Outlined against a blue-gray February sky, a green wave stormed a remote pacific island. Beginning on February 19, 1945, thousands of US Marines landed on the beaches of Iwo Jima, an island whose capture was necessary to aid Allied bombing missions against the Japanese homeland. The Japanese soldiers entrenched on the island swore to fight to death and a bloody battle ensued. Thousands of young US marines would perish on the island’s shores, including First Lieutenant Jack Chevigny.
John “Jack” Chevigny was raised in Hammond, Indiana by a devout Catholic family. Jack’s father, Dr. Julius, hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and study pre-med. Because of his family’s Catholic roots, it was only fitting that he would enroll at Notre Dame in 1924 to pursue a career in medicine.
But Chevigny had other interests, most notably playing football under the number 12 for coach Knute Rockne. At a time when most college football players played offense and defense, Chevigny became one of Rockne’s toughest players, playing as both a charging tailback and rough and tough tackler.
Chevigny’s attention to football and other activities (he served as Grand Knight of the Notre Dame Knights of Columbus Council 1477), muted his attempts to master his pre-med academics. With his football eligibility in danger, Chevigny was forced to choose between football and and his father’s dream of medicine. Ultimately, he switched to study law and continue to pursue football, a bold choice that would shape his future.
Number 12’s career highlight at Notre Dame came during his senior season. A 1928 rebuilding Notre Dame faced a powerful and favored Army team at Yankee Stadium. Sloppy play led to the a halftime deficient for the Fighting Irish. Following Rockne’s inspiring halftime charge to “win one for the Gipper,” Chevigny scored the game-tying touchdown and yelled, “That’s for the Gipper!” The game would then be immortalized in college football lore following Johnny O’Brien’s game-winning score. Even after his death, Chevigny’s score in the 1928 Army game would follow him.
Following his playing days at Notre Dame, Chevigny became an assistant coach under Knute Rockne. Rockne treated Chevigny as a son and imparted his coaching strategies, including the Notre Dame box formation and intensifying practices prior to big games on the young coach. Under Rockne’s direction, Notre Dame would win National Championships in both 1929 and 1930.
Despite the onset of the Great Depression, Chevigny’s future seemed bright. With the greatest college football coach as his mentor, he seemed destined to one day take on the coaching reins for his alma mater. Sadly, this dream would go crashing down in the Kansas plains. On March 31, 1931, Transcontinental and Western flight 599 crashed and the legendary football coach Knute Rockne was no more. Chevigny had lost his football father and with it his football future at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame opted to utilize Hunk Anderson as Rockne’s replacement, with Chevigny serving as his primary assistant. Although both were mentored by Rockne, their differences in preparation and in game strategies led to a fractured relationship, causing Chevigny to resign two years later. Chevigny would get a chance to coach the professional football Chicago Cardinals to mediocre success, but he wanted to be back in the college game, which was more prestigious at the time. Chevigny would soon find himself coaching at St. Edward’s, a Holy Cross school in Austin, Texas. After a 7-1-1 season, Chevigny found himself as the head coach at the University of Texas.
Although he would only last three seasons, Chevigny’s fame at the University of Texas hinged on his Longhorns’ 7-6 upset of the Fighting Irish in 1934 at Notre Dame Stadium. Following this victory, Chevigny received a pen engraved with the words “To a Notre Dame boy who beat Notre Dame.”
Chevigny’s legend would later grow such that a false legend was concocted and circulated about this pen. Following his death and the conclusion of the Second World War, a rumor emerged that the pen had found its way aboard the USS Missouri and was used by Japanese officials to sign the official surrender documents ending World War II. Despite no truth to the powerful pen story, many wanted to believe it.
Following a mostly unsuccessful stint at the University of Texas, Chevigny worked in Texas before being drafted by the US Army in 1940. He would later be selected to the US Marine Corps. Due to a combination of his age, nagging football injuries, and celebrity status, Chevigny remained stateside and coached the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps football team during the early years of World War II. However, as a leader who saw thousands of young men pass through camp, many not to ever return, Chevigny knew he needed to do his part. Thus, he requested to be put on active duty.
A little over a year after joining active duty, Chevigny would prepare for a role storming the beaches of Iwo Jima. Despite the chaos, he remained calm and inspired confidence in troops who sought shelter on the bloody beach. Sadly, Chevigny’s shelter, a shell crater, would be hit by another shell, killing him and a number of other soldiers seeking cover there.
Although, Chevigny’s life would end on foreign soil, his legacy lives on. In part due to the pen story, for years after the war, his story of leadership and sacrifice was celebrated on radio shows and in newspapers. As we recall the anniversary of his death this month, we too can celebrate Jack Chevigny as another chapter of Notre Dame-inspired faith, courage, and service.
Robert Rauch is a 2012 graduate with a degree in history and theology. He currently serves as Manager of College Councils and Young Adult Outreach for the Knights of Columbus. For those wishing to learn more about the life of Jack Chevigny, please see “The Last Chalkline” by Jeff Walker