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Feature   Know Your Military

Sports Heroes Who Served: Baseball Player Became Accomplished Navy Fighter Pilot in World War II

Dec. 7, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Tom Woodruff was a minor league shortstop who later became a highly decorated Navy fighter pilot during World War II.

A person poses for a photo.
Tom Woodruff
Tom Woodruff poses in an undated photo prior to joining the military.
Photo By: Courtesy of Tom Woodruff
VIRIN: 390901-O-D0439-001A

In 1938, Woodruff signed with the St. Louis Browns. The Browns sent him to the Corpus Christi Spudders of the Class D Texas Valley League, where he batted .271 with six home runs, 20 triples, 71 runs batted in and a league-leading 44 stolen bases. He also led the team with 84 base on balls and 13 sacrifice hits. 

He subsequently played for a number of other minor league teams including the Paragould Browns of the Class D Northeast Arkansas League, the Springfield Browns of the Class B Three-I League, and the St. Joseph Autos of the Class C Michigan State League.

A baseball team poses for a photo.
Team Photo
Tom Woodruff (front row, fifth from left) with the 1936 St. Louis University High School baseball team.
Photo By: Courtesy of Tom Woodruff
VIRIN: 360901-O-D0439-001

In 1942, Woodruff was drafted by the Army, where he worked in public relations. He later transferred to the Navy and received aviation training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida, where he earned his fighter pilot wings in June of that year.

Woodruff flew the Grumman F6F Hellcat and saw action in the Pacific Theater during World War II, beginning in August 1944.

An airplane flies with an open cockpit.
Hellcat Patrol
A Grumman F6F Hellcat from Fighter Squadron VF-20 on patrol in 1945.
Photo By: Navy photo
VIRIN: 450101-O-D0439-001

Assigned to Fighter Squadron VF-20 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, he participated in action over the Bonin Islands, Yap Island and in support of the landings at Peleliu in September 1944. In October 1944 he flew missions over Okinawa, Luzon in the Philippines and in the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea. 

During November, he made attacks against targets in the Philippines. On Nov. 14, 1944, he flew a mission against Clark Field near Manila, Philippines.

A sailor poses for a photo.
Tom Woodruff
Tom Woodruff poses in an undated photo.
Photo By: Navy photo
VIRIN: 430901-O-D0439-001A

Anti-aircraft batteries downed six fighters that day, including Woodruff. His body was never recovered, and a year later he was officially declared dead.

Woodruff was posthumously awarded a gold star in lieu of a second Distinguished Flying Cross.

He was also awarded the Navy Cross, the nation's second highest military award for valor, for braving intense antiaircraft fire and inflicting severe damage against a Japanese light cruiser in October 1944 east of the Philippines.

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Sports Heroes Graphic
Sports Heroes Who Served graphic - with title
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903