Brand, Wittenberg led post-War effort for U.S. Olympians

Updated: May 23, 2012

(Editor’s Note: This is the second of 11 weekly reviews of past Olympic experiences by the United States until the start of the 2012 London Games in August. Last week, WIN looked at the seven Games before World War II.  In next week’s WIN eNews, we will look at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.)

By Mike Finn

Despite being badly marred by the effects of World War II, London, England, provided a home for the first post-war Olympics after the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled because of the fighting.

Merry ol’ England also felt like home to American freestyle wrestlers Glen Brand and Henry Wittenberg, who both won gold medals.

Glen Brand

Brand, just a 24-year-old native of Clarion, Iowa, and NCAA champion from Iowa State, had perhaps a tougher challenge at the Olympic Trials, where he knocked off in-state rival Joe Scarpello of Iowa. But once Brand got to London, he won four relatively-easy matches at 174 pounds. He pinned eventual silver medalist Adil Candemir of Turkey in the fourth round, then decisioned Sweden’s Erik Linden in his final match.

Wittenberg, meanwhile, did plenty to prove he may have been the best wrestler of his era as the 29-year-old policeman from New York first had to knock off the University of Minnesota’s Verne Gagne for a spot on the team at 192 pounds. Then the seven-time AAU champion had his hands full with but overcame eventual silver medalist Fritz Stockli of Switzerland and Sweden’s Bengt Fahikvist who claimed the bronze. Both matches were scored split decisions in favor of Wittenberg.

The Americans also earned a silver medal from Gerald Leeman at 125.5 pounds and a bronze from Leland Merrill at 161. Leeman, who attended Iowa State Teachers College (Northern Iowa), won five matches, including three by fall. But he still ended up second behind Turkey’s Nasuh Akar. Merrill, then a graduate student at Michigan State, meanwhile, reached the sixth round of competition before he lost to eventual gold medalist Yasar Dogu of Turkey. He also defeated Australia’s Richard Garrard, who earned the silver medal over Merrill based on penalty points.

The 1948 Olympic wrestling action took place in London’s Empress Hall.

The American team in 1952 may have been even tougher than the 1948 squad but so was the competition. The Soviet Union returned to Olympic competition for the first time since 1912.

Henry Wittenberg

It was so tough Wittenberg was forced to settle for second place at 192 pounds after losing on points to eventual gold medalist Wiking Palm of Sweden in a third-round match. The legendary Dan Hodge, the three-time NCAA champion who never surrendered a takedown while wrestling collegiately for Oklahoma, failed to place at 174 pounds after he was defeated by eventual gold medalist David Tsimakuridze of the Soviet Union in a second-round match.

But the United States also had plenty of success in Helsinki, Finland, where Bill Smith captured the gold medal at 161 pounds. Jay Evans claimed a silver medal at 147.5 and Josiah Henson brought home the bronze medal at 139.

Smith came to Finland with a resume that showed two NCAA championships at Iowa State Teachers College in 1949 and 1950 as well as three straight AAU championships.

At the Olympics, Smith actually lost a fifth-round match to Per Berlin of Sweden but took the gold medal from the Swede when Smith beat Iran’s Abdollah Mojtakvai one round after the Iranian beat Berlin.

Evans, who would later compete in Greco-Roman four years later, settled for second after he lost a split decision to eventual gold medalist Olle Anderberg of Sweden.

Henson, meanwhile, settled for third place after he lost a first-round match but came back to win four straight.

Other place finishers for the U.S. were heavyweight Bill Kerslake, who earned a fifth-place finish, and 114.5-pound Robert Peery, who ended up seventh.

Click here for look back at the early years (1896-1936) of Olympic wrestling history