who made the supreme sacrifice for his country, from the poppy fields of France to a sunny slope in beautiful Fairview, there to rest under the lilies and the roses.

"Never before in the history of Waterloo has there been such an outpouring of people to a funeral. Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the largest in the city, was filled to capacity nearly an hour before the time set for the services to begin. Two-thousand persons crowded into the edifice, and as many more were unable to obtain entrance. The steps, the churchyard and the adjoining sidewalks were packed."

Rev. Henry Muelller told the vast crowd that "to leave home and loved ones, to give up for the time being the pursuance of a cherished ambition – a medical course in a university – to separate from friends and assume the duties of a soldier, these are the things that mean more than bravery; they bespeak the very highest form of patriotism."

Becker planned to become a surgeon, according to some. One high school teacher compared his dedication to that of the famous Mayo brothers of Rochester, Minn.

He received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Belgian War Cross and the Croix de Guerre, the top honor France bestows for battlefield heroism.

Soon after his death, there was talk of naming the University of Iowa football field after him, but it never came to pass. On March 30, 1921, the American Legion Post 138 was dedicated in his honor and for Lt. Carl Chapman, another Waterloo football star who was one of the first American aviators to die during the war.

Like many World War I soldiers, Becker drifted into history. Then, in 2009, he burst back into the public spotlight. His story was published as the cover piece of statewide magzine; the article was reprinted in an Iowa football game program. He also became a topic of discussion on radio shows across the state.

Nearly a century after he last played football, he was inducted into the University of Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame at halftime of a 2010 football game in front of 70,000 Hawkeye fans, and his photo was posted on the scoreboard jumbo screen. He was also one of the athletes profiled in "From Triumph to Tragedy: The Inspiring Stories of Four Iowa Football Legends."

The resurrection of Fred Becker reached a zenith when the Waterloo School Board voted in 2011 to name its newest school in his honor. Today, hundreds of children attend Fred Becker Elementary School and walk past a display case that tells the story of a young man with a fighter’s spirit who rose to fame on the football field, fell as a hero on the battlefield, and has risen once again to inspire a new generation a full century later.

Mike Chapman retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002 and is the author of 29 books. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1962-65, stationed at Mare Island in Vallejo, Calif. He is a native of Waterloo, Iowa.