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For His Big Brother

By Jonathan Van Dyke

Published Nov 15, 2016 8:00 AM

Arthur Ashe's brother Johnnie returned to war to keep the tennis legend out of harm's way.


Nearly 50 years ago, Johnnie Ashe, pictured left with his brother Arthur, decided to return to the Vietnam War so his brother could continue his tennis career. Courtesy of ESPN Films.

In many ways, he rewrote what could have been a tragic alternative history. Johnnie Ashe’s first tour of duty in Vietnam as a Marine in 1967 triggered a plan in his mind that few people — not even his brother — initially knew about. Johnnie idolized his brother, tennis legend and UCLA alumnus Arthur Ashe '66, and believed that Arthur’s future would be bigger than his own.

“When you grow up with a person, you can sometimes sense when there is a destiny involved with that person’s life,” Johnnie Ashe says. “I always thought Arthur had a destiny far above the norm.”

So shortly after returning from his first tour, Johnnie reversed course and returned to Vietnam. By voluntarily going back to the war zone, he ensured that Arthur, who was five years older, would never have to go, thanks to a government policy against sending brothers to war at the same time.

Johnnie’s action enabled Arthur — who was an Army officer assigned to West Point — to stay on the path that would lead him to win the inaugural U.S. Open in 1968 and break many athletic barriers during his Hall of Fame career.

“If I had come back when I was supposed to, Arthur would have had 14 to 15 months left on his enlistment, which was enough time for him to go to Vietnam,” Johnnie says. “This was totally my idea. I told [the Marine Corps] I would do it because of the possibilities Arthur represented.

“Arthur represented a whole lot of firsts in tennis. He was the first African-American male to play in the nationals … the first African-American to play at Wimbledon. And the sport was actually busting wide open at that time.”

Johnnie Ashe was the keynote speaker at UCLA’s Veterans Day ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 10. He was joined by the campus community, campus ROTC units and a fellow veteran who also spoke, UCLA M.F.A. student Mitchell LaFortune.

To view the original article from the UCLA Newsroom visit http://ucla.in/2fBSsji.