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Harry Hess of Omaha recalls the excitement of the cross-country train ride with his lifelong friend and teammate for their Creighton University game at storied Madison Square Garden.
Frank Hebenstreit and Harry had grown up together in small-town southeast Nebraska and won a state basketball championship at Falls City High. Now they were fellow Bluejays arriving in the Great White Way — staying at the Paramount Hotel, where Broadway meets Times Square.
"Frank was probably the best friend I ever had," Harry said. "We were pals. We did everything together. I still miss him."
Pearl Harbor had been bombed three weeks earlier and America was at war, so the young men at Creighton and across the country knew they soon would join the fight. But the long-anticipated game in New York was on, and it gained great attention in Omaha.
"Gotham Trip for Bluejays," read one World-Herald headline. Said another: "Basketballers to Blossom in Garden."
The guys wanted to enjoy their first trip to New York. They saw the lights and the sights and listened to Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Harry's scrapbook shows that double rooms at the Paramount ranged from $4 to $7 per night.
A ticket stub for "intercollegiate basketball" shows a price of $2.20 for the Jan. 3, 1942, regular-season doubleheader pitting Creighton against Long Island University, and Fordham against Rhode Island.
That was at the old Madison Square Garden in Hell's Kitchen, on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, built in 1925 and closed in 1968 — the site of big-time boxing matches, as well as pro basketball and hockey and many other events.
Harry and Frank had grown up three houses away from each other in Falls City, and attended grade school and high school together. Their fathers were Creighton grads; Harry's, also named Harry, was a dentist, Frank's, also named Frank, was a lawyer.
Eddie Hickey was Creighton's coach, employing a fast-break style ahead of its time. With star players Ralph Langer, Ed Beisser and Joe Loisel leading the break, Harry said, the old gym at Creighton — where this year's NCAA-tournament team still practices — got very loud, with crowds up to 2,500.
Harry didn't play a lot, but got into the game at the Garden for a few minutes. The Jays lost, but posted an 18-5 record that season and 16-1 the next. Seven decades later, Harry, 90, still remembers the great experience of being a Bluejay — and the New York trip with his teammates, especially Frank.
But back then, the drums of war were beating. A stunning photo in The World-Herald's recently published book, "At War, At Home: World War II," shows the old Creighton football stadium in 1942, the field covered with military vehicles for the Army War Show.
After graduation in 1943, Harry joined the Army Air Corps. Frank was in the infantry.
In 1944, in the weeks after D-Day — thousands of miles from Omaha and 20 miles from Omaha Beach — Frank and many other Nebraskans of the 134th Infantry Regiment helped win the Battle of St. Lo, a key victory in the "breakout" across the continent — a fast break, but with bullets and shells flying.
On Aug. 14, 1944, 2nd Lt. Frank Hebenstreit, former Bluejay, was mortally wounded. He died on Aug. 23 at age 22.
A letter from his captain to Frank's young wife, Alice Rae, said "a brave man died that day."
Frank was leading a platoon's advance against a German force. "He was machine-gunned at close range," the letter says, "hit in the shoulder and chest."
A year after he died, his widow was presented his posthumous Distinguished Service Cross. A news story said she had never met her father — her mother had been pregnant with her when he was killed in World War I.
Many families suffered during the world wars, and Creighton lost a lot of young alums in WWII. Famed musician Glenn Miller, whom Frank and Harry had seen in New York, died in the war, too.
Harry Hess became a certified public accountant, married and had four children. Harry and partner Bill Boyle started out their CPA business by passing a hand-operated adding machine back and forth, but built a successful business. For years they kept the books for their old Creighton classmate and Las Vegas casino-hotel magnate, Jackie Gaughan.
In 1966, Harry was a founder of the Jaybackers booster club at Creighton. In 1972, his old Creighton team was introduced on the court before a Bluejay game — their 30-year reunion, which was their last.
Harry will watch TV on Friday and cheer for the Jays as they play Alabama in the NCAA tournament in Greensboro, N.C. And he'll remember his dear friend Frank, his teammate and fellow traveler on a memorable basketball trip — a couple of pals from Falls City walking around New York City.
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