Florida football legend Tiger Mayberry died in Japanese POW camp
By KEN WILLIS | The Daytona Beach News-Journal | Published: May 25, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — Whether you're new here or a longtime resident, you probably don't know this story. For whatever reason, this area has never gotten around to properly recognizing one of its locally grown legends.
This particular Memorial Day weekend rolls out a little more than 75 years since Walter "Tiger" Mayberry died in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.
What remains of Mayberry Avenue is surrounded by parking lots and a retention pond on hospital property at Halifax Health. And there's the local Marine Corps League's Captain Tiger Mayberry Detachment.
But that's about it for his memory, and it's too bad, because according to dusty old files and his little chapter of military history, Tiger was an absolute great.
Twenty years ago, we were working on a list of the best area athletes of the 20th Century. All of the old-timers opened with Tiger Mayberry, the 1930s Mainland Buc.
"Probably the best football player that's ever been in this area," said the late Joe Nelson, himself an amazing athlete and coach for many years around here.
"... An unforgettable football star," wrote Benny Kahn, this paper's sports columnist through the mid-20th century.
And not just here. In Gainesville as a Florida Gator, Tiger Mayberry went national.
"I have not seen a better back in six years than Mayberry," wrote Henry McLemore of the old United Press.
Mayberry wore the orange and blue for three seasons, 1935-37 (freshmen were ineligible in those days) and was never part of a winning team. The Gators were a combined 11-20 during his three years, but it certainly wasn't his fault.
The team captain started in the offensive and defensive backfields and also was considered one of the nation's best punters. His six interceptions in 1937 were a school record until 1970. That season, he became the first-ever Gator to be named a first-team All-SEC player.
Along with his six interceptions, he ran for 818 yards in '37. He had 2,019 career yards of total offense (713 passing, 1,306 rushing) during a defense-first era in which numbers like that turned heads.
"He was virtually a one-man show on poor football teams of that period in Gainesville," longtime UF publicist Norm Carlson once wrote. "Mayberry rewrote the school record books on offense, defense and as a punter."
Mayberry was the 61st pick of the 1938 NFL Draft but never signed with the Cleveland Rams. Instead, he went to work, and three years later he enlisted in the Naval Reserve. Within a year, he was a fighter pilot, assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps and sent into the Pacific Theater.
There, too, he shined, as part of the famed Marine Fighter Squadron 123. His legend was gilded in late summer of 1943 when his and two other Marine aircraft held off 16 Japanese Zeros. Several days later, he was escorting bombers when he was shot down.
He was captured and spent the rest of his days in an infamous Japanese POW camp called Rabaul. Japanese records say he died in 1944 during an allied bombing raid. Other records say he was killed by his captors. The death wasn't officially announced by the Navy until 1946.
A News-Journal remembrance included a description of Mayberry's last flight by a former Marine fighter pilot named Richard Baker. Baker recalled a battle with six Zeros that he survived. He radioed thanks to Mayberry, whose plane had been hit and was heading for an emergency landing in the Pacific.
"When I called him back for a compass reading, he replied, 'Well, pal, it doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference right here anyway,'" Baker said. "That was the last we ever heard of him."
And maybe the first you've heard of Walter "Tiger" Mayberry, a true local hero who somehow, over the decades, slipped our collective consciousness.
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