Perhaps to most Georgia Tech fans, the name Mack Tharpe may strike a chord only as one of the two men for whom Tech’s athletics fund is named, the other being coaching great William Alexander.
However, the story of Mercer McCall “Mack” Tharpe is worth recalling for his atypical and complete devotion to his country.
“He was a patriot,” Alexander wrote for the Tech alumni magazine in 1945, shortly after he was killed in action. “No easy desk or limited service for him. To fly and to fight was his goal.”
Tharpe, from Moultrie, played for Alexander at Tech in the mid-1920s. He rose from the scout team to become an all-Southern tackle and earned his commerce degree in 1927.
“Mack in his youth was the greatest boy that it has been my privilege to coach,” Alexander wrote.
He became a junior partner in an insurance business in Atlanta and served as an assistant coach for Alexander at the same time. He became line coach in 1934.
“The boys loved Coach Tharpe and in return he worked them like beavers and loved them too,” Alexander wrote.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to Tech was a failed scouting trip to Tennessee in 1930 to watch the Volunteers play Tech’s next opponent, North Carolina. The story goes that, due to car trouble, Tharpe was only able to catch the last few minutes of the game. Following the game, he sought out Tennessee coach Robert Neyland for assistance. Neyland pointed him to his quarterback, Bobby Dodd, whose assistance helped Tech earn a 6-6 tie with the Tar Heels.
As documented in “Dress Her in White and Gold,” a history of Georgia Tech, “Dodd’s analysis so impressed Tharpe that he pestered Coach Alex to hire him. Tech was looking for a backfield coach at the end of the 1930 season and Alex decided to look up Dodd just to silence Tharpe.”
Dodd, of course, was hired, eventually succeeded Alexander and became the school’s all-time winningest coach.
While Tharpe and Dodd were assistants together under Alexander, Tharpe was secretly taking flying lessons prior to the United States’ entry into World War II. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war, he enlisted at the age of 38, hoping to become a fighter pilot while knowing that his age would likely prevent him from achieving his ambition.
According to “Jackrabbit,” the biography of Tech legend Clint Castleberry, Alexander advised him to enter the Navy as an instructor and then try to work his way into an opportunity to fly. According to a newspaper report from the day, he was stationed domestically at a flight school in Athens and an air station in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But his skill and determination to fly proved successful, as he became a combat pilot in the Pacific theater.
“The story of how Tharpe enlisted in the Navy and the course of his career that landed him at forty-one a full-fledged Navy pilot aboard a carrier, in the Pacific, is a Navy tale that will be told at the war’s end,” Alexander wrote.
Word came March 5, 1945 – 70 years ago -- that he had been killed in action. He left behind a wife, Jane Tharpe, and an 11-month-old daughter, Mary McCall Tharpe. He was 41. Alexander wrote that he had been buried at sea with full Navy honors. From reports, the circumstances of his death are unclear, but in February 1945, two Japanese kamikaze planes hit Tharpe’s Bismarck Sea, which was engaged in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The ship sank with a loss of more than 300 men.
The sense of duty that men and women felt and acted upon during that time is difficult to grasp 70 years later, at a time when patriotism of Tharpe’s stripe is exceedingly rare. For a man in Tharpe’s position – no longer of an age to fight, established in his professional life and ultimately a husband and father – to not merely be willing to risk his life for his country, but to actively pursue such sacrifice is unfathomable.
The Alexander-Tharpe Fund was established in 1949. A high school stadium in Moultrie was named in his honor in 1954 and is still in use. He was named to the Tech athletics hall of fame in 1961.
“A devoted son, husband and father – bighearted, sentimental old Tharpe means perfection to those of us who knew him,” Alexander wrote.