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THANKSGIVING DAY TRADITIONS

1939: They battled on the field, then went off to war

Meryll Frost bore the scars of war when he returned to Dartmouth in 1945.
Meryll Frost bore the scars of war when he returned to Dartmouth in 1945.Dartmouth College

Needham quarterback Larry Arra and Wellesley halfback Meryll Frost were opponents in 1939 when the teams played to a 13-13 Thanksgiving Day tie at Wellesley’s Hunnewell Field.

Arra threw a touchdown pass, but “Flash” Frost had a hand in every Wellesley point — scoring on a punt return and throwing the touchdown and game-tying conversion passes.

In 1940, as a Dartmouth College freshman, Frost returned home on Thanksgiving break to cover the Needham-Wellesley game for his hometown newspaper.

However, the game was postponed because of a Tuesday snowstorm. Needham’s field was unplayable.

The following Saturday, the teams met at Newton High’s Dickinson Memorial Stadium, which had been cleared by horses pulling plows and covered with straw.

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Arra, then a senior, threw a touchdown pass to classmate Robert Kramer,giving Needham and its head coach, Phil Claxton, a 6-0 victory.Wellesley had recovered a fumble deep in Needham territory late in the fourth quarter, but Arra made a key tackle defensively and helped run out the clock when he carried for a first down.

In those days, recalls Phil Claxton Jr., son of Needham’s head coach and now living in Cherry Hill, N.J., the winning team received a live turkey.

The Needham Chronicle reported it as “a clean, hard fought game,’’ and noted the presence of Frost — “star of last year’s Wellesley team, who starred on the Dartmouth freshman eleven this fall’’ — sitting in the press box.

And then, Arra, Frost, and coach Claxton went off to war. Their clashes on the gridiron were a prelude to the biggest fight of their lives after Dec. 7, 1941.

Arra served with the Army in France, where he met his wife Jeannine, a French citizen. Claxton was a Navy lieutenant commander in the Pacific.

Frost — who would marry his high school sweetheart, Pauline MacKenzie, in 1943 — left Dartmouth and was an Army Air Force sergeant serving in Europe when his life dramatically changed.

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He was ball turret gunner on a B-24 bomber that caught fire and crashed. The burning turret separated from the plane and rolled into a field. Frost, although badly burned on his upper body and face, escaped and ran back to the plane hoping to rescue his mates.

“But the plane exploded,’’ recalled Frost’s son, Meryll Jr., now president of a medical imaging company in Gainesville, Fla. “Of seven crewmen, my father was one of two survivors and was rescued by an Italian farmer.’’

Frost subsequently underwent 14 months of skin grafts, including procedures to restore his eyelids, ears, and face. He carried those scars of war the rest of his life.

But the determination and drive he exhibited on the field enabled Frost to leave the hospital and return to Dartmouth as senior captain and quarterback on the 1945 varsity football team.

After that season, he was named an honorary All-American and was presented with the Philadelphia Sports Writers’ Most Courageous Athlete Award. At the ceremonies, Frost thanked his wife.

“They say behind every great man there’s a woman. While I’m not a great man, there’s a great woman behind me,’’ he said, helping to popularize that expression.

Frost became the freshman football coach at Dartmouth. He also was offered the job as radio broadcaster for the Cleveland Browns, but at the urging of his wife, decided to stay closer to home, his son said.

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The couple moved to Rhode Island in 1953 where Frost started an automobile mat business. He later sold real estate in Arizona.

He championed the cause of what the Globe called “the underdog enlisted man,’’ and helped form the Air Force Association. Frost was part of an association-related inquiry board that met in Washington, D.C., with President Harry Truman and General James Doolittle.

Frost, who looked forward to reunions with his Wellesley teammates, died in 1992. His wife received a letter of condolence from another Army Air Force officer, actor James Stewart.

Arra was a hockey star at Colby College and became a purchasing agent in Boston for the US government. He also owned thoroughbred racehorses, which his brother, Charlie, trained and ran at Suffolk Downs.

The three Arra brothers, Larry, Ray, and Charlie, were teammates on the Needham Merchants semi-pro team, also coached by Phil Claxton, for whom Claxton Field in Needham is named.

“He insisted on perfection,’’ Claxton’s son said, “and I looked up to him.’’

At Memorial Park, site of Thursday’s game, the names of Needham residents who perished serving their country during all wars are inscribed in granite.

The Arra brothers (from left): Ray Sr., Charlie, and Larry, who was Needham’s quarterback in 1939 and 1940.
The Arra brothers (from left): Ray Sr., Charlie, and Larry, who was Needham’s quarterback in 1939 and 1940.Courtesy Ron Arra

WELLESLEY RAIDERS VS. NEEDHAM ROCKETS

Wellesley leads series 62-59-9 (including games not played on Thanksgiving)

Where they play this year:
Memorial Field, Needham at 10 a.m.

Last year: Wellesley won, 23-20

Noteworthy players from past Thanksgiving games

NEEDHAM

■  Mike Panepinto (class of 2014, right) — Holds Needham’s rushing and scoring records and was the Globe’s 2014 public school Male Athlete of the Year. Now a senior at Brown University, he led the lacrosse team last season with 27 goals.

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■  Vic Gatto (class of 1965) — Went on to captain Harvard University in 1968, the year of the famous 29-29 comeback tie with Yale. Former head football coach at Bates, Tufts, and Davidson. Now an environmental entrepreneur in Knoxville, Tenn.

WELLESLEY

■  Ray Ilg (class of 1963) — Globe All-Scholastic halfback scored three touchdowns in 1962 game, a 24-14 win over Needham. All-East captain at Colgate who played linebacker for two seasons with the Patriots. Worked in financial investment sales and resides in Wilmot, N.H.

■  Thomas Claiborne (class of 2006, foreground at right) — PrepStar regional All-American in high school and standout lineman at Boston College. Played this year for the Massachusetts Pirates of the National Arena League and is an assistant football coach at Wellesley High.


Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.