From the air, the Cimetiere Americain, as the locals call it, spread across 27 tree-lined acres on the dusty outskirts of the ancient city of Carthage, Tunisia, looks like a football field.
To the American Battle Monuments Commission that established the burial ground there in 1960 for its World War II dead, it’s called the North African American Cemetery. Among its manicured expanse, at Plot I, Row 5, Grave 1, beneath a stark white cross, you would find the last resting place of First Lieutenant Simeon Alexander Box.
Like 2,840 other American soldiers interred there, plus 3,724 other names of those missing in action in North Africa enshrined on a wall of remembrance at the cemetery, Alex Box never made it home.
Box’s tank was blown apart by a mine Feb. 19, 1943, less than a year after he was playing outfield for LSU. His commanding officer, Brigadier Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., personally wrote a letter of condolence to Box’s mother Mattie, saying “the deeds and death of your son have gone to make up the spiritual background that is this country.”
Back in 1942, Johnny Broussard, still spry and active at 97, was Box’s roommate, a pair of aspiring engineering students living in Tiger Stadium’s East Stadium dormitories.
Broussard and his wife, Jean, celebrate their 65th anniversary next week. They keep active by serving as part of LSU’s track and field officials association. Neither will be at LSU’s season opener Friday against Air Force but over at the Carl Maddox Field House, working LSU’s annual Twilight meet.
A retired engineer for General Electric who himself served in the Army Air Corps in the closing months of World War II, Broussard has enjoyed the long life his roommate, Box, was denied. Fortunately, the decades haven’t robbed him of the memories of the young man Broussard admired.
“Everyone liked him,” Broussard said. “He was an ROTC group lieutenant. He was able to lead people.
“Alex was a well-mannered, good Mississippi boy. Just had a good way about him. Had he not been so much involved in varsity athletics, he would have been a straight-A student — like I was.”
Movie-star handsome, with a head of wavy dark hair and a winning smile, Box went to LSU in 1938 on a football scholarship. He wore No. 20, years before Billy Cannon wore and retired it.
“I’ve been around athletics through the years, and he without a doubt was one of the finest athletes I ever saw,” Broussard said. “He was good at basketball, really quite a fielder, a good hitter.”
LSU’s Board of Supervisors named its old baseball park for Box a little over three months after his death. When LSU moved to its current ballpark in 2009, there was talk of naming the new facility for legendary coach Skip Bertman.
Bertman, then LSU’s athletic director, would have none of it.
“He was adamant,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. Today, the emerald grass inside the ballpark is called Skip Bertman Field, but on the big scoreboard in left field, Bertman’s name gets second billing to Box, who earned a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart for his sacrifice.
“He’s an inspiration (to) who’s ever played in this program,” Mainieri said.
Inspiration from those in the military courses through Mainieri like baseball itself. His father and former coach, Demie, served in the Army during the Korean War. Demie’s brother, Sonny Mainieri, flew in the Army Air Corps in World War II, a bombardier who flew his last mission three days before D-Day in June 1944.
Sonny Mainieri rose to colonel in the Air Force, which was created in 1947. His nephew, Paul, rose in 1989 to become the first civilian baseball coach at the Air Force Academy.
“I don’t think anyone was prouder of me than my Uncle Sonny,” Mainieri said. “He told me, ‘The Air Force is the best of the best.’ ”
Two dozen of Mainieri’s Air Force players went on to become pilots, many of them colonels and generals. He says with pride how he’s got to be the only baseball coach going who gave orders to a two-star general, Pete Gersten, who will throw out the first pitch before Sunday’s LSU-Air Force game.
“People ask me what was the greatest moment I ever had in coaching,” Mainieri said. “They expect me to say winning the national championship (in 2009), and that’s right there.
“But the greatest moment was a former player who day after he passed his final check ride to become an F-16 pilot, he told me when he went that morning to put his flight suit on he put his Air Force baseball t-shirt on under his flight suit. That gave him the confidence that he could do it.
“That gave credence to why I went into coaching in the first place.”
There will be a significant military presence for LSU’s opening weekend. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a West Point graduate, will throw out the first pitch Saturday before LSU plays Army. There will be Air Force parachutists and flyovers and tributes galore.
And watching over it all will be the name associated with LSU baseball long before Bertman and Mainieri and all the six national championships.
Alex Box. The spiritual background that is this LSU baseball program.