One of Michigan Football's most famous players died earlier this month. Bob Chappuis played for the Wolverines in the '40s. He was a College Football Hall of Famer and a World War II hero. But that’s not how Chappuis described himself.
You can read about Bob Chappuis’s heroics as a World War II tailgunner, or as a Michigan Wolverines tailback, just about anywhere -- from his Time magazine cover story in 1947, to his obituary in the New York Times last week. But my favorite stories are the ones he told his granddaughters.
I met Chappuis in 2000, while writing a story about his famous Michigan football team. But I really got to know him when I coached his grandson Bobby’s high school hockey team.When Bobby went to Culver Academies for a post-grad year, I joined the family to see him graduate.
We all relaxed in a hotel suite, eating and drinking, while Chappuis’s teenage granddaughters goaded him to tell stories. He could not refuse them, but he shared stories you couldn't find in magazines -- like when his father told him he could go to any school he wanted -- except Ohio State.
Chappuis skipped the part about leaving college to volunteer for the Army, where he served as an aerial gunner on a B-25. But his son interjected to explain how their granddad’s plane was shot down over Northern Italy, forcing the crew to parachute behind enemy lines.
Chappuis waved it off. “Everybody says we’re heroes. But what kind of idiot wouldn’t jump from a burning plane?”
He told his granddaughters how they hid in a ditch behind some bushes while Italian soldiers marched by. One of his crewmates grabbed a knife, and motioned to attack. Chappuis grabbed his shoulder, pushed him down and whispered, “They’ve got us outnumbered 30 to 3, and they’ve got guns. I think you’ve seen too many Hollywood movies. We are staying put.”
Smart move. They were rescued by a family, who hid them in their attic. They buried the Americans’ identifying clothing – but Chappuis drew the line at his Michigan ring. “This stays with me,” he said.