May 14, 2015

Throwback Thursday - Bob Chappius

In 1947, Hall of Fame Michigan halfback Bob Chappuis was the Heisman Trophy runner up in a close vote, just losing out to Notre Dame Hall of Famer Johnny Lujack. But two years earlier, Bob had another close call. In this one he narrowly escaped a potentially tragic situation.

In 1942, Chappuis was a sophomore halfback at UM where he had 52 rushes and 63 pass attempts. But he would leave Ann Arbor to serve in the Army Air Corps earning the rank of Lieutenant. He flew 21 missions as a gunner and radio operator during World War II.

On February 13, 1945 his B-25 was shot down over northern Italy. He parachuted into an olive grove where he and two other crew members were rescued by group of Italian partisans led by Aldo Comucci. After spending time hiding in a hay barn, Chappuis and the two crew members were moved by the partisans from house to house, and village to village as they made their way toward the Swiss border. They would spend the bulk of the next three months hidden in a 10’ x 10’ room, in a home owned by the Ugolini family in the town of Asola, Italy.

There, the Ugolini’s shared their food, cared for, and hid the Americans from the Germans. The house was just two doors down from the German headquarters, and the military drill grounds were directly across the street. Chappuis and his crewmates would spend time reading and playing cards but could never speak above a whisper or walk past a window. However on one occasion, Mrs. Ugolini dressed the airmen in peasant clothes on a walk to the town market. While the Americans didn’t’ understand a word spoken, she talked to Bob in Italian calling him “Roberto.”

One evening the fiancé of one of the Ugolini daughters made an unexpected visit and discovered the Americans. When he threatened to inform the Germans, Gina Ugolini told her boyfriend, “You know what will happen? They will be taken prisoner, and my family will shot.” Not wanting to lose his girlfriend, the man stayed silent.

After V-E Day, the three Americans stayed in Asola for a week-long celebration. The town’s theater was the site of a victory celebration as the airmen danced with the Ugolini’s daughters.

Chappuis then returned to the University of Michigan as a 23-year old junior. As a senior in 1947, the Wolverines had an undefeated season as Bob was named a Unanimous All-America. In the Rose Bowl Michigan beat Southern California 49-0 as Bob was named the game MVP.

The domination of the Trojans in the Rose Bowl led to a college football first. All year long Michigan trailed Notre Dame in the weekly poll. Michigan and Notre Dame had three common opponents; Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Southern California. The Wolverines won all three games by much larger margins than the Irish. That prompted the first post-bowl poll, where the writers now selected Michigan was the #1 team.

Chappuis returned to Asola in 1974 and a year later Comucci came to visit Bob in Michigan. Bob passed away in 2012 at the age of 89.

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