Calnan, George

6 times US Foil Champion
1 time US Epee Champion
1 time US Outdoor Epee Champion
1928 Olympic Bronze medal in Epee
1932 Olympic Bronze medal in Men’s Foil Team
1932 Olympic Bronze medal in Men’s Epee Team
Killed at the age of 33 in crash of dirigible “Akron”


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6 times US Foil Champion
1 time US Epee Champion
1 time US Outdoor Epee Champion
1928 Olympic Bronze medal in Epee
1932 Olympic Bronze medal in Men’s Foil Team
1932 Olympic Bronze medal in Men’s Epee Team
Killed at the age of 33 in crash of dirigible “Akron”

Riposte Magazine
George Charles Calnan

He was born in Boston in 1900, where he attended English High School.  At Annapolis, he was an honor student, besides serving as midshipman during the war aboard the U.S.S. Rhode Island and  the U.S.S. Pennsylvania.  He was the captain of the fencing team and foil champion of the Academy.

“In June, 1916, I went to the Naval Academy, a gangling youngster of sixteen years of age and of such an imposing stature that when I walked down the corridor in my military uniform, my classmates were constantly afraid that I was going to suddenly fall apart.  I was six feet tall and weighed a little over one hundred and thirty pounds.  When the call for football candidates came out in August of that summer, I reported for football practice with a great deal of enthusiasm, but with, as it was afterwards proved, absolutely no ability.  When the football suits were handed out in September at the beginning of the academic year, my ability was recognized and I was given no suit.  Very much depressed, I walked back from football practice that September evening with a desire to go out for some sport other than football.  I met a friend in my class who had been to the fencing room, taking fencing lessons for the previous month.  After a great deal of persuasion on his part, I volunteered to go to the fencing room with him just to look on, but with a mental reservation not to become interested under any circumstances.  Mr. Darriaulat the Fencing Coach at Cornell was then at the Naval Academy and was having his usual difficult time in convincing the midshipmen to take more interest in the sport of fencing.  Anybody who entered the fencing room looked good to him.  He came over to greet me and persuaded me to put on a mask and a glove and to take a foil in my hand.  He even bribed me by giving me a lesson.  So I received in fifteen minutes more attention than I had received in one month on the football field.  From then on, I hardly missed a day of fencing for the whole three years that I was at the Naval Academy.  I am quite sure that I averaged five days a week for those three academic years.”

“During that time the outstanding memory is that of being Captain of the fencing team and going to New York with the team my senior year without  the services of a coach.  That was in April 1919 when there were only six colleges in the Intercollegiate Fencing Association.  I remember distinctly being so nervous during the night before the competition, that I did not sleep a single wink the whole night.  The competition was run off in those days so that every member of each team fenced every member of every other team, and then the total number of bouts won and lost was added up and the team which had the highest number of wins was declared the winner; thus, on this occasion the team which won the greatest number out of forty-five bouts was declared the winner.  Although my team was a heavy favorite to win, due to a number of causes Columbia carried away first place and we got second.  Through all the sixteen years of college, national, international and Olympic competition in which I have been, that defeat crushed me more and had more of a lasting effect on me than anything else that ever happened.”


It is obvious that this disappointment became only an incentive to greater effort, for the story continues:

“In 1920 the call came out from the Amateur Fencers League of America for candidates for the Olympic Fencing Team.  Although I had been out of training for nine months, I decided to go ;back to the Naval Academy and try out for the team.  After months of training and a series of tryouts at Washington, Philadelphia and New York, the Olympic Team was selected and I was named as a substitute on the foils team.  So, I journeyed to Antwerp and got my first taste of Olympic competition.  That year I believe there was gathered together at Antwerp the greatest group of fencers that I have ever seen in my whole experience.  Aldo Nadi, Nedo Nadi, Pulitti and Terlizzi were there from Italy; Gaudin, Cattiau and Ducret were there from France; Thom and Anspach were there from Belgium; Osier was there from Denmark; and the only people missing were the Germans, the Austrians and the Hungarians.  I never imagined that fencing could be so magnificent as what I saw there, and I resolved to continue fencing with the hope of attaining some close approximation to that perfection.  At those games I fenced only five bouts, winning two and losing three.  At any rate, I never survived the preliminaries of the individual championships.”

Upon returning from Europe, Calnan went for one year to the Naval Academy for post-graduate work, and then was sent to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for additional training in construction engineering.  As to his fencing during these years, he says: “At each of these places,k I was an amateur coach with the teams, helping out the undergraduates as best I could.”  This was an interest that Calnan actively retained throughout his career, and many a midshipman who later became a strong national and international competitor owes much to Calnan’s effort.  However, it was not a midshipman but a young student of engineering at M.I.T., Joseph L. Levis, that became most famous among Calnan’s proteges.  Although their relative competitive record from 1926 to 1932 heavily favored Calnan in the foil, he always regarded Levis as the best American foilsman.  He used to say, prior to the 1932 Olympics, “I am only a big, strong ox, but Levis…there’s a foilsman for you.”  It is a matter of record, of course, that Levis’ second place in the 1932 Olympics is the highest honor ever won by an American foilsman.*

*(the 1904 Olympic foil event in St. Louis was attended by only 9 foilists;  a Cuban, a German and 7 Americans.  Albertson Van Zo Post took second.   The 1932 Olympic foil event where Levis medalled, by comparison in Los Angeles, was attended by 26 foilists from 12 countries.)

