Vesper Victorious Under Rockets Red Glare – A Dramatic Finish to One of America’s Greatest Rowing Accomplishments

The sun had already set as the eight-oared shells pulled out of the gloom and into a storybook finish. Life Magazine - October 30, 1964
The sun had already set as the eight-oared shells pulled out of the gloom and into a storybook finish. Life Magazine – October 30, 1964

When the rowers hit the 1,500 meter mark in the 2,000 race, the sky exploded with rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air. It was twilight’s last gleaming when the eight-oar team from America pulled across the finish line to win the gold medal in the premier rowing event at the 1964 Summer Games.

The eight men from the Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia had pulled off an upset, beating Germany, the reigning champions since Rome in 1960.

The start of the race had been delayed by two-and-a-half hours due to winds that appeared to give unfair advantage to rowers in certain lanes. The organizers knew the final race of the day at the Toda Rowing Course would likely be in darkness, so they consulted with anyone and everyone to figure out how to create enough light to film the race, let alone see who won.

First they organized all the cars they could, and lined them up along one side of the rowing course. But the headlights of all those cars could not blanket the entire rowing course. What happened next is explained by Olympic official, Yushi Nakamura, in William Stowe’s excellent account of the championship team in the book, “All Together – The Formidable Journey to the Gold With the 1964 Olympic Crew”.

“Two or three races prior to the final of the eight it became dark and I saw many people gathered at the finish line attempting to shine automobile headlights across the course to assist the judges. Trouble was in those days photo film was not as fast as today and car headlights were not enough to shine across the 100 meters of the course at the finish. It would be fatal that the Japanese organizing committee could not record the result of the Olympic finals on film.

“Suddenly I got an idea. The Japanese Self Defense Forces had been deeply involved in the Olympic Games with their mobile electric power and equipment. At Toda they were present with the telecommunications equipment between the start and finish line and along the course. My idea was that perhaps they had a special tool to give enough light for our needs. Fortunately I was at 2050 meter mark next to their headquarters van. I approached the senior officer and asked, ‘DO you have any tool or equipment to help us?’

“He replied, ‘We have star shells. They can illuminate the course like in day time.’ “

As Nishimura continued to explain, the shells worked exactly as planned, providing dramatic illumination for the audience, and enough light for the cameras to record this moment in history.

After sampling sake and squid and trading toasts with geisha girls, they wound up neck-deep in a Japanese bath. - Life Magazine, October 30, 1964
After sampling sake and squid and trading toasts with geisha girls, they wound up neck-deep in a Japanese bath. – Life Magazine, October 30, 1964

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