A Very Big Man – Man Mountain Dean

One common memory that almost all the Ritchie Boys share is of the oversized instructor of hand-to-hand combat, Man Mountain Dean. He obviously made an impression commensurate with his size. Dean, who stood over six feet tall and weighed in excess of 300 pounds, must have seemed, to the young soldiers he instructed, a literal giant straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

I have no statistics on the average height of the Ritchie Boys, but my personal observations conclude that most are somewhere between 5’1” and 5’10”. Standing at attention on the parade ground, anticipating an order from the towering Master Sergeant to demonstrate a throat-hold on him, must have been a frightening experience. Yet all the men I have talked to remember Man Mountain Dean with fondness.

A Ritchie Boy, Max Horlick, remembers that the instructor was too large of stature to fit into a public telephone booth, so he had to stand outside it to make phone calls. Max also told me that it was Dean who was assigned to keep new arrivals busy until their unit would begin classes. “What was he to do with us?” Max said. “We picked up cigarettes every morning. But policing the area only was good for so many hours. After a certain time, Dean vanished. We were expected to do the same. We would meld into furnace rooms or disappear somewhere. We were expected to stay out of trouble and he would leave us alone.”

Born Frank Simmons Leavitt on June 30, 1891, Man Mountain began life large. Even as a young child in New York City, he was not only unusually tall for his age, but also substantially built. At 14, he was able to easily lie about his age and enlist in the US Army. He saw duty on the Mexican-US border under John J. Pershing and later experienced combat in World War I. While in the army, he began his professional wrestling career under the name of “Soldier Leavitt.” This was the beginning of a long string of ring names that showcased his size and persona—from “Hell’s Kitchen Hillbilly” to “Stone Mountain,” which was later changed to “Man Mountain.”

In the beginning, his career was slow to take off and, after he left the army, he worked for a while as a police officer in Miami, Florida. In Miami, he met Doris Dean who became his first wife and also his manager. It was her idea for him to adopt her last name professionally because it sounded more Anglo-Saxon. To further establish his persona, Dean grew a full beard, which added to his imposing appearance. He was the first professional wrestler to use showmanship to his advantage, a tendency that today seems to overshadow the athletic ability of wrestlers. But it was a new trick in the late 1920s and his wife soon had him booked for a successful exhibition tour of Germany. Before returning home he earned a job as the stunt double for Charles Laughton in the 1933 English movie, The Private Life of Henry the VII. From then on, Dean’s movie career augmented his earnings as a wrestler. He appeared in a total of up to 30 movies, playing himself in 5 of them. During his 23 years as a fighter, he participated in 6,783 bouts and, as his fame rose, he earned fees upwards of $1,500 for each one. This allowed him to retire from sports in 1937. He moved to Georgia where he became a gentleman farmer, got involved in local politics, and studied journalism.

After Pearl Harbor, Man Mountain, then 50 years old, came out of retirement to enlist again in the US Army. And the army knew where to assign this giant of a man. Thus he arrived at the Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie where the young soldiers soon got over their awe of the huge and famous instructor. From him they learned how to fight the enemy, individual against individual.

Ritchie Boy, Gerd Grombacher, remembered that Man Mountain taught them how to kill a man with a knife. He told me, “He taught us to use a kind of stiletto and how to make it so clean that it wouldn’t even hurt.”

Burton Hastings, another Ritchie Boy, recounted to me an incident he recalls vividly. Burton was sitting at a table in the PX (Post Exchange – an on base retail store) with Man Mountain and several other men. A GI at another table needled his buddy, suggesting the friend should take on the wrestler. Finally, the dare became so blatant that the soldier came over to Man Mountain and challenged him to a fight. Dean didn’t even stand up to meet the challenge. “From a sitting position,” Burton said, “he lifted the soldier up by the collar and threw him down so he landed on his backside.” The soldier was so humiliated by this and angry at his buddy for taunting him into it that, when he regained his feet, he went directly to his friend and slugged him.

Man Mountain Dean “was the hero of our era,” Burton told me. “We all knew about him.”


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