“In May of 1923, after winning the New England Foils Championships, I went to New York to take part in the National Championships.  In New York I found the going too rough in foil and was eliminated, so rather than go home that evening, I decided to wait over until the next day and get some experience in the National Epee Championship.  Up to this time, I had never entered a competition in the epee.  Much to my surprise and to the surprise of everybody else, I won the National Epee Championship.  For the last nine years I have each year without exception endeavored to capture that Epee Championship again and the best I have been able to do is two second places and one third place.”

This is the first of two articles about Lt. Calnan.  The second, telling in his own words about his later national, international and Olympic successes – and disappointments – will appear in the next issue.

A Sketch of “America’s First Fencing Hero”  continued

This is the second of two articles about Lt. Calnan, America’s first fencing hero, who died in the dirigible “Akron” disaster in 1933.  It is told chiefly in his own words, written in 1932.  At that time, at the request of one of our editors, he wrote a short fencing autobiography.  This is the first time this material is made available for publication.

“In June of 1923 a team was picked to go to England and to fence in London for the Thompson trophy, a trophy donated so generously by the late Colonel Robert M. Thompson for competition each four years between England and the United States.  While in London I fenced on the foil and epee teams, winning all my foil bouts and losing all but one of my epee bouts.  From London we went to Birmingham and fenced there, and from Birmingham we went to Edinburgh and fenced the Scots.  Then back to London where we again fenced.  This was all good international experience and helped all the members of the team.”

“In 1924 after getting second place in the National Epee Championship, I went off to Paris with the Olympic Team.  That year we did not do much as far as results are concerned, but we indoctrinated a large group of young fencers, who composed the team, with the desire to improve the fencing in this country.”

First Foil Championship

“In 1925 I won my first National Foils Championship.  This was a very close competition between Nunes, Peroy and myself, Nunes winning from me, Peroy winning from Nunes, I winning from Peroy, and all three winning from the fourth man.  By adding up touches, it was found that I had won by one touch.”

“In 1926 I again won the Foils Championship.  This year England sent a Thompson Trophy team to this country and we met on three successive nights at the old New York Athletic Club.  There I put on the peculiar exhibition of winning my four foil bouts the first night and losing my four epee bouts the next night.  I am afraid I did not give the team much assistance.”

Calnan ran his string to four consecutive victories by winning the foil championship in 1927 and 1928.  In the latter year, he was a member of the American Olympic Team in both foil and epee, and acted as a deputy for the Captain of the team, Col. Henry Breckinridge.  Calnan’s story of these games follows:

George Calnan takes the Olympic Oath, 1932

1928 Olympics

“That year we selected what we considered the best balanced fencing team that had ever represented the United States up to that time.  Down through the years since 1920 the leading fencing clubs and the colleges of the United States had been importing one European coach after another, so that there was  being built up in this country a school of young fencers, which was gradually approaching in skill and knowledge of the sport the fencers of the European countries.  The fencing team which went to Amsterdam contained such names as Breckinridge, Peroy, Lyon, Rayner and Van Buskirk, of the older group of fencers, who were handling the burden of competition over to a new generation, and such names as Levis, Every, Huffman and Armitage of the younger generation. The team made an excellent showing at Amsterdam, Levis winning eleventh place in the Foils Individual, marking the first time that an American fencer had ever reached the final pool of an Olympic Games.”

“Both Milner and I reached the finals in the Epee Individual Championship and I survived that to enter a so-called superfinals of four men.  We fenced ten touches to determine the Olympic Championship.”

“These superfinals were run on an elimination basis, Gaudin of France vs. Thom of Belgium, and Buchard of France vs. Calnan of U.S.A., the two winners to fence for the championship and the two losers to meet for third place.  There was some controversy at the time and since, as to whether the pairingswere proper in view of the round-robin rule which requires members of the same team to meet first.  Calnan never entered into that controversy, and does not mention it in his autobiography.  In his view, the pairings were correct on the basis of the seeded draw.

“In these superfinals, I fenced what I consider the most dramatic bout of my fencing experience.  I fenced Buchard of France, who was at that time Champion of Europe, and we see-sawed back and forth until I had attained the lead at 10 touches to 9.  There was greeat excitement in the assemblage during this bout, first because it was a remarkable thing to have an American still fencing at such a stage in the proceedings, and secondly, because the whole Italian team, who had not entered any of its members in the Individual Championship, was rooting for anybody to win except a Frenchman.  Buchard tore off his mask and walked over to the audience, emphatically shouting “Mal juge, mal juge!” It was with the greatest difficulty that he was convinced that the bout was not over and that the winner had to be two touches in advance to win the bout.  We went on guard again and after about ten more minutes of fencing Buchard won the match by 13-11.”

In the meantime, Gaudin had defeated Thom.  In the championship bout, Gaudin defeated Buchard in a remarkable struggle.  Then Calnan overwhelmed Thom for third place, 10-6.

The rest of Calnan’s story is brief: In 1929, Levis defeated him for the national foil championship.  In 1930 and 1931, Calnan reversed the tables to win his fifth and sixth foils titles.  In 1931, also, Calnan placed third in the National Epee Championship, and first in the National Outdoor Epee Championship.  In 1932, Levis won the foil again, and Calnan dropped to third, as Alessandroni came second.  In the outdoor epee, Calnan took second place.  Then came the 1932 Olympic Games.  Of these Calnan says nothing, “since you all know what happened…I will not bore you with the details.”  Thus the autobiography ends.

A few details might be supplied: In 1931, Calnan might have won the National Epee Championship.  In the final one-touch bout, in an exchange at close quarters, both he and his opponent missed and Director Henry Breckinridge called halt.  His opponent touched Calnan on the arm, on an immediate replacement, while Calnan’s missed.  One of the judges called attention to the fact that the touch had scored after halt.  Calnan said: “The touch is good! I was still fencing.”

Calnan had been an officer on the dirigible “Los Angeles” for several years, when he had a serious accident in January, 1932, although no permanent ill effects resulted.

When the Olympic Committee was about to select the American athletes who would respectively take the oath and carry the American flag at the Opening Ceremonies, Calnan was entitled to the greater honor because he was the veteran of Olympic competition on the American team.  Yet he was quite willing to carry the flag and to relinquish his place to F. Morgan Taylor, who would have preferred to take the oath.

As to the 1932 Olympic Games, they are the brightest page in American fencing history.  Under Calnan’s indomitable leadership, the foil team upset the champion French team,  8-8 in bouts, 62-60 in touches, in the final pool, thus causing a three-way tie for first place.  Although on the fence-off, France took first and Italy second, the United States’ third place tied the previous record, set in 1912.  Then, in the epee, the United States dupllicated this final position for a new record.  In both team events, Calnan carried the brunt of the scoring power of the American squad, and in addition he finished 7th in the individual epee final.  Levis’ second place in foil, and the record of Huffman and Armitage as sabre finalists, were the other highlights of the games.

In August, 1932, Calnan married Miss Lillian Collier, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Henry Collier of New York, at High Gate Springs, Vermont.  Col. Henry Breckinridge was the best man.  Calnan and his wife lived in Watertown, Mass. For some time, and then moved to Lakehurst, New Jersey, when he assumed the post in the newly completed dirigible “Akron.”

December 25, 1932  –  NY Herald – Tribune
Olympics Find Fencing at New Peak in U. S.
Epee, Foils Teams Third;
40,000 See Tourney;
3 Titles Change Hands

American swordsmen did more to advance the art of fencing during 1932 than in any year since the sport was established on this side of the Atlantic in the late nineteenth century.  For the first time since they entered the competition, American Olympic teams played a dominant role in the “world championship” tournament at Los Angeles in August and American fencers placed higher than they have in any previous games.
Moreover, the crowd that witnessed the tournament during the thirteen days of the fencing competition is believed to have set a record for these shores.  More than 40,000 people jammed the State Armory during those thirteen days and the high spot was reached on August 6, when long queues waited outside the armory, seeking to buy tickets for the first day of the women’s foils competition.
None of the Americans won a title, although Joseph Levis, of the Boston Athletic Association, the national foils champion, just missed that distinction.  He was beaten for the Individual foils crown by Gustavo Marzi of Italy.  In the individual saber and epee competitions, two American ranked sixth.  Dr. John R. Huffman, of the New York A. C., the national saber titleholder, tied for third, but then was relegated to sixth place when the touches against were counted.  The same thing happened to Lieutenant George C. Calnan, who, incidentally, was the captain of the fencing team and the Olympian who took the oath for all the athletes, the first time that a fencer has been thus honored.
Women Rank High
When it came to team competition also, the United States set a new mark.  In foils the American team composed of Lieutenant Calnan, Levis, Hugh Alessandroni and Dernell Every placed third – higher than any previous American team.  The Americans reached the final round-robin of the tourney, only to be beaten by France and Italy, who placed first and second in the order named, after a fence-off.
The epee team – composed of Lt. Calnan, Lt. Heiss, Frank Righeimer, Curtis C. Shears, Tracy Jaeckel and Miguel de Capriles – also placed third behind France and Italy.  The saber team failed to place among the first three.

Below: Photo by Bachrach….this photo of the MIT team was donated by George Calnan’s widow to Ohio State Coach Charles Simonian.  Mr. Simonian later donated this photo to the Museum of American Fencing.

The Bachrach studio was founded in 1868 by David Bachrach in Baltimore and moved to Boston.

American Olympic Fencing Team, Paris 19214

(Below) Calnan front row 5th from left at the NY Fencers Club for a posed shot of the 1932 US Olympic Fencing Team


Calnan top row center….this photo is from 1923 with the American Olympic fencing team arriving at a gala at Buckingham Palace during their trip to England to face the British team.  This photo is a gift from Mrs. George Calnan and Charles Simonian