Bob Nieman: 141st Former Pro Killed in WWII
Every time I discover another minor leaguer that was killed while serving with the military during WWII I believe it’s the last. Just two days ago I posted an article about Jim Robertson who played 21 games with the Salem Senators of the Western International League in 1941. Jim was killed following a night-time bombing mission against Japanese forces in the Pacific in April 1944.
The same year that Jim Robertson was breaking into the ranks of professional baseball, so was a young man from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bob Nieman, the 141st addition to the list of professional players killed during WWII, was signed by the Akron Yankees around the same time that Jim Robertson scrawled on his Salem contract. Nieman entered service a month ahead of Robertson and lived an additional four months before – like Robertson – losing his life in a plane crash.
Here is the story of Bob Nieman.
Robert F. Nieman was born in 1919 in the Northside district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The son of Lawrence and Mary Nieman, and a graduate of Oliver High School, he played semi-pro baseball with the Bellevue club of the Allegheny County League from 1935 to 1940 (Bellevue were league champions in 1940).
In 1941, Bellevue joined the Greater Pittsburgh League and was counting on the contributions of their hard-hitting, 180-pound shortstop, Bob Nieman, but professional baseball had their eyes on the 22-year-old. In April 1941, Nieman signed with the Akron Yankees, a New York Yankees farm team in the Class C Middle-Atlantic League.
The Akron club was strong, with a line-up that featured future major leaguers Gus Niarhos, Joe Buzas, Monk Dubiel, Joe Lutz, Joe Murray and Ed Sauer. Whether Nieman would have been able to hold his own against these players we will never know because on May 15, military service beckoned before he had an opportunity to play a game.
Nieman spent 11 months in England with the U.S. Armyâ€™s Medical Corps before returning to the United States in July 1943 to enter service with the Army Air Force. He was assigned to the 421st Base Unit at Muroc Army Air Field in southern California, for combat flight training as an aerial gunner.
At around 9pm on Wednesday, August 23, 1944, Corporal Nieman was aboard a Consolidated B-24D Liberator bomber that lifted off the runway at Muroc to give both its pilots some instrument flying time and to practice dropping bombs. Piloted by Lieutenant John L. Graves, and co-pilot Flight Officer James L. Redd, the B-24D flew without incident for the first couple of hours, but around 10.55pm the crew had problems with number three engine and were forced to shut it down. This, however, didnâ€™t stop it from catching fire and Lt. Graves gave the order to abandon ship. A short time later there was an enormous explosion and the flame-engulfed right wing of the bomber was ripped off.
As the bomber spiralled to the ground, and amid unimaginable terror, the crew struggled to escape. Of the ten airmen onboard that night, five remained trapped in the falling wreckage, and died upon impact with the desert below.
Bob Nieman, along with Lt. Graves, Flight Officer Clifton C. Watts, Cpl. Bernard D. Fogel and Pfc. James W. Flitcroft all lost their lives that night.
Bob Niemanâ€™s body was returned to Pittsburgh, where a Requiem High Mass was held at St. Cyril of Alexandria Church on September 1, 1944.
Thanks to Ray Nemec for confirming that Bob Nieman had signed with Akron in 1941. Some of the information relating to the crash of the B-24D was obtained from Don R. Jordanâ€™s website at www.donrjordan.com
You can read about all 141 professional players who lost their lives during World War II at www.baseballinwartime.